NASHVILLE (BP) — On Dec. 4, 2019, Sam Rainer published “What to Expect if You’re a Church’s First Millennial Pastor.” It contained suggestions for younger pastors preparing to fill the pulpits of retiring Baby Boomers. The closing paragraph included the sentence “In 10 years, major shifts will occur.”
His point has proven true, but his timing was off.
The major shift occurred much earlier, due to something no one saw coming – the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, which triggered something Rainer had actually been writing about for nearly a decade. Health concerns that were physical, but also mental and emotional brought on by the cultural and political upheaval during that time, led many to leave the pastorate.
“We realized [a decade ago] the aging of pastors was occurring more rapidly than the aging of the population,” Rainer said in a recent interview with Baptist Press. “We knew Baby Boomers were going to be retiring over the next 15-20 years and there didn’t appear to be a pipeline of younger pastors to replace them.
“It was already a concern. COVID – like it did with so many things – exacerbated and accelerated the trend.”
What’s in the pipeline
Determining the number of available pastors is an inexact science, to say the least.
They serve in roles described as full-time and bi-vocational, or co-vocational, a term preferred by Rainer and others. They hold titles like retired, semi-retired, interim and transitional.
Seminary output is seen as the best determiner for the number available to fill pulpits. It’s not great, though, as many pastors don’t go to seminary and not every seminarian goes on to be a pastor.
Nevertheless, Southern Baptist seminaries increased the number of Master of Divinity graduates from the 2011-12 academic year through 2020-21.
Annual reports submitted to the SBC show 768 Master of Divinity graduates among all six seminaries during 2011-12. That number had dipped to 691 by 2017-18, but increased to 716 the next year and then 767 the year after that. The spring of 2021 brought 861 MDiv graduates.
Distance learning and more time for studies at home during the pandemic led to increased class loads that sped up graduation schedules, officials at different seminaries told Baptist Press, and no doubt contributed to the increase in 2021. It also played a role in the lower number of graduates, 828, the following year, but still, there was an upward trend when looking back over the previous decade.
The two-year Master of Arts degree gained even more traction. At the end of the 2011-12 school year, 519 were presented to graduate. By 2020-21, that number had jumped to 1,142, a 120 percent increase.
To reiterate, it’s difficult to gauge how many of those graduates continued into the ministry. But assume every one of them – all 15,604 of those earning an MDiv or Master of Arts over the last decade – went on to fill a pulpit. They would still fall far short of the 47,614 churches in the SBC in various states of pulpit occupancy.
Where will those ministers come from? It requires a new mindset for congregations in several areas, Rainer said. For starters, consider that the pipeline could come from inside the house.
“The future of ministry is people who are trained up within their own church,” he said. “Whether we get there strategically or out of desperation, we’re going to get there one way or the other because we’re going to need people to keep doing Kingdom work.
“I would rather get there strategically.”
Churches of various sizes are addressing this. The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., counts more than 6,500 members across 12 campuses. It’s also closing in on six years of The Summit Institute, which has produced 120 graduates through training meant to be a “companion” to seminary instruction, said its director, Mike Calhoun.
“Seminaries are typically designed to teach principles and content,” he said. “The Institute teaches principles and provides opportunities to practice knowledge. We work with Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Liberty University to offer seminary credit.”
Meanwhile, First Baptist Church in Helen, Ga., has its one.
That would be one pastoral apprentice for the mountain community church of approximately 400 members. First Baptist participates in an internship program with nearby Truett McConnell University. The pastoral apprenticeship is something different, a one-year commitment that provides $20,000 for the apprentice who shadows Pastor Jim Holmes and receives up-close training into the ministry.
“One day a week he goes with a different staff member, even the custodian, to see how those roles affect our church,” Holmes said. “At the end of the year he’ll be exposed to every part of what we do.”
Time in Scripture and prayer for sermon preparation joins various meetings and visits with members and visitors. It’s meant, Homes said, to build ministry health and “honor the Lord.”
Approaching the third year of the outset of the COVID pandemic, many things have changed, or as Rainer states, sped up the inevitable. His latest e-book “Big Storms and Blue Oceans,” addresses many changes such as a lack of pastors and how they can compel churches into new eras of ministry.
“There are a lot of storms on the horizon and the church has a lot of problems,” he said. “But when you get through a storm, you find a blue ocean, something wide open and exciting.
“The storm leads to the blue ocean. The obstacle often leads to the opportunity.”