“Things must change.” That’s what anyone involved in theological education today hears again and again from colleagues, whether on the board, in the administration building, or in the classroom. There’s the sense that students should be prepared more quickly for ministry, that seminary is too expensive, that students take on too much debt. All of these together suggest that a big shakeup in theological education is coming, whether we’re ready or not. So it’s best to be ready.

As In Trust has reported in the last year, theological school enrollment peaked in 2004 and has been declining slightly ever since. The number of students enrolled in master of divinity programs has been dropping as a percentage of overall enrollment. In 1992, 69 percent of seminary students were pursuing an M.Div. — the most typical degree for future full-time clergy. But today that number is 63 percent. (For more data, see www.intrust.org/enrollmentresearch and www.intrust.org/moreschoolsfewerstudents.)

At the same time, as many congregations struggle to keep the doors open in an era of declining membership, some are finding that they cannot afford a full-time pastor. And M.Div. graduates, many with heavy debt burdens that they have taken on to pay for their education, increasingly cannot afford the salaries offered by small congregations. Individuals, churches, and schools seem to be trapped. 

One solution that some churches turn to: part-time, low-paid, or unpaid ministers. A 2013 Religion News Service article (www.religionnews.com/ 2013/09/17/denominations-decline-numbers-unpaid-ministers-rise/) says that even well-off denominations are trying out volunteers. “The unpaid cleric model is gaining traction among Episcopalians,” says the article’s author, G. Jeffrey MacDonald. “In the mid-1990s, for example, the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming had few if any unpaid clergy serving its 49 congregations. Now, 20 priests in Wyoming — more than one-third — are unpaid.” The ministry developer for the Wyoming diocese expects that number of unpaid ministers will soon rise to 35.

With fewer paid positions in the offing, it’s no wonder that students, churches, and schools have been experimenting with alternate paths to ministry — paths that are cheaper and faster.

 Click image to enlarge.


Various forms of ministry

The unpaid clergy model is not the norm among North American churches, but it’s growing more common. Some of these are fully ordained ministers, but others have pursued alternate tracks to ministry that haven’t required a master’s of divinity, which takes longer than a law degree. An M.Div. is the kind of degree that prepares a candidate for a lifetime of ministry, but for some people who are already pastoring part-time, or who want to lead a small home-town parish, it doesn’t always make sense.

Eager to guard their educational standards for full-time clergy, some denominations are turning to other clerical forms, which go by a variety of names — lay clergy, local pastors, commissioned lay preachers, commissioned ruling elders, Christian workers, deacons. They typically have less education than their fully ordained counterparts. In some denominations, they are even prohibited from receiving a church salary, while in others, their pay scale is lower than that of fully ordained persons. For congregations, that means they’re affordable.

The United Methodist Church has a long tradition of lay ministry. William B. Lawrence, dean and professor of American church history at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, notes that Methodists have always emphasized a combination of ordained and lay ministry, a theological emphasis inherited from the earliest Methodist itinerants of 18th-century North America. 

Today The United Methodist Church has several tracks for ministry: “Local pastors” are licensed for ministry and then appointed to one or more congregations, but they are not ordained. Deacons are ordained to ministries of word, service, compassion, and justice; they often work as chaplains or perform community-based ministries, although some serve as associates in larger congregations. Elders are ordained to ministries of word, order, sacrament, and service, and they are expected to move from parish to parish upon appointment by the local bishop.

Both deacons and elders are full clergy members of the annual conference, but there are important differences. Deacons must find their own jobs and request appointments to those positions. Local pastors and elders, on the other hand, are appointed by bishops. 

Why do individuals choose the local pastor route? In some cases, says Lawrence, it’s a matter of age. A 50-year-old person looking at a ministry of 15 or 20 years might not want to spend three of those years in school. And it could also be a matter of finances: a 50-year-old might not want to take on educational debt at a time in life when saving for retirement is more prudent. 

Lawrence acknowledges the possible tensions caused by the church having different ministry tracks. “Local pastors do tend to feel themselves at a disadvantaged status in regard to church bureaucracy — that they suffer from a lack of respect,” he says. “But the two tracks have different levels of theological education and different levels of supervisory authority. The church has to be willing to be comfortable with the notion of simultaneously affirming both kinds of ministry and distinguishing them.”

