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SBC fares better than other religious bodies facing clergy shortage

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–While clergy shortages have affected a number of denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention’s vice president for convention relations said the SBC is faring much better.

Nationwide, dwindling numbers of pastors has been the subject of recent reports in such media as the New York Times, Christianity Today, Washington Times and numerous denominational publications.

One researcher at Hartford (Conn.) Seminary attributes the decline to aging post-World War II ministers, decreasing numbers of pastoral students, and new, middle-aged pastors with fewer years to serve.

But SBC executive committee official Bill Merrell said convention churches don’t struggle to fill pulpits like such mainline denominations as Episcopalians, Lutherans and United Methodists.

He credited the healthier picture in Baptist circles to a clearer sense of God’s call and faithfulness to the Bible.

“Commitment to the call of the Lord is greater where the Bible is held in greater esteem than in other places,” Merrell said. “People feel called out because they think there is something significant about ministry.”

It is harder to motivate future ministers with “secondary” ideas that aren’t related directly to the message that people are lost without Christ and need God, he added.

“People respond to (the gospel) and can dedicate their lives to it,” he said.

To bolster his argument, he pointed to increasing enrollment at SBC seminaries. While figures for the last academic year aren’t available yet, figures for 1999-2000 showed approximately 13,400 students, an increase of 5.5 percent over the prior year’s 12,700.

Checks with other evangelical and Pentecostal groups show similar trends.

Dallas Theological Seminary fields 1,500 requests for job candidates annually, nearly five times the number who graduated last spring.

President Mark Bailey welcomed a record 1,648 students this fall, the fourth consecutive increase. He sees the situation as a parallel to evangelicals’ generally robust condition.

“I think our founder made a great statement: ‘Men, give them something to believe,'” Bailey said. “I can’t help but believe that having a high view of Scripture, Christ and God contributes greatly to the health of the evangelical church.”

Doctrinal fidelity isn’t the only reason officials cite for success. The commissioner of education for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) said his denomination tends to attract younger followers than historically entrenched groups.

Alonzo Johnson said the average COGIC parishioner holds the clergy in high esteem, contributing to a willingness to pursue the pastorate.

He said there is a ready source for filling its 12,000-plus pulpits.

The nation’s largest Pentecostal denomination’s view of God also plays a role, Johnson said.

“Within the Pentecostal community there is a strong emphasis on the immediate, personal nature of faith, of being called by God,” Johnson said. “This opens the door to more persons. It makes the call much more democratic.”

The executive director of the Evangelical Free Church of America believes his small (243,000 members) denomination has benefited from movements like Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity Fellowship.

Prominent on college campuses, such groups have excited students about the rewards of full-time ministry, said Jim Addington.

“I think our challenge is more in terms of finding a good fit,” Addington said. “We have more pastors looking for churches than we have places.”

Still, other conservative groups aren’t faring as well. While the Assemblies of God (AG) added 319,000 members in the U.S. during 1990s, its annual increases averaged just 1.5 percent.

Enrollment at its theological seminary in Springfield, Mo., rose 11 percent last fall. But a decrease at extension campuses meant total growth of just 1.7 percent.

“If we compare ourselves to some of the larger denominations, we’re heartened,” said George Wood, the AG’s general secretary. “If we compare ourselves to where we’d like to be, we’d like to be starting and revitalizing more churches.”

Meanwhile, the Church of the Nazarene appears to have reached a plateau, according to Rich Houseal, manager of that denomination’s research department.

With 1,800 ordained ministers available to fill one-third as many openings, it has no pulpit supply problems. But its roster of churches declined slightly last year and hasn’t grown since the 1960s.

“Our problem is more trying to find pastors for the really small church that doesn’t have the financial resources,” Houseal said. “We need more bivocational and circuit rider pastors. But we’re just not willing to make those kind of assignments.”

In addition, the director of research for the Leadership Network in Dallas warned that demographic trends don’t bode well for evangelicals.

There are already thousands of small or rural churches that can’t find pastors, said Carol Childress, leaving many leaders wondering who will fill the gap in the future.

“Fewer young people are feeling called to ministry, regardless of theological background,” Childress said. “The decision of graduates to enter the local pastorate isn’t as strong as it used to be. It’s an issue on the minds of a lot of denominational leaders – who will fill the pulpits in the future?”

Michael Duduit, executive vice president of Union University, an SBC-affiliated school in Jackson, Tenn., agrees there is cause for concern.

While larger SBC churches don’t have any problems filling vacancies, some smaller congregations do have problems, he said. With two-thirds of the convention’s churches numbering less than 300, and many of those under 100, rural congregations could struggle in the future, he said.

“So many young pastors are coming out of seminary with enormous debt loads that they can’t afford to take a small church (pastorate) that pays $20,000 a year,” he said. “They end up going into institutional positions or staff positions in larger churches.”

Still, Duduit sees the evangelical church as much better suited to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

A primary reason is that it is defined more by what members believe than what they don’t believe, he said.

“By being rooted in biblical truth and committed to reaching people for Christ, I think the evangelical church has a solid foundation for ministry,” said Duduit, who is also director of the American Academy of Ministry. “That has a great appeal.

“By contrast, in too many mainline churches there’s more of a sense of an effort to be culturally relevant and a loss of adhering to biblical truth and the importance of evangelism. The result is there’s not the same appeal to people to give their lives in service.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker