Some religions fear future holds a shortage of clergy

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 10, 2001

Juggling two churches suits Lou Knighton just fine. The Methodist minister, now with 15 years of experience in the pulpit, travels – quickly, she admits – between Kingston United Methodist Church after the 9:30 a.m. service there, to Lovely Lane United Methodist on Morgantown Road for the 11 a.m. service there every Sunday.

&uot;I’ve tried three ways between the two and it always takes me about the same amount of time,&uot; she said, cheerfully describing the hectic schedule.

&uot;This is the old-time tradition in the Methodist church,&uot; she said. &uot;I’m like the old circuit riders.&uot;

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In her first years as a minister, Knighton had five churches, she said. &uot;It works well if the churches are not too far apart. But I have to say I had this recurring nightmare that I was in the wrong church on the wrong Sunday.&uot; Two churches are a challenge but not a problem, she said. &uot;I think I’d be bored with just one church.&uot;

Admittedly, the two churches are small. Thus the shared ministry. Many denominations, like the Methodists, are turning to old, new and just plain creative ways of serving the small rural churches as they see their nationwide minister pools shrinking.

&uot;More young people are not answering the call,&uot; Knighton said. &uot;They see negative things happening in congregations. They worry about making a living. That deters a lot of people from the ministry. But when you’re called by God, you really can’t pay attention to things like that. I really can’t imagine doing anything else.&uot;

Jane Kimbrell, an active member of Jefferson Street United Methodist Church, recalls a recent assembly of the denomination at which more ministers were retiring than were entering the ministry – the graying of the ministry, as some have named the troubling phenomenon.

&uot;There is a problem, and the small churches have trouble paying the salaries,&uot; Kimbrell said. &uot;One thing the conference is doing is giving the small churches help to equalize salaries.&uot;

The Rev. Sam Tomlinson was ordained as a priest at 25. Now, at 65, he exemplifies a challenge faced by the Episcopal church.

&uot;I went from college to seminary,&uot; said Tomlinson, assisting priest at Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez. It was a common path at that time. &uot;The majority of our clergy were young people.&uot;

Now, he said, &uot;a lot of our seminarians are in the 40s, 50s, even 60s some have in effect retired from one career and gone into the church (career).&uot;

While it’s reassuring that these seminarians are choosing the vocation, Tomlinson points out &uot;if they’re 50 years old, they’re going to be retiring at 62 at 65.&uot;

&uot;There is a real concern in the Episcopal Church with the age of clergy,&uot; he said. Because of that, &uot;we’re looking down the road and wondering if there’s going to be a clergy shortage.&uot;

Becoming an Episcopal priest – or a minister or pastor or preacher in any other denomination – means choosing a vocation driven by a call or desire to serve God. But, each of those calls to service comes with a wide-ranging set of qualifications and expectations – from the passage of Bible college tests in in the Assemblies of God to the vows of celibacy and poverty taken by Roman Catholic priests.

Just how much those varying standards impact the call to ministry is open to debate.

The Assemblies of God face a unique crisis – more ministers than church congregations in the United States.

And, that abundance of ministers may be due in part to the less rigid requirements for ordination in the Assemblies of God. &uot;In some churches, the education requirements might be real heavy,&uot; said the Rev. Doug Wright of the First Assembly of God in Natchez.

In his denomination, &uot;even if someone does not have the opportunity to go to Bible College,&uot; he can become ordained.

With a staggered level of ministry – from the beginning as a certified minister to the highest level as an ordained minister – the Assemblies of God provide ample opportunity for young and old to enter the vocation. &uot;A number of young people take the basic courses and become certified ministers.&uot;

From there, a motivated individual can study – even through correspondence courses or distance learning programs if they cannot or do not choose to attend Bible college or seminary – and work his way through the levels toward ordination. For example, &uot;a person in his 40s or 50s who already has a family can do correspondence or distance learning,&uot; Wright said.

&uot;We’re trying to open up for whoever would answer the call of the Lord,&uot; he said.

In contrast, the commitment to priesthood in the Catholic church has for centuries been held up as the highest standard of commitment. Priests – who are only men – must remain celibate and unmarried. They must study for years in seminary and pass rigorous training and selection processes before they are ordained. And the strictness of those vows raises the question of whether the church’s standards discourage men from entering the priesthood.

The Rev. Alfred Camp of St. Mary Minor Basilica sees it differently.

&uot;We’re too affluent,&uot; he said of American society in the 21st century. &uot;We have so many other opportunities in life. If we had a good depression, you’d see so many more (people choosing) vocations.&uot;

Tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps true as well. For many in Camp’s generation – he is over 65 – entering seminary as a young person meant getting an education and, ultimately, a profession.

&uot;That is why in so many developing countries today we see so many people going into vocations,&uot; he said, adding two examples – a seminary student studying at Holy Family Catholic Church who hails from Nigeria and the priests who serve St. Patrick Church in Ferriday, La., and Our Lady of Lourdes in Vidalia, La., both of whom are from India.

Another factor influencing the decline in vocations among the Catholic church is likely the size of the modern family. &uot;With smaller families, it’s very difficult with just one or two children to say ‘I’m going to give this person to the church,’&uot; Camp said. In his family – he has eight living siblings – three children chose vocations: Camp, as a priest, and two of his sisters, both of whom are nuns.

Expectations of low pay as compared to their contemporaries going into other fields may be a big factor among prospective ministerial students, said David deVries, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Natchez.

&uot;Our culture in the ’80s and ’90s has redefined success as wealth – not that that’s a new thing, but it was the whole yuppie thing of recent years that led to this emphasis on wealth.&uot;

On the other hand, like Knighton, deVries sees a bright side to the shortage. &uot;It’s a serious shortage, but it gives us an opportunity to train and equip lay people for ministry,&uot; he said. &uot;That is a much more natural, more Biblical way of doing things, for a congregation to begin to come into a new understanding of what it means to be a pastor.&uot;

DeVries recalled an old saying that pastors have. &uot;They used to say that it is the dream of every pastor to put himself out of work.&uot;

For churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, the problem is not the same, said Dale Little, director of missions for the Adams-Union Baptist Association. &uot;We have enough folks to go around,&uot; Little said. &uot;But I do see a shortage of pastors who have been through the fire and know how to handle difficult situations, guide their congregations and pull people together. In our area, however, we have a good group of level-headed pastors who can roll with the problems.&uot;

Youth ministries among Southern Baptists are aggressive and purposeful. As Jim Reid, youth minister at Parkway Baptist Church said, &uot;It is our goal that our youth become ministers, Sunday school teachers, missionaries and leaders in the church.&uot;

To accomplish that, frequent and regular youth-led programs are a part of the activities planned at the Baptist churches. &uot;Wednesday night is youth worship led by the youth. That includes a youth-led praise band, giving the teens the style of music that speaks to their hearts,&uot; Reid said. &uot;That worship time together is very special.&uot;

Reid, in youth ministry at Parkway for eight years, said Baptist seminaries are graduating plenty of new ministers. &uot;When I was in seminary we were afraid there would be a shortage of churches.&uot;