My news feed has been filled with a variety of stories recently describing the current and coming shortage of public educators. Many school systems are reporting a dearth of teachers as they start the academic year.
Citing a variety of causes, the consistent theme is that fewer and fewer people are choosing teaching as a vocation. Those who have chosen teaching are exiting in droves for a variety of reasons. Poor pay, excessive paperwork, derisive and demeaning comments from politicians, intrusion into setting teaching goals and curriculum by a wide array of single-issue zealots, the effects of the pandemic, and a host of other issues have contributed to the problem. Multiple efforts to recruit and retain teachers are being launched (signing bonuses, lowering standards for qualifications), but the immediate reality is there are not enough teachers to fill the needed positions in many schools.
Reading all these articles sounds eerily familiar. A similar concern has been on my mind for most of the last decade regarding clergy.
Seminaries and divinity schools in general are struggling to find their way. We have a striking shortage of clergy exiting seminaries or divinity schools who are interested in serving local congregations. In addition, the surge of Boomer clergy who are retiring this decade means there are many more retirees than there are seminary grads headed toward the local church.
We have seen this coming for several years, and nothing that has been said or suggested has managed to reverse this emerging trend.
Equally concerning, with fewer students enrolling in seminaries or divinity schools, fewer of those who do go to seminary express an interest in serving in a local church. Many people think the issue is limited to the traditional role of the pastor, but just as concerning is the lack of prospects many search committees find when they look for youth, discipleship, children or music leadership. Very few seminaries and divinity schools offer specialized degrees in these areas.
While there was a spike in enrollments in some divinity schools during COVID, most of that was related to interest in the field of counseling or mental health. Local church ministry was not seen in as favorable a light.
Many search committees seeking ministerial programmatic leadership are discovering the pool of candidates is quite shallow and limited. Alongside the limited number of candidates, many churches that previously had the financial resources to fund multiple staff positions are not able to afford the same staff configurations. With declining attendance patterns, some churches cannot justify full-time positions for age-group ministries.
We regularly hear stories of search teams struggling to find candidates or coming to the realization that they no longer can afford or need full-time leaders in roles that have been part of their staff model for years. While this often is seen as a crisis moment for a congregation, it also can serve as a helpful and needed impetus to rethink our ministry model, to reimagine how to staff the ministries that matter most to the church.
Here are some emerging trends that bear watching:
- Hiring from within. Many congregations are concluding they need to cultivate the next generation of ministry leaders from among their own constituents. Spiritual gifts for leadership are not limited to full-time clergy. However, theological training for those who lead in ministry positions in a church is an essential component to a healthy and balanced ministry. Seminaries and divinity schools have recognized this need, and many now offer excellent resources for supplementing the training of lay leadership.
- Contract employees. When congregations discover the numbers don’t add up to hire full-time employees, part-time or contract workers may be a wonderful solution. While this approach creates other issues related to benefits, it does give opportunities to those who are “quilting together” a career.
- Non-traditional leadership. Creativity is essential when staffing most congregational leadership models. Assuming you will find plentiful candidates for your openings is probably optimistic. Instead, most congregations are utilizing a wide array of methods and ideas to find the leadership they need. Sharing staff between congregations or with nonprofits in the same community, utilizing job-sharing models, contracting out services that previously were done in-house (accounting, bookkeeping, custodial) are all ways congregations are maximizing the funds available for staff roles.
- Rethinking the staff model. Many churches created a siloed model for staff in the late 20th century. True cross-pollination and collaboration were rare. Today, we see staff members as more horizontally focused than vertically focused. A better model for leadership is that of weaving a leadership tapestry together, rather than isolated programmatic silos.
- Rebalancing the leadership model between laity and clergy. In the late 20th century programmatic era, many churches assumed only seminary-trained clergy could provide appropriate ministry leadership. The role of laity was simply to carry out the plans staff hatched for the congregation. As authors like Ann Michel have noted, it is time we recaptured the New Testament model of the spiritual giftedness of all members of Christ’s body. Doing so will lead us to cultivate a collaborative approach that more fully engages the gifts of the laity as well as the professional clergy. Clergy as ministry coordinators rather than over-functioning and exhausted women and men is an idea we need to embrace more fully.
From our perspective of working in hundreds of congregations across the country and in many different denominational and nondenominational settings, staffing challenges are the new normal for the American church. We constantly coach congregations to open their eyes to this new reality and to see it as an opportunity to more fully embrace the priesthood of all the believers who make up their congregations.
Imagination and creativity are the order of the day as we seek to emerge from the churched culture of the 20th century and fully engage the post-congregational/Christian culture of the 21st century. While we certainly face challenges in staffing for our future ministry model, we also have creative opportunities all around us as we live out our calling.
Five reasons your church probably isn’t spending too much on personnel | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
Finding the associate pastor you need | Opinion by Alan Rudnick