Pastoral Leadership and the Future in New England Part 1

This is a first version of a series of writings that seek to get at some core issues that we are facing as a church.  More will come. Some of it will be wrong, probably most of it, but we will press into the future.

The purpose of this letter is to provide all of you with information about the broader context of the present and future of pastoral leadership in our church and in our congregations.  Over the past several years, I served on the ELCA Task Force TEAC (Theological Education Advisory Committee).  Among the many purposes of this task force was an investigation into the current and future state of the preparation of leaders in this church.  We examined the ways in which this church can better prepare leaders (clergy, deacons and lay) for the emerging context that demands a new set of skills for a changing culture.  The full TEAC report is available online.  The purpose of this letter is to highlight some specific points that are impacting the New England Synod.   I frame this letter in a series of questions that I am occasionally asked as I visit our congregations around the synod.

Will there be enough new pastors for the church?

The following chart points to the trend of enrollment in our eight ELCA seminaries.  These numbers reflect the total enrollment at the various schools of both full- and part-time students.  As you can see, there is a trend toward declining enrollment. 

LTSG=Gettysburg LTSP=Philadelphia LTSS=Southern LSTC=Chicago PLTS=Pacific

The chart does not include ELCA students who may be studying at Yale, Harvard, Duke, Princeton or other Divinity schools.  In addition to this trend, I can tell you that the total number of candidates available for first call to a congregation was 76 this year, down from over 100 last year.  The New England Synod requested 6 first call candidates.  This year we received only 2.  They are the kind of candidates we are seeking, but the question of what we will do when we need four more is now upon us.

What does this mean?

It means that for the foreseeable future, we can expect very few first call candidates to be available for our congregations in New England.  The impact of this will be felt in congregations that, either by size or choice, prefer a first call pastor. 

What is happening with the overall picture of all clergy in the ELCA?

The chart below depicts the number of ELCA Clergy by age.  As you can see the largest number are currently age 61, and the age wave of one of the largest generations in US history is reflected in the cluster of people between the ages of 55 and 65.

 In New England, we are beginning to see the trend of retirements of pastors in this wave.  In 2016 & 2017, I anticipate retirements will increase steadily.

When you look at the two charts above, you can conclude that we will begin experiencing a shortage of clergy.  This means we will have fewer pastors available to serve congregations.  It means that although we offer congregations the option to interview up to three candidates at a time, the reality is that we may not be able to find three qualified candidates for you to interview.

We are taking a number of steps to address this situation.  Those steps include a renewed emphasis on searching for pastors who desire to come to the New England Synod.  I have enlisted retiring synod vice president Mark Winzler, along with retired pastors Tom Chittick and Ed Saling to assist in evaluating potential candidates.  They are all serving in a voluntary capacity in this work.

Secondly, our staff will be working with congregations to help them evaluate creative ways forward. This may include conversations about shared ministries, alternative approaches to staffing, options for working with our ecumenical partners, and other ideas that will emerge.

Finally, I believe we need to be intentional about inviting the next generation of leaders to consider service in the church.  The future pastors and deacons of this church are in our confirmation classes, youth groups and Sunday morning worship services.  We need to have conversations with people we think would be good church leaders.  In addition, we need to make theological education affordable, so we have launched a New England Synod Fund for Leaders.  This will help support this next generation of church leaders.

I have always maintained that the church is in labor pains for the new thing God is birthing.  The labor pains are all around us and within us.  This one issue is among many.  We need to experiment, try something new, be willing to fail, and then get up and try again.  I invite you in to a time of persistence and patience as we move forward.