The Clergy Job Market:
What are the opportunities for ministry in the 21st century?
An article by Patricia Chang, Assistant Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life Associate Research Professor of Sociology, Boston College.
One of the chief worries facing seminary students in protestant denominations as they approach graduation is whether or not they will be able to fulfill their calling to the ministry by finding a job that suits their vocational and lifestyle needs. Individual clergy report frustration that they aren’t able to find the jobs that they want and some older clergy are hesitant to quit for fear that they won’t be able to afford retirement.
While the answer to these questions vary for each individual, sociologists approach the questions more broadly by asking “What is the structure of opportunities” in the job market? In other words, how many people are looking for a job balanced against how many jobs are available? How likely is it that job seekers will be matched with the right opportunities?
Current data suggests that as the number of small churches expand and the majority of church goers flock to larger megachurches that the structures of opportunities for clergy are shifting. Fewer and fewer clergy will be able to follow a traditional career path of upward professional mobility. As opportunities narrow sharply towards the top, more and more individual clergy are finding themselves unable to move into larger churches.
However, this recent research shows the reasons are not an individual’s failure to fulfill his or her calling but rather a skewed labor market. This market offers ample opportunities in the smallest churches and increasingly fewer positions in the largest churches.
Today’s clergy market displays four important features:
- There is a surplus of clergy to fill the available clergy positions. If one looks at the number of ordained clergy compared to the number of churches in a denomination. In some cases there are as many as two clergy per church, with seminary enrollments continuing to climb. This data contradicts the perception that there is a clergy shortage.
- There is, however, a large vacancy rate if one looks at the actual number of clergy serving in churches. A high number of churches are without a full time pastor. This vacancy rate supports the perception of a clergy shortage. What the perception obscures, however, is that the shortage tends to be located in small churches.
- The majority of churches in the U.S. are small, with 100 or fewer members.
- The majority of the church attendees go to large churches with 350 or more members.
In other words the structure of opportunity provides ample jobs for those clergy interested in serving small churches but far far fewer for those wishing to serve in medium or large churches. Seminary students, most of whom were raised and formed in large churches (as are the majority of the American population) feel called to serve in the kind of churches in which they were raised— but these opportunities are declining. This situation is illustrated in the models below.
The illustration on the left represents an idealized job market.
- Level 1 seminarians graduate and move into entry level positions in small churches or assistant pastorate positions where they gain skills and experience to help them advance in their careers.
- After a few years in these positions they move into level 2, represented by positions with more responsibilities, challenges, and authority, either into larger churches or into positions as the sole pastor of a medium sized church.
- They may then choose to move into level 3, represented by the role of senior pastor of a large church, or take a managerial role within the denomination.
- After some time in this position they then retire, making room for the people below them to enter their positions.
While a minority of people may stop at each level, retire, or withdraw from the labor market, the idealized market is characterized by upward mobility. People are moving into new positions and greater challenges, leaving behind them vacancies to be filled by the next cohort.
On the right is the job market suggested by current data:
- The majority of jobs are at level one, in the smallest churches. These churches often cannot offer a living wage, and a high number of them are located in isolated rural areas.
- The number of jobs offering greater challenges, opportunities for skill building, and responsibility decline sharply as one moves upward.
- With fewer job opportunities in the upper echelons of the market, most clergy are unable to move.
- There is much more competition for jobs above the entry level, often leading to frustration and depression among these clergy.
The models above represent what we know about the majority of Protestant denominations but structures in individual denominations will vary to a degree. Many of the more congregational and evangelical denominations have a higher percentage of small churches. Many of these denominations also have clergy who feel called to serve in smaller congregations.
These models paint a bleak picture of the clergy job market. However it also offers an explanation to the many clergy I have interviewed who express frustration at their inability to find what they consider to be a “better” job in a larger church. Rather than seeing the realities of the job market, they personalized the issue and feel they failed, were discriminated against, considered switching jobs or contemplated dropping out of the ministry
Looking at the job market in this way reconciles two dissonant impressions held by denominational leaders and clergy.
Leaders look at the vacancy rate in the small churches and see a clergy shortage that needs to be addressed by increasing seminary enrollments.
Clergy see a surplus of clergy who are competing for the same jobs, forcing many to work part time outside the church, or move into non-parish positions and ultimately begin new careers because they cannot find an adequate position within a church setting.
Both perceptions are correct. The problem is not one of shortages, it’s a problem of balance.