Study shows minister surplus, but few
willing to serve in small churches
By John Hall
Texas Baptist Communications
DURHAM, N.C.–Mainline Protestant denominations face a leadership shortage in spite of an apparent surplus of ordained ministers because many of them are hesitant to enter congregational work and reluctant to serve smaller churches, a study by Duke University's Pulpit and Pew Research on Pastoral Leadership revealed.
And while the shortage is not as acute in Texas Baptist churches, small churches face the same obstacles in finding pastors, said Bob Ray, director of bivocational and small church development for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Nearly every surveyed denomination has more than one minister–and some more than two–per congregation, but many are chaplains, professors or parachurch ministers rather than individuals serving local congregations, states the Duke report, largely based on figures from “The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.”
Ministers who enter congregational work seem reluctant to serve smaller churches for financial reasons.
As a result, many small rural or inner-city churches are without pastors, the study reported.
Smaller congregations are less likely to provide salary and benefit packages that can support a full-time pastor, and the work there often is seen as less prestigious than ministry in larger congregations, Ray noted.
The statistics seem most optimistic for conservative Protestants, since nearly all have more than one working minister per congregation.
Southern Baptists have an average of nearly two per church, compared to an average of less than one per congregation in many mainline denominations.
But the figures on the conservative groups are misleadingly positive, according to Curtis Freeman, professor of theology and Baptist studies and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.
The numbers are inflated because conservative groups are more likely to ordain leaders other denominations do not, such as youth directors, song leaders and ministers who serve ethnic missions, Freeman said.
“People are nervous” because of the minister shortage, he said. “And it gets worse as you move toward mainline Protestants.”
While those numbers may be somewhat misleading, the numerous ministerial vacancies in small churches nationwide silently speak volumes.
About 10 percent of Southern Baptist churches have pastor vacancies at a given time.
About 12 percent of Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated churches, including many smaller congregations, typically are pastorless.
According to a study by the Presbyterian Church, USA, nearly half of its churches averaging 51 to 100 in attendance are pastorless. That percentage jumps to 76.6 percent in Presbyterian churches running fewer than 50.
Some ministers are not willing to lead smaller congregations because those churches do not provide salaries that can support their families, Ray said.
Work in smaller churches also is seen as less prestigious in the eyes of some, he noted. Small-church ministry is viewed as a stepping-stone to larger churches with better-paying positions.
Many ministers “study, go to school and look to be pastor of First Baptist Church of a county seat town,” Ray said.
To compound the issue, the number of smaller churches is increasing as larger congregations decline.
Small churches are the future of the faith, Ray said. Ministers will need to lead them.
But Ray is hopeful. He believes more people would feel called to smaller churches if congregations and seminaries encouraged believers to consider ministry in smaller venues.
Early efforts will allow ministers to develop professional skills to allow them to become bivocational, Ray said.
Congregations also increasingly are seeking to raise members of their church to lead, Ray said.
Members are recognizing gifted believers and encouraging them to become pastors, he noted.
“Bivocational churches are an ever-growing number. We've got to help those going into the ministry to see it as a viable model.
“I believe if we started early enough helping people see bivocational ministry as a viable option, people might start thinking God will call them there.”