Preach for America
Rethinking the pastoral recruitment process in an era of talent shortages
I had always assumed that there was a surplus of people pursuing careers in ministry. There are many seminaries, each with an incentive to attract students. And people seemed to have to go through a sort of waiting room process in college ministry or as a youth pastor before getting an actual pastor or associate pastor position.
But what I’m hearing from widely divergent sources is that there’s actually a big talent shortage in this area.
This first came on my radar a decade ago when Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church started talking about the looming succession crisis in megachurches like his. There were hardly any megachurches in 1975, but there are a huge number today, often still run by their founding pastor. Replacing all these soon to be retiring folks with someone who could successfully operate at that level would be a challenge. Of course, Hybels’ own carefully crafted succession plan blew up.
Today even churches that can afford to pay a solid salary are finding it difficult to recruit pastors. Many seminaries have seen significant enrollment declines. For example, Gordon-Conwell saw its enrollment fall by half between 2012 and 2021, and it is selling off its gorgeous campus north of Boston. I increasingly hear people talking about this talent shortage issue. I just watched a video of one pastor noting that new church startups will be increasingly difficult to pull off in today’s climate because there’s no pipeline of talent to launch them.
There appears to be a similar problem in the Roman Catholic Church, which has an aging cadre of priests and far fewer young people electing to pursue a priestly vocation.
At the same time, vast numbers of churches in the US seem poised to close. There are simply too many small, non-viable congregations, and it’s unlikely that more than a few of them will be successfully revitalized. Christianity’s decline in America also augurs for a decreased demand for ministers. So while there appears to be a pastoral shortage, the demand level is also highly uncertain. It’s easy to see how this sort of uncertainty would discourage people from going into ministry.
But given that there does seem to be a talent shortage today, that presents an opportunity to rethink the pastoral recruitment and training process.
Entry into the pastoral career track seems to rely almost entirely on self-selection. That is, someone has a desire or senses a call to ministry, then goes to seminary, etc.
I find it interesting that Jesus took a different approach to selecting his disciples. He picked the people he wanted, then recruited and trained them. He didn’t wait for them to apply.
My impression is that this is how the Mormon church works. They have a sort of social credit score system, where they know whether you attend weekly, did your missionary service, are tithing, have gotten married, etc. Then they slot the most committed and most talented people into leadership.
For example, Mitt Romney was famously a Mormon bishop. In the Mormon model, they rely on lay ministers to fill these roles. Being a bishop is sort of like being parish priest, but with a couple of assistants. Romney was a high wattage person with a demanding career, but also served as essentially the volunteer pastor of his local church. I suspect one reason the Mormons have done so well is because they’ve effectively curated talent and put many of their best people into leadership roles.
Obviously the mainstream Christian world is very different. But why can’t churches be working to identify people whom they believe would be highly effective pastors - using whatever criteria they think is most Biblical and appropriate - and encouraging those people to go into ministry? There’s a lot of opportunity in local churches to do a stealth vetting of these folks before tapping them on the shoulder, such as by asking them to volunteer in more purely service roles, giving them leadership opportunities, etc. and seeing how they perform.
Rather than waiting for people to decide they want to go into ministry, instead encourage high potential people to strongly consider doing so.
There’s a lot that could be done on the training side as well. Lots of churches are well resourced or have a dedicated mission type budget. Some of this money could be used to underwrite seminary training. Or there could be an apprenticeship and mentoring model, as would have been the case in the early church.
Today, an often pretty young person has to end up borrowing a lot of money to go to seminary. Then he has to raise his own funding to be able to get a job as a campus minister or something.
What if instead his academic coursework was free, and he was actually getting paid as an apprentice for getting on the job experience while taking classes?
I know someone who runs a big electrical contractor here in town. He created a program just like this to help fill his talent pipeline. It involves a mix of a charter school, vocational training, and post-secondary education. People who go through the program come out at the end with an associates degree, a journeyman’s card, and no debt - all while actually getting paid for work as an apprentice. And there’s probably also a very high paying job offer with this firm waiting too (although there’s no obligation to work for it).
Or think about something like Teach for America, which works to recruit elite students who might never think about going into education into doing a stint as a teacher. They are drawing in a caliber of talent that was previously not going into public education, and also training and credentialing that talent through an alternative mechanism.
Maybe what we need today is a Preach for America. A way of bringing high potential talent into the ministry field, and training and deploying it through new models.
Obviously this wouldn’t look exactly like Teach for America. But if the pipeline is really as dry as people are saying, rethinking how people get into that pipeline, and get trained, credentialed, and deployed is critical.
This is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Cover image credit: Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago by Andreas Faessler, CC BY-SA 3.0,