Local pastors do important work, Lawrence says, but their calling is not identical to that of ordained ministers. “Highly trained individuals make a contribution to the theological conversation of the broader church based on a deeper level of engagement with the study of the Scriptures, the history of Christian doctrine, the philosophical and moral principles that underlie ethics, the various approaches to systematic theology, homiletic theory — contributions that are possible only at the level of graduate study,” says Lawrence. “Local pastors are not required to do those things, and the church does not expect it of them, and that’s OK.”

Whomever the Spirit calls

The Assemblies of God has also traditionally honored and validated the work of lay pastors. Assemblies of God ministers are first certified and then licensed by their judicatory, called the “district council,” and must hold the license and be actively engaged in ministry for at least two years prior to applying for ordination. But many Assemblies of God ministers never take the next step of ordination, nor are they required to. 

Most apply for a ministerial license after completing an undergraduate degree, though it’s perfectly fine for someone without a college degree to receive ministerial training through a combination of mentoring and distance education. The church’s only graduate-level theological school is Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, which offers both 78- and 90-hour master of divinity programs, but a master’s degree has never been required for ordination in the Assemblies of God.

Even so, according to Roland Q. Dudley, chair of the Intercultural Studies Department at Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, North Dakota, the cost of education is one of the biggest problems facing Assemblies of God congregations in the United States. “The current system is counterproductive,” he says, with students taking on so much debt that churches cannot afford to hire them. Dudley notes that many Assemblies of God congregations can offer only modest salaries, and by necessity they seek part-time ministers who have paying secular employment. Some of these part-time clergy are licensed, some are ordained. Some have graduate-level education, but most do not. The denomination’s understanding of ministry, which emphasizes divine calling more than educational requirements, supports this flexibility. 

A sea change in “prestige” denominations

While the Methodist and Assemblies of God denominations have a long tradition of supporting lay ministers who lack a full seminary education, other denominations are just learning to adapt to new ministry models. The unpaid Episcopal priests in Wyoming are not typical of Episcopal and Anglican parishes throughout North America, but parishes in other areas are also looking to lay clergy, with lower salaries and less education than a fully ordained priest, to meet their needs. 

William C. Miller, retired director of accreditation and institutional evaluation at the Association of Theological Schools, says that paths to ministry that bypass seminary have gained ground because of the needs of bishops and other judicatory heads. “It is very hard to recruit a priest for a small, financially impoverished parish,” he says, speaking of the Episcopal Church in particular. “A young person with education debt can’t do it. You might think an older priest would be able to fill in, but that is not the case. They don’t want to retire to a small town in the middle of Kansas and minister to a very small parish. How do the bishops find people for these churches?”

Miller notes that some Kansas parishes hope that lay leaders will be able to fill the gap, and Kansas Episcopalians established the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry to train such leaders. The school, created out of existing diocesan programs, met for the first time in 2013 in Topeka. Although it has no connection to a seminary, it does provide theological training — both for people preparing for ordination and for congregational lay leaders. 

Will a two-tier system of clergy lead to a tension between “real” ministers and a disenfranchised group of lesser clergy who serve parishes but have no stake in decision making? Barbara Wheeler addressed this question (with respect to another denomination) in a 2010 article in The Christian Century called “Ready to Lead?” The Presbyterian Church (USA) has mandated postbaccalaureate education for ministers for centuries, she wrote. But in 1997, after vigorous debate, the church’s General Assembly created the position of commissioned lay pastor (now called commissioned ruling elder). 

One argument that tipped the opinion in favor of creation of the commissioned lay pastorate was that ministers with less formal theological education could minister to immigrant churches and to small churches in remote locations. But the outcome of the decision was not at all what was expected. Today, three-quarters of Presbyterian Church (USA) presbyteries use commissioned lay pastors, but they’re not in remote outposts — most are in cities and towns, or they serve as chaplains in nursing homes and prisons. A substantial minority have been commissioned as associate pastors in large churches. Few serve immigrant congregations.

