Saturday, August 01, 2015


I don’t think I’ve ever done this before: re-posted someone else’s blog.  I’ll edit it a bit because it’s rather specialized.  Martin Marty was one of my professors at the U of Chicago Div School.  He’s been a public voice with considerable influence because he is always fair, balanced and clear.  On retirement he began to write this blog every Monday.  On Thursday at the same location someone else, well-qualified, writes on a crucial but more specialized topic.

Vanishing Clergy by Martin Marty

July 27, 2015

Making the rounds after its publication in July 2014 is an item forwarded by many: from The Atlantic, David Wheeler’s catchily-titled “Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy.” 

Wheeler’s sub-title explains, “As full-time pastors become a thing of the past, more and more seminary grads are taking on secular jobs to supplement their incomes.”  . . . 

The Association of Theological Schools (Canada and U.S.)—see the link in Sources—or ATS as it is also known, can guide readers to many kinds of adaptation, innovation, enterprise, and energy on the theological school front, but stories of “decline” in worshipping communities is obvious and is pondered by many of the many millions who are involved with them, and who care.

The Atlantic story focuses on Justin Barringer, a Kentuckian who applied to “nearly a hundred jobs over the course of two years,” but landed no full-time, salaried church position. What to do?

As I read of him and his peers, an ornery recommendation leaped to mind: convert to Catholicism, study for and join its clergy, since Catholicism (including its middle-class) is often working “full-time” to find clergy to fill its depleted ranks or keep up with sudden growth in some sectors.

The “vanishing” and “thing of the past” terms are somewhat overstated also in Protestantism and Judaism, where processions of graduates enter the ranks of the “called” and “ordained” to more than what they would call “jobs” each year.

Admittedly, there is a shortage of positions for many in many denominations.

And without a doubt, many post-seminarians are saddled with debts, as are their counterparts in teaching, accounting, law, and many more. As one reads literature from the ATS, publications by denominational agencies, and the like, it is clear that many church bodies are working zealously to help seminarians enter the clergy unshadowed by mountains of debt.

Wheeler, David R. “Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy.” The Atlantic, July 22, 2014, Business.

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

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07.27.15  Mary Scriver in Valier, MT:

(I rather misread the issue here.  The original issue was why there are so many more pastors than pulpits.  I was thinking about why so many pastors are unemployed.  Whose expectations are askew?  Not just me right here, but also in the larger society.  This doesn't seem to be just a problem of ministers, but of all "helping professions" like teachers or social workers  There are a lot of them, but they aren't always very satisfactory and they are not likely to be satisfied with unreal work loads and low pay.)

Though I received an MA in Religious Studies from the U of C Div School in 1980, I left ministry (UUA) in 1988 for a variety of reasons that may be relevant to others in one combination or another:

1.  Ministers have reacted to the Sexual Revolution incautiously.

2.  Congregations will not let ministers explore new post-Christian theologies, maybe out of fear, and insist on old-fashioned apologetics — and yet are bored with them and can’t reconcile them with the far more exciting scientific breakthroughs or even pluralistic accommodations to comparative religions.

3.  Many denominations (esp in the mainstream) have pushed theology aside in favor of social activism and counseling.  Both require rather different educations than Div School.

4.  Many church contexts are over-influenced by corporation models, esp. those concerned with self-preservation through money.

5.  Levelers have brought down the kind of prestige and respect ministers once had and instead gone to “you are our servant who must be obedient to US.”  I had that said to me explicitly in those words and I was in a liberal denomination, though it’s a right wing attitude.

6.  Other vocations use roughly the same skills once the theology is removed.  They pay much better.

7.  Going to visit people in their homes or in the hospital is now unwelcome.

8.  Only the big churches can employ married couples, both ordained.

There are probably more forces than that at work.  The most relevant one for me was simple:  I wanted to come home to the Blackfeet Reservation and not move all the time.  (I am not tribal but I am aging.)  Some denominations assign their ministers, mine went through a long and arduous hiring process.

07.27.15 Dennis Maher, retired clergy:

I think that clergy are vanishing. I am one, now retired and better related to the Clergy Project than to any congregation. The rise of the “nones” has affected clergy as well as people in the pews. This makes clergy vanish.

Also, I worked with the PCUSA call and referral system in the ‘90's and have seen great changes since then. In that denomination then, there were about 1,400 clergy seeking about 950 positions; sometimes 1,200 positions. There are now 1,735 clergy seeking 479 positions, of which only 165 are for pastor or associate pastor. How many are full time is unknown, but most congregations today are under 100 members, making it difficult to pay a living wage to a full time pastor. Many of them used to have full time pastors but are calling part time pastors now. Once upon a time, the pastor was the best educated person in a small town. Now there are many counties without any resident pastor.  [my emphasis mhs]

As the number of educated and connected clergy declines, much knowledge about churches as organizations and institutions has been and is being lost. Denominations are not in a position to care about this, and themselves have lost their corporate memory. I think all of that is fine if congregations would adopt the teachings of Jesus rather than the myths about him as their mission. There is a future for the aphorisms and parables of Jesus but probably not for the church structures that I served for 40 years.


When someone like Rev. Maher has a strong voice, I try to research them via Boogle or some other means.  Rev. Maher appears to be active with The Clergy Letter Project which is a sort of petition website where specific pastors sign up to endorse the active inclusion of evolution in religious thinking.  There are 285 UU’s on the list.  They are not likely to get objections or criticism from their congregations or other ministers.  The church next door to me in Valier would be up in arms.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"NEW YORK (Reuters) - Teary-eyed and angry Catholic parishioners across New York attended final mass services on Friday in some of dozens of churches closing or stopping regular worship services.
The closures follow an announcement by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York in November that it would consolidate 368 parishes into 294, reflecting a national trend of parish closures in the United States caused by low attendance, a shortage of priests and financial troubles….Challenges facing New York's Catholic parishes are experienced elsewhere in the nation, where churches have started increasingly closing since the early 2000s, said Mark Gray, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University."