Supply and Demand of Professional Ministers -- Sightings

It was a quarter century ago that I walked across the podium and received that diploma cover that carried the words (or something close) -- as soon as all fees are paid and grades recorded you will have earned the M.Div. from Fuller Seminary.  A day later, Temple City Christian Church and the Pacific Southwest Region of the Christian Church took it by faith that I had completed the necessary requirements and laid hands on me.  I did not, as some of my fellow graduates, head off to pastorates.  No, I headed off for more schooling at the University of Oregon, because I didn't intend to be a pastor.  I hoped to be Professor Bob not Pastor Bob.  Over the next few weeks, however, other men and women will walk across podiums and receive the same diploma cover and congregations and denominations will ordain them to professional ministry.  Considering that there are a growing number of churches that can't afford to call a full time professional, prospects for a call can be daunting.  But there's always hope.  Such is the issue that Martin Marty mulls over today in his weekly column.


Sightings 5/24/10

Supply and Demand of Professional Ministers
-- Martin E. Marty

Public prayer, the kind Americans fight over a good deal, was not on the favorite “to-do” list of the Jesus of the Gospels. Just the opposite. He is heard saying: Don’t call attention to your praying in public. Go home and shut the door. Public action and teaching were a different matter. The King James Version of the Bible on which we teethed when young ran italicized summary capsules atop the pages. I was always stirred by one: “Here Jesus beginneth his public ministry.” He did not desert temple or synagogue or congregating, but ministry was for him a public affair, in marketplace, field, or wedding party.

It still is. I am not sure that “the public” is always aware of the public roles of the hundreds of thousands of men and women called to and being professionals in exercises of ministry. Most are in congregational service, but chaplaincies and agencies, attractive to so many, would not thrive or even exist were it not for the sustaining role of parishes and congregations. In all cases, the graduating seminarians of this season could merit the caption: “Here beginneth the public ministry of…” When ministry goes well, much else goes well, and when it suffers or causes suffering, much else goes ill.

This year national and local papers alike have been discussing the supply and demand of professional ministers. The general word is that – some sectors of evangelicalism aside – most graduates have to scramble and hope and wait for positions in church and synagogue alike. (The exception is Roman Catholicism, which experiences an almost catastrophic shortage of priests, but that is a different story.) As I write, I head off to speak at a Lutheran synodical assembly in downstate Illinois and a commencement at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. There I will get close-up and personal impressions of how things are going with placement of long-term ministers and newcomers.

Don’t envy seminary leaders and placement people who have to calibrate and calculate and monitor supply and demand. The subtle word gets out that there’s a shortage, as there sometimes is, and by the time the fresh candidates graduate, there is an oversupply. And vice versa. To anticipate this month and this column, I have kept on file last Fall’s Colloquy, published by The Association of Theological Schools. It leads off with frank language which almost summarizes the current situation:

“Current prospects for theological school graduates are defined by several trends. * The job openings available to graduates have been steadily declining in number for the past four years. * Increasing numbers of MDiv graduates are undecided about full-time positions expected after graduation. * Those expecting parish ministry positions have declined. * In response to the economic depression, many retirement age pastors are choosing to postpone retirement. * The annual income required for servicing educational debt may limit job options for new graduates. * Placement and vocational counseling services consistently rank low among measures of student satisfaction.” There it is.

Many factors play their part. Plenty of young and mid-career people who seek meaning and are ready to serve are out there, finding their own way this side of professional ministry. Demography, geography, dual careers of married clergy, graduate school debt, declining rural and often inner-city churches, scandal that hits and hurts religious institutions, are all part of the mixture. Such institutions, such communities, are going through “a period of adjustment,” whose outcome is still uncertain. Seminary leaders and placement people, needless to say, are themselves scrambling and hoping.


Colloquy and other ATS resources are online at

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


On April 6, 2010 Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spoke at the University of Chicago Divinity School in an event sponsored by the university’s Theology Workshop. This month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum brings audio from Land’s discussion, titled “Christians, Public Policy, and Church and State Separation,” and offers reflections on the event in an introduction by David Newheiser, Ph.D. student and coordinator of the Theology Workshop at the University of Chicago.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School


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