For someone seeking a full-time job as a church pastor, Justin Barringer would seem to have the perfect résumé. He’s a seminary grad, an author and book editor, and a former missionary to China and Greece. But despite applying to nearly a hundred jobs over the course of two years, Barringer, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, could not secure a full-time, salaried church position.
Not only is church attendance in long-term decline, but financial giving by church members is at Depression-era lows. Meanwhile, seminary students are taking on ballooning debt for a career that may not exist by the time they graduate. This trend began before the Great Recession, and has only worsened since then.
Of the seminary students who graduated in 2011 with a Master of Divinity degree (the typical degree for a full-time pastor), more than 25 percent accruedmore than $40,000 in educational debt, and five percent accumulated more than $80,000 in debt. Those lucky enough to get a full-time job as a pastor will join a profession whose median wage is $43,800, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Nobody goes into the ministry expecting to get rich, but pastors have to be able to pay off their student loans and raise a family, right?
You readers who are pastors, or who are studying for the ministry — what are you seeing? What are you thinking?
UPDATE: Fantastic comment by Charles Featherstone, who just finished Lutheran seminary:
When this matters comes up with my clergy and seminarian friends, it becomes clear there are two things at play.
The first is the kind of substantial scriptural education that at least deals with the long heritage of how the church catholic has interpreted and understood scripture. A “professional” clergy is, hopefully, a well-educated clergy (at least they’ve had a smattering of it, and there’s a fighting chance). A lot of church bodies that don’t formally train their clergy don’t know how to deal with scripture in the way the historic church has done so. There’s less of a chance of “crackpot theology” this way, though I suppose a lot of that depends on what your understanding of “crackpot theology” really is.
It also takes training and experience to learn how to do many of the things pastors are expected to do — sit with people in times of trouble and grief, help them find meaning, lead worship, these kinds of things. Again, this is especially true if you come from a church (as I do) that is at least somewhat grounded in the traditional practices and understanding of the church catholic. Professional training and education helps with this. Yes, many people called to ministry have gifts for these things, but it takes training, time, and practice to hone these skills. They’re like any other kind of skill.
But there is the other side to “professional.” As I understand it, a “professional” is someone who is specially trained, approaches their job with some scientific detachment and expertise. Professionalism is the managerial ethos of mass-industrial democratic modernity, and at some point in the 19th century (I always blame Schleiermacher) the church accepted modernity’s truth claims in exchange for the “Christianization” of modernity. Since industrialization was taking place in ostensibly Christian societies, the church would modernize too. Accept science, the nation-state, it aims, means and ends. In exchange, clergy became the chaplains to the state and society, responsible for the management of souls and moral well-being. They were never entirely alone in this, but this was the deal.
Well, what place do a “professional” clergy have in a post-Christian society? Who listens to us in matters of morals and spiritual well-being anymore? We can no longer command captive audience as the relationship between being a respectable bourgeois and being Christian is broken (I’m all for breaking that relationship, as it promotes a kind of piety that is essentially unforgiving and unmerciful in nature). No one listens to us, even as many of us do our best to be relevant, to serve the state, to make its ends and means ours. In this, I think the expectation that being a pastor, priest or minister will be a respected, influential, and reasonably well-compensated person are probably over. If they are to be our model, we need to remember that none of Jesus’ disciples died quietly and happily of old age in a retirement community centered on a golf course. Only John allegedly died of old age, and he was exiled to a tiny island and plagued by visions.
Honestly, it would be nice if this weeded out those who pursue ministry because it has historically been a fairly easy way to live well and with a little prestige.
As for the future of theological education, there is a role for denominations, confessions and churches to continue to educate future pastors, particularly in the ways of understanding scripture, leading worship and caring for God’s people. And there even need to be a few proper accredited, PhD-granting institutions. But much of this education can and probably should take place in situations similar to monasteries (this will be difficult, but not impossible, for protestants who accept married candidates for ministry) where study weaves together Bible, the ancient (and modern) intellectual heritage of church, worship, and practical ministry. And does so from the moment a candidates starts studying. I’ve long thought that adopting “professionalism” was a mistake, and it would be better for us to see ourselves as craftsmen (and women), that we learn by doing because the doing itself has much to teach us. (Professionalism tends to discount any knowledge that isn’t formally acquired, or comes as a result of experience.) These places of teaching would not have to be accredited themselves, since all they are doing is training pastors, though it would probably be wise for them to be affiliated with seminaries. Some kind of labor would likely also be involved (the young priestlings of the Institute of Christ the King must do a year of farm work as part of their studies), since one of the problem the professional church in modernity has is with appreciating the dignity of labor that isn’t done on a computer in a cubicle or an office. And they could become significant worshiping communities as well.
What this would cost is anyone’s guess. Depending on where you locate these “monasteries,” you could find abandoned places and then slowly, through the effort of those studying, repair them. That would also weed out people unwilling to do hard work (and I met a fair number at seminary who believed certain kinds of physical work was beneath them).
The church has and, and still wants, to be valued by the world, and to be valuable to the world on terms the world understands. That day is done, and it may be gone for a long time. The church is valuable to the world, but on Christ’s terms, not ours. And Jesus will continue to call people to ministry, to feed sheep, regardless of whether or not feeding sheep is a prestigious and respectable position or not.