The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry in Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.
“... the Land that I Will Show You” is the blog of the Office of Preparation for Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This blog is designed to serve as a resource for those discerning and preparing for a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament as ordained teaching elders of the church. It will also provide a place for reflecting on and dialoging about the changing context of pastoral ministry in the early 21st century.
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Two pieces have come across my computer screen in recent days that particularly caught my attention. Both relate to topics I have addressed before in this blog, but they also help to broaden the scope of vision. They remind us that issues within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reflect a sea change affecting the whole of the church in American society.
One of the pieces is a story from the Columbus Dispatch about someone ordained to ministry by an association of independent Christian community churches (click here to read the story). The person focused on in the story is currently volunteering in a church and working at an Italian restaurant chain as he searches for a pastoral call.
The particulars of his story are interesting, but also telling is some information reported from the National Council of Churches about the relationship between the numbers of ordained ministers and pastoral positions. According to figures obtained from the NCC, there are nearly 608,000 men and women in the United States ordained to ministry but only about 3 out of 5 (roughly 372,000) serve in congregational positions. The NCC acknowledges many of the rest minister in other institutional settings, but certainly others are among the roughly 8.5% of all American workers who are unemployed.
Some of the reasons for why such a high proportion of ministers are out of parish ministry are provided in the other piece I have been reading, namely a study published by the Hartford Seminary Foundation about trends in the American church (A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000-2010). A summary of the report presents two of its key findings: “In 2010, more than one in four congregations had fewer than 50 people in the pews. And although the number of megachurches doubled in the last decade, the growth of the Evangelical church seems to be plateauing and their congregations [are] beginning to shrink. … Additionally, the study found a steep drop in financial health and continuing high levels of conflict” in American congregations.
Nevertheless, David Roozen (the study’s lead author) identified several positive signs for the church in his research. There has been “considerable growth” in racial/ethnic immigrant congregations, adoption of digital communication technologies, a general increase in the breadth of both member-oriented and mission-oriented programs, an increase in connections across all faith traditions, and more churches turning to contemporary forms of worship.
Does this mean the tide is beginning to change? Well, if by that one means things are soon going back to the way they were in the middle of the last century then the answer is almost certainly, “No.” A researcher from Duke Divinity School quoted in the Dispatch story notes that the financial pressures on smaller congregations making it difficult for them to hire fulltime pastors are likely to continue. And, as mentioned by a Methodist seminary president in the same story, many of those currently studying for the ministry want to do ministry outside traditional church settings.
In Presbyterian terms, ministry of Word and Sacrament is being swept along in this sea change. Parish ministry isn’t disappearing, but it will be different and won’t be the only model. The cultural waters are chaotic, but God’s Spirit is no stranger to tumultuous seas.