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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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From clergy shortage to clergy glut

After a decadelong clergy shortage in America's pulpits, Christian denominations are experiencing a glut — with some reporting two pastors per vacant pulpit.

The bad economy is given as a cause of this sudden turnaround. Cash-strapped parishioners — who were already aging and shrinking in number — are giving less to their churches, resulting in staff cuts. Meanwhile, older clergy who saw their retirement funds evaporate are delaying retirement, leaving fewer positions available to younger ministers.

In the 1950s there were roughly the same number of ministers as there were U.S. churches. Now there are almost two ministers for every church, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches — 607,944 ministers and 338,713 congregations.

The two-pronged reality facing American congregations is actually a glut and a shortage at the same time, researchers said. "You have a shortage in small churches, but you have a glut in larger churches," said Patricia M.Y. Chang, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford [Calif.] University who has studied clergy supply and demand for more than a decade.

Even if the clergy glut is real, most observers expect it to dissipate once the economy picks up.

Another reason it could dissipate: baby boomer pastors will start retiring in large numbers. The first wave of boomers, born in 1946, turn 65 next year. An ELCA official estimated that when economic pressures recede, the "pent-up demand" could triple the number of retirements in the denomination — from about 300 to 1,000 a year.

"In five to seven years, I think we are going to see a major turnover and experience a shortage again," said Dock Hollingsworth, assistant dean of Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. "We laugh around here that every pastor we know is 57 years old. The baby boomer pastors are all going to retire the same weekend."


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