“The numbers don’t lie, and they ain’t pretty.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Research and Evaluation conducted a study in 2016 looking at supply and demand of clergy serving in congregations. You can get a summary and access to the full report on the Northeast Iowa Synod blog. The bottom line is that supply will not meet demand anytime soon. For most people, the answer is simple: recruit more people to be clergy.
I don’t disagree with that answer. I’m a pragmatist most days, and so while I’m sure I could drum up some objection to recruitment on theological grounds, in the end we do need more pastors. When I say “we,” I mean the world. I don’t know about you, but we need more people these days who dedicate their lives to reminding all of us that we need to be more empathetic, humbler, and more selfless, among other things.
However, I’ve encountered an audience expressing in response to the study the sentiment that we need to increase our efforts at youth and young adult ministries as the solution. The rationale is that if we get more young people involved in the church, identify which ones would be best suited to for leadership in congregations, and recruit them into pursuing being pastors and clergy, we will solve the clergy shortage.
Andy Root, Professor of Children, Youth, and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN (and one of my former teachers), discusses what he calls “the Church’s obsession with youthfulness.” Discussing his most recent book, “Faith Formation in a Secular Age,” Root examines some of the trajectories that led to this obsession. It’s a challenging, but important read. Recently in an interview, Root gave this response to the idea of attracting youth and young people to Christianity and the Church:
“I clearly want young people in the church. I am a professor of youth ministry, after all. My concern is that the youthful spirit becomes a certain form of idolatry – a way of saving ourselves without the need for God. Do they actually want to attract young people? Real young people will force them to have relational encounters that will change them and their church. Or do they like the idea of having young people as a measure of their church’s vibrancy, legitimacy, or longevity?”
You can read the rest of the interview here.
With respect to attracting youth and young adults for the purpose of recruitment to be clergy, such a movement not only raises them as some sort of “golden calf” that promises congregations a future, but it reduces their humanity to some sort of supply and demand commodity. Youth and young adults ought to be reached out to for no other reason than it is part of the church’s call to witness and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them understanding their absence, like the absence of any one person or group within the church, diminishes the life of the community of faith. A narrow focus on “young people” would mean many people who fall into other demographics would be either secondarily, or altogether dismissed as primary candidates to serve as clergy. Such a move is a faithless one, and honestly lifts youth and young adults up at the expense of marginalizing others.
So what should we do? We should certainly be a church is constantly encouraging people to discern their baptismal calling in response to the Gospel. Said another way, the church should include an emphasis on vocational discernment. Communities of faith should help all people identify their God-given gifts, and affirm the vocations they choose in which they are faithfully putting those gifts to work, whether it be in service to the church or otherwise. If that discernment leads people to explore callings to be clergy, “Amen!” If it leads them into other callings, let us say, “Amen!”
Another thing that constantly does not get mentioned is that we need to think about considering and implementing new models of what clergy and rostered leadership looks within the context of the parish. In simpler terms, congregations and those who assist congregations in calling pastors should be asking, “What exactly do we need a pastor for?” Two things can emerge out of this question. One, we might find other congregations near also have similar needs and directions, and communities of shared ministry and resources can emerge. Two, those individuals who may not feel called to traditional models of parish ministry and leadership may have increased opportunities to serve congregations where their needs don’t align with those models as imaginations are sparked about new possibilities.
Active discernment in community works. When we focus on that work instead of recruitment initiatives, ministry becomes about sharing humanity with one another instead of attracting people to serve survival interests. Not only do we see youth and young adults as Christ sees them, human being in need of and deserving of God’s love and grace, but we actually see ALL people that way, and live with them, just as God in Christ came to live among us.