Vanishing Clergy -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Before he takes the month of August off, Sightings contributor Martin Marty has decided to opine on the state of the clergy -- or the vanishing of the clergy in America. As churches shrink and close opportunities for clergy, most of us being rather well educated, are becoming fewer in number. There are plenty of churches out there, but fewer can sustain paid staff at a rate that is commensurate with their education and experience. I'm less than a decade from retirement. I think I'll make it, but what about the future. How many churches will be in the position to call a full-time clergyperson. There may be benefits to serving bi-vocationally, but there are many challenges as well.  In any case, this posting is worth reading, whether or not you are clergy. 

Vanishing Clergy
By MARTIN E. MARTY   JULY 27, 2015
George Fox Evangelical Seminary Graduation 2015                                Credit: flickr via Compfight 
Our editor suggests that we postpone our next Sightings until September, to give a busy staff a breather after the busiest summer-news of news-logging we can remember.

Our files and e-files bulge or pulse with folders called “Current.” Before we tuck them away, one file stands out for timely comment almost any week of any year. Making the rounds after its publication in July 2014 is an item forwarded by many: from The Atlantic, David Wheeler’s catchily-titled “Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy.”

Wheeler’s sub-title explains, “As full-time pastors become a thing of the past, more and more seminary grads are taking on secular jobs to supplement their incomes.” The copy I am using is a print out from an Atlantic section labeled “business.”

Wheeler points to valid and vivid items of concern to congregations and denominations. Words like “vanishing” clergy and full-timers belonging to “the past” are somewhat overstated, but they do get our attention.

The Association of Theological Schools (Canada and U.S.)—see the link in Sources—or ATS as it is also known, can guide readers to many kinds of adaptation, innovation, enterprise, and energy on the theological school front, but stories of “decline” in worshipping communities is obvious and is pondered by many of the many millions who are involved with them, and who care.

The Atlantic story focuses on Justin Barringer, a Kentuckian who applied to “nearly a hundred jobs over the course of two years,” but landed no full-time, salaried church position. What to do?

As I read of him and his peers, an ornery recommendation leaped to mind: convert to Catholicism, study for and join its clergy, since Catholicism (including its middle-class) is often working “full-time” to find clergy to fill its depleted ranks or keep up with sudden growth in some sectors.

The “vanishing” and “thing of the past” terms are somewhat overstated also in Protestantism and Judaism, where processions of graduates enter the ranks of the “called” and “ordained” to more than what they would call “jobs” each year.

Admittedly, there is a shortage of positions for many in many denominations.

And without a doubt, many post-seminarians are saddled with debts, as are their counterparts in teaching, accounting, law, and many more. As one reads literature from the ATS, publications by denominational agencies, and the like, it is clear that many church bodies are working zealously to help seminarians enter the clergy unshadowed by mountains of debt.

But there is also much more to be said and to be gleaned from reports on the “vocation” front, such as: Not all bewail the decline in “full-time” jobs. Some hail “bi-vocational” callings, which are often chosen, and not seen as a sign of defeat.

The historically-minded like to point out that, for Christians, their precedents (e.g., the apostle Paul) were not salaried by agencies. They made tents, as did Paul, or pitched tents along the “missionary” trails. Their heirs include “worker-priests” in modern Europe.

“Bi-vocational” ministry offers some advantages. Clergy often seek it if, like many, they also feel called to fulfill another vocation—years in parenthood roles. Men and women in part-time “secular” employ have angles of vision and can do “sightings” close to the people they serve.

At the same time, the theological, organizational, technological and, yes! pastoral demands keep growing, and “full-time” offers opportunities, pleasures, and creative outlets that cannot be filled only by “part-time” clergy. Pastors, priests, and rabbis are on the front-line of ethical missions and are needed if Americans and Canadians are to “evangelize,” instruct, work in fronts of justice and mercy, and console.

Full-time and part-time leaders both have callings and need each other.


Wheeler, David R. “Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy.” The Atlantic, July 22, 2014, Business.

The Association of Theological Schools.

Flesher, LeAnn Snow. “Low Wages, Student Debt, and ‘The Call:’ Financing Seminary Education.” Sojourners, July 28, 2014.
Image: George Fox Evangelical Seminary Graduation 2015. Credit: flickr via Compfight.

To comment: email the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at If you would like your comment to appear with this article on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. ForSightings' comment policy, visit:
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
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