College students who feel a calling into ministry passionately want to make a difference for God's kingdom. But a significant number don't believe the local-church setting is the place to do it, according to guidance directors for ministerial students at some Baptist schools.
“I think that for both positive and negative reasons, a lot of young people don't see themselves settling into local-church ministry positions,” said Omer Hancock, professor of church ministry and director of in-service guidance at Hardin-Simmons University's Logsdon School of Theology in Abilene, Texas. “An increasing number of our students are gravitating to other areas—other expressions of ministry.”
To some degree, students are looking for other avenues of ministry beyond a local-church setting because of the controversy they have witnessed, Hancock said.
“The reality is that for the entire lifetime of these young people, they have grown up in a culture where there is a lot of church conflict and a lot of denominational conflict,” he said.
Many students know little about their denomination, but they know firsthand about forced termination of church staff, conflict within congregations and a perceived lack of respect for church leaders, said Micheal Summers, director of church services at Wayland Baptist University in Wayland, Texas.
“I see a high level of disillusionment with the local church among students,” Summers said.
At the graduate level, the desire to avoid the conflict that comes with accepting the pastor's role seems to be steering a growing number of students into other staff positions, as well as to ministry roles beyond churches, said Dan Bagby, professor of pastoral ministry at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Stories of forced terminations and “dysfunctional churches” are scaring away some prospective young pastors, he said.
“Several prefer to follow a calling into associate pastor positions—some wanting more experience, some fearful or anxious from the wounding stories they are hearing from pastors about how congregations have dealt with them,” said Bagby, a former pastor.
“A number of our folks are following a call to chaplaincy—retirement homes, hospitals, prison and military,” he added. In part, that may be because BTSR offers dual degree programs in those areas, but Bagby also noted some students “sense those are safer institutions in which to work.”
In large part, educators who work with ministerial students agree that students understand their sense of calling in terms of those people and events that have made an impact on their lives—positively or negatively.
“A lot of these students are going on mission trips around the world, and that has a positive influence on them,” Hancock said. “They see the vast challenges on the mission field and the opportunity to work around the world.”
Unfortunately, he noted, many do not see that same opportunity to make a significant impact on lives through local-church ministry.
Summers noted among students in a missions class he teaches, about 80 percent have been on an international mission trip. Many have seen immediate results on the mission field, as human needs are met and people who have not heard the gospel respond to an invitation to follow Christ.
In contrast, most Wayland students who serve local churches find themselves in small, rural communities where they likely will not see significant numbers of people respond to an evangelistic appeal, and they probably work in churches steeped in tradition, he noted.
“They want to be on the frontlines of God's kingdom work,” Summers said. And a majority of the ministerial students at Wayland interpret that as being involved in missions rather than serving on a church staff.
Among Baylor University undergraduates who express a calling to vocational Christian ministry, about one-fourth indicate a commitment to missions, said Jeter Basden, director of ministry guidance in Baylor's religion department.
“Many of the students who say they want to prepare for missions service will be in what I would consider entrepreneurial ministries,” Basden said, noting their plans range from church-starting—either in the United States or globally—to inner-city ministries.
Many ministerial students at Baylor remain committed to service in local churches—provided those churches have a clear sense of mission and purpose, he noted.
“I attribute the growth in the number of students wanting to enter missions to the fact that more and more students want to make a real difference for the kingdom of God,” Basden said.
“They are not interested in just going to a church that has no sense of mission and helping them maintain the status quo. They have a passion to make a difference for the kingdom.”
Youth ministry remains one area where many students know from firsthand experience the potential to change lives, the guidance directors agreed.
n mid-sized to large multi-staff churches, the pastor often has less direct influence on shaping teenagers than does the youth minister, Hancock noted.
As a result, many undergraduate students immediately interpret their calling to ministry as a calling to youth ministry.
But unlike previous generations of ministerial students who expected “eventually” to move from youth ministry to other areas of service—particularly the pastorate—a growing number of current students rule out that possibility, Summers noted.
“They say things like: ‘I don't ever want to be a pastor. I'll never be a pastor,'” he said.
In part, students have observed pastors dealing with conflict and pressure, and they want no part of it, Summers said.
“They don't see any ‘fun factor' in being a pastor,” he noted.
Other students—particularly at Hardin-Simmons, which offers a specialized program in family ministry—want to fulfill their ministry calling as a counselor or family therapist. Hancock believes that desire grows out of the personal experiences of students who grew up in single-parent, blended or sometimes dysfunctional homes.
Some students want to become a motivational speaker, youth communicator or worship leader rather than a local-church staff member, Hancock observed. He attributed the trend to the impact events such as youth camps and evangelistic rallies had on some teens.
“Being a Christian is exciting to them. But what they see at church itself doesn't match up with what they have seen and experienced in a larger setting—camps, Super Sum-mer, a missions setting or whatever,” he said. “Those are the things that get their attention in a positive way.”
The growing number of ministerial students rejecting the pastorate as a place to fulfill their calling could lead to a pastor shortage, and Baptist institutions are doing what they can in response, said Royce Rose, director of vocational theological education with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
“I think we can only respond to providing the best guidance and education we can to the people that God calls and the churches certify, listen to them, continue to understand our changing culture and trust God to make places,” he said.
But common Baptist practices have complicated the situation, he acknowledged.
“We have hindered that process with our Baptist culture of male-only ministers, so we haven't had the full ferment that called women could bring to the table,” he said. “We have hindered that process with our Baptist culture that has made the pastorate the sacred profession rather than the valued service. And we have hindered that process when we have been slow to move from one way to do theological education and ministry mentoring through our ‘good old boy' networking.”
Summers insists a future pastor shortage does not necessarily translate into a leadership void in churches.
“It will be a crisis only if our congregations are not equipped and ready to do the work of ministry themselves, rather than hire staff to do it for them,” he said.