According to a comprehensive study in 2008, Presbyterian lay pastors have theological education that is on average the equivalent of three college courses, about 120 to 135 contact hours. But while Presbyterians have a high regard for educated clergy, sometimes budget considerations win out, according to Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, coordinator or theological education and seminary relations in the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “Hiring commissioned ruling elders solves the economic problems of congregations, at least temporarily. Congregations are not required to pay health care and pension benefits for lay pastors, or to meet the minimum salary the presbytery has set for that area.” But the rise of lay pastors creates other problems, he admits — among them, fewer full-time positions for M.Div. graduates.

Looking 10 to 20 years into the future, Hinson-Hasty notes that the denomination is currently in an “in-between time.” There are about 6,450 called and installed pastors in the Presbyterian Church (USA), he says, and three-quarters are older than 45 and could retire within 20 years. The number of congregations is declining, too, but by about 100 to 225 per year. Therefore, though the church currently has an abundance of ordained clergy, the situation could be radically different in 2030, particularly if young people come to think of a seminary degree as too costly in relation to job prospects.

How are seminaries responding?

While some church leaders seem to be acting as if a three-year seminary degree has become a luxury, theological schools are responding by becoming  more involved in the training of lay pastors. For example, while a few presbyteries have created their own training programs, others have turned to colleges or seminaries as educational partners — Wheeler notes the popularity of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian seminary that offers online courses that fulfill the minimum educational requirements for commissioned ruling elders.

Hinson-Hasty suggests another ray of hope for theological schools: “Serving as a lay pastor has turned into a time of vocational discernment for many,” he says. “People realize that they really want to do this full-time, and want to go through the longer and more rigorous educational process.” And that may be the best news of all. 

Transition into ministry

 The Rev. Archie Fugate (third from right), newly ordained and installed as minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Central City, Kentucky. Surrounding him are Presbyterian clergy of the Western Kentucky and Transylvania presbyteries, along with Professor Debra J. Mumford of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (second from left).

“Some folks are afraid that lay pastors will take away jobs from ministers of the word and sacrament, and that the Presbyterian tradition of a highly educated clergy might be at risk,” says the Rev. Archie Fugate. “I have two responses: First, lay pastors are pastoring churches that highly educated clergy cannot afford to pastor. Second, the quality of lay pastor training is very high.”

His assertion comes with the authority of someone who has been both a lay pastor and a fully ordained minister of the word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Back in the 1990s, Fugate was working for McCoy & McCoy Laboratories in Kentucky when he signed up for 18 months of once-a-month training with the Transylvania Presbytery. At that time, the judicatory had entered into a partnership to develop a lay leader diploma program with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. 

Almost as soon as Fugate obtained certification, however, his employer moved him to western Kentucky. Within weeks, his credentials were transferred and he was pastoring First Presbyterian Church in Central City, a town of 6,000 about 125 miles southwest of Louisville. He was still working 40 to 45 hours a week for McCoy & McCoy.

Then Fugate accepted a second call — he agreed to pastor Bevier Presbyterian Church, about 8 miles outside of Central City. Bevier had about ten members, but Fugate thought they deserved the best available ministry.

Eventually he realized that he wanted to leave secular employment and dedicate himself to full-time ministry. Members of the two small congregations learned that Fugate wanted to earn a master of divinity degree, but that finances were a sticking point.

“When Bevier told me that they wanted to pay my tuition to seminary, I was astounded,” he recalls. Tuition was $25,000, but the tiny congregation offered to cash in their CDs to pay his way. “Then the other church I was pastoring, Central City, came to me. They said, ‘We hear Bevier is paying your tuition. We know you can’t afford to go to school even with your tuition paid for, so we’ll pay you a salary that will cover room and board.’”

Fugate left his secular job, and finished his M.Div. at Louisville Seminary in less than three years. Fugate says, “For years I heard the call and just hung up the phone, but eventually I gave in. It’s in large part due to the incredible generosity of these two congregations.”

What’s Fugate’s advice to trustees of theological schools? “If your vision is for lay pastors to eventually go on to become ordained clergy, think about what that means for setting up programs. One thing it means is that you can’t accept everyone who applies. Another is that you need to rethink how everything is done.”

Are lay pastors a threat to ordained clergy? Not in Fugate’s mind. “Lay pastors are not in the business of putting ordained clergy out of a job, but in the business of putting themselves out of a job —to encourage the church to grow to the point that it can afford a pastor.”


Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

Advertise With Us

Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

Learn More