Let me begin today by saying that, though I have some familiarity with the workings of my particular denomination, I am certainly no expert when it comes to the mainline Protestant church in the U.S. I grew up in the United Methodist tradition and have been a member of an ELCA Lutheran church for many years now. I went through the ELCA candidacy process (or at least the process as it was altered to fit my unique situation) and gained some exposure to the denomination, at least in my synod. I have served in a variety of ways in my local congregation as well as a few other ELCA churches, and will be serving in a short-term capacity as a supply pastor this winter in a rural congregation in central Indiana.
It has been my experience considering ordination and dealing with two congregations needing pastors that has raised my concern for the decline of my denomination. And then I read the following report: The Supply and Demand for Clergy in the ELCA, and realized that the situation is truly critical.
Here are some of the things I found. These figures represent statistics from the years 2005-2014.
- Between 2005 and 2014, the number of congregations in the ELCA decreased 11 percent, from 10,549 to 9,392 (‐1,157).
- Not only did the number of congregations decline, but in the churches that remain, the number of baptized members declined by 22 percent, and the number of worship attendees declined by 29 percent.
- About half of ELCA congregations are in rural areas or in small towns with a population of fewer than 10,000. Nearly 75% of ELCA congregations are in locations with 250,000 people or fewer.
- Between 2005 and 2014, the income of a typical congregation in the ELCA declined by 23 percent.
- In 2014, 6,192 single‐point congregations could afford to call a first-call pastor [the lowest level of remuneration], and 1,941 single‐point congregations could not. The median level of defined compensation those congregations were paying pastors was $26,000.
- In 2005, there were 9,105 clergy serving congregations. In 2014, there were 6,868.
- Seventy‐seven percent of the pastors serving under a congregational call in the ELCA are solo pastors serving a single congregation. Nine percent serve a single congregation as part of a team.
- Enrollments in ELCA M.Div. programs have decreased from 1,252 in the 2004‐2005 academic year to 735 in the 2015‐ 2016 academic year. This represents a 41 percent decline.
- In 1988, the average age on the active clergy roster was just above 46 years old. At that time, just over 9 percent of active clergy were above 60 years old. By 2013, the average age of clergy had increased to 54 years old, with 32 percent of active clergy above 60.
There is, simply, no good news in this report.
On the ground here in Indiana, I am a member of a church for which the synod has been unable to find an interim pastor. It’s a newer congregation (about 20 years old) with a solid core of people, great facilities, an excellent location, and a setting in a relatively wealthy community. Yet, apparently, no options exist at this point for someone to come in even in an interim role. This astounds me.
The other church, the one I will be serving this winter, has not had an official ELCA pastor for a dozen years now. They had an “interim,” an Episcopalian who served them for ten years, and then a retired ELCA pastor who was their supply pastor for the past two. I’m the only option they apparently have at this point for the short-term fix they need over the winter (one who has not been ordained according to Lutheran standards), and they’re talking about becoming a shared parish with another congregation to ensure their future.
In an article in the ELCA’s magazine, The Living Lutheran, which references this study, here is the conclusion they draw:
While the number of ELCA congregations that can afford a full-time minister has dropped steadily since 2005, there still aren’t enough pastors. …In short, the ELCA has fewer congregations, fewer members, fewer leaders and fewer financial resources.
…The ELCA is on pace to experience a major shortfall in full-time clergy. Parish pastors are retiring in record numbers, according to current data and projections from ELCA Research and Evaluation. This, coupled with decreased seminary enrollment, means there aren’t likely to be enough pastors for the number of open calls.
Jonathan Strandjord, ELCA program director for seminaries, calls it a “retirement tsunami,” stressing the shortfall isn’t a future problem. “It’s here,” he added. “We’re in the middle of it, and that clergy gap will continue to widen. In fact, the gap is wider than it has ever been.”