Over at the Call and Response Blog, a young mainline pastor is getting honest about the professional world into which she recently graduated.

In a post called "Younger Clergy and the New Economic Normal," Amy Thompson Sevimli outlines the economic and demographic realities facing the mainline church, telling of a generation of older ministers who are hanging on to fewer and fewer full-time pastorates, while seminaries produce ever more young people expecting to enter the pulpit with the pay and pension of their predecessors.

"[W]hat should younger clergy do, since most of us have already paid for at least eight years of schooling and don't have a second set of skills to fall back on?" she asks. "The model for ministry which we have long assumed is no longer the model of the future."

Or, as a headline for another article says, "Too Many Pastors, Not Enough Work."

The changing nature of the pastorate is evident everywhere we look, and not only in mainline denominations. For many small congregations (whether urban or rural), pastors are bivocational, and many part-time pastors lead congregations even without a theological degree under their belt. If ministerial education -- and the M.Div. in particular -- is the bread and butter of theological schools, then what do these changes mean for the future of our institutions?

In the past, theological schools focused on producing full-time clergy for "professional" ministry, but many schools have already been adjusting to the changing nature of the North American church by providing training for part-time, bivocational, "already-in-ministry" students. But governing boards need to continue asking senior administrators hard questions about how well their schools are aligned to the professional climate for which they are educating.

Some starting questions for boards:

  • Placement. Are graduates finding paid work? Have we conducted a survey of our alumni at five years after graduation to determine how many remain in ministry, and what positions they occupy?
  • Finances. How many graduates are defaulting on student loans? What's an acceptable rate of default?
  • Alternate forms of service. What other jobs can a master's-level graduate get? Does our curriculum adequately prepare students for such work in nonprofit administration, social work, teaching, or other fields?

Keeping an institution's mission aligned with the market climate is challenging at any time, but many in theological education see the current era as especially difficult. For theological schools to thrive, they need wise leadership and careful probing from their governing boards to keep them moving in the right directions.


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