A Pastoral Identity Crisis?!
Second posting in series on developing a theology of ministry.
It is clear that the ordained ministry is experiencing an identity crisis. Predictions of clergy shortages, brought on by a number of factors that include the expected loss of large numbers of clergy to retirement as well as by simple attrition, as significant numbers of clergy leave the pastorate because of stress and disillusionment, along with dwindling numbers of people entering the pastoral ministry (especially among younger people), are coupled with declining numbers of church members making it more difficult for clergy to find congregations able to pay for an educated professional ministry. Colleges that once focused on training young people for vocational ministry can no longer sustain themselves by offering courses and programs in ministry. Many seminaries survive only because second career people are enrolling in larger numbers than ever before, but many of these who are attending seminary do so not out of a call to ministry but as part of a quest for spiritual answers to life’s questions. Although some of these seekers will enter the pastorate, not all do so. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many seminarians look to the church only as a last resort. Those who choose to remain in pastoral ministry often discovered that the ordained ministry is not a glamorous occupation. For the amount of education required the pay is often low and job security is often tenuous. In many ways it’s not even a very respectable vocation. Few pastors or religious leaders rank among society's most admired people. A Gallup poll suggested that only 52% of Americans considered clergy honest, fourth among professions.[i]
Though we would like to think that there was a time when the clergy were admired and respected, this vocation has always ranked below higher paying and socially acceptable professions in terms of attractiveness. Remember that in the middle ages the oldest son got the land and the youngest son was sent off to be a priest or monk. Frederick Buechner, a pastor and novelist, describes three popular views of pastors or ministers. The first stereotype suggests that pastors are "nice people" who try to make sure you know that they have their feet on the ground like everyone else. They try not to offend anyone. A second view offers that clergy "have their heads in the clouds" and don't get too involved in the real world. You get embarrassed around them if you use "bad language." However, they are supposed to have "a lovely sense of humor and get a kick out of it every time you ask if they can't do something about all this rainy weather we've been having." In this view pastors know their business is religion and leave other matters (important matters?) to those who know better. Finally, there are those who see pastors being as "anachronistic as alchemists and chimney sweeps. Like Tiffany Glass or the Queen of England, their function is primarily decorative."[ii] They do the marrying and the burying, but not much else.
Pastoral ministry does not have to live up to its stereotype of the holy person, who as Donald Messer suggests is "a breed apart, oddly different from the rest of humanity, needing special care and treatment." Equally untrue is the stereotype of the pastor who is a "colorless, joyless, sexless creature."[iii] Such stereotypes as these can make for lonely, separate lives, but does the life of those who enter pastoral ministry need to be like this? I don’t know about you, but as someone who is ordained, none of these stereotypes sound inviting! With such bleak perceptions of ordained ministry, it is no wonder that so many are deciding for other more rewarding careers.
Pastors are human beings. They are no different from their parishioners, only their calling and type of ministry differ. They need a sense of financial security, family time, relaxation, renewal. There is no room for double standards of ministry or morality among God's people. Whether we are clergy or laity, though we each have our own ministries, the expectations of holiness and grace are present for both.[iv]
Despite everything we read, many still hear the call and respond to it. Some hear the call as young people and begin preparing to take up their calling early in life, as I did (although I did not enter the pastorate until I was forty, thirteen years after my ordination. Others hear this call much later in life, and make incredible sacrifices to get their education.
If there is an identity crisis brewing among those who enter pastoral ministry, how do we who have either begun the journey toward ordination, or who currently are engaged in pastoral ministry not just endure, but thrive? If we are moving into a non-hierarchical age where, as Tony Jones suggests, the church is flat, where do we fit? Or putting it differently, if we start with the premise that ministry is something that is shared among all believers (priesthood of all believers), where ministry is rooted in one’s spiritual gifts, where does the ordained ministry fit? Such a prospect can be threatening, but it can also open new opportunities for ministry, so that those called to this form of ministry are not serving alone, but do so as part of a much larger team of ministers. Yes, there may be need for the expertise and leadership of a pastor or ordained minister, but what will this look like and on what theological basis will this be developed?
[i]“Clergy Ratings at Lowest Point Ever Survey finds low trust in the church” Christianity Today, 47 (February 2003): 21. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/002/12.21.html.
[ii]Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1992), 73.
[iii]Donald Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 13.
[iv]Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry, 13.