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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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A work in progress

Days of quick, smooth calls swept away by several factors

For several generations, the process for getting a new pastor didn't change much. A congregation whose pastor retired or moved elsewhere contacted the district or synod office and was given a name or several names of pastors who might be appropriate for the vacancy. After a few months of interviews, a new pastor was on the scene.

Seminary graduates looking for their first calls contacted their home synods or districts and were matched with congregations — often smaller churches or those in rural areas — willing to take a newly ordained pastor. Then in a few years that pastor would "move up" to a larger congregation that was better able to pay a salary appropriate for a growing family.

People in those smaller or more isolated congregations may have experienced numerous short-term pastorates. But they could be generally confident that a recent seminary graduate would be available to begin his or her ministry with them.

All that has changed.

The number of those "starter congregations," smaller places able to support a pastor, has declined, said Allan C. Bjornberg, bishop of the Rocky Mountain Synod and head of the ELCA Conference of Bishops. "What I hear from interns a year away from a call is anxiety about 'Is there going to be a place for me?' " he said.

"Just five years ago it was a 'seller's market' from a seminarian's perspective," said Michael Cooper-White, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Pa.). That is no longer the case.

Several factors — some temporary, some long term — impact the number of congregations currently able to support pastors, the ability of the newly ordained to receive calls, and the availability of pastors to replace those who move or retire.

Nationwide, 58 percent of ELCA congregations in 2008 had an average attendance of less than 100, generally considered the number needed to support a pastor and a full program. Pastors come out of seminary today with considerable indebtedness and may not be able to afford taking a call in a low-paying congregation. If the congregation doesn't have a parsonage, the pastor must find a way to buy/rent a house.

Working spouses also can limit the ability of a seminary graduate or long-term pastor to accept calls in certain synods.

And in the last few years, ELCA officials say, pastors have been delaying retirement because of the Great Recession. Since each retirement triggers vacancies in other congregations, where the pastor leaves to take the place of the retiree, the development means there are fewer opportunities for calls. This slump in retirements is expected to end in the near future, but is having an impact on current congregational vacancies.


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