In a recent meeting with national theological educators, we were musing about the reasons for decreased enrollment among young people in all our ministry training programs (across North America and theological traditions/denominations). During the conversation, I asked the intentionally provocative question:
What if God has stopped calling as many young people to traditional vocational ministry? And, what might that be saying to the Church?
In our rush to solve perceived problems, we often circumvent prophetic questions with pragmatic answers. I believe this is one of those times. In our rush to solve a pragmatic problem (one to which I am very committed to addressing), what if we have rushed past a much bigger question (a question worthy of deep reflection)?
Before we dive into this bigger question, let me address what the problem of decreased enrolment in undergraduate ministry training programs is not (at least not completely).
First, it is not simply a marketing problem. If this were the case, you would not see this issue across so many schools and traditions, with enrollment decline progressing at the same rates and with consistent timelines.
Second, it is not simply a distrust of academia. There is a wider societal movement of distrust toward higher education, but I am not convinced this is the only reason for the decrease in ministry training track enrollment across North America.
Third, it is not simply a case of rising tuition costs. Although an issue that must be addressed, tuition increases are seen in all sectors of higher education.
Fourth, it is not school or denomination specific. Almost all denominations and traditions are experiencing a decline in young people entering ministry training programs. Whatever is happening, it is not micro. It is macro.
Finally, the issue is probably some combination of the above with elements of the much bigger questions asked earlier.
I would like to suggest a more provocative and prophetic view of this question for us to consider. Perhaps God is calling fewer young people (directly or indirectly) for one or more of these other macro reasons…
Perhaps…We have not been faithful with the ones we have had.
What if we have not been faithful with the shepherds God has called and entrusted to us, the church? A quick glimpse of the pastoral health statistics will show you that being a pastor is not an easy job. Now I am not just talking about long hours and lack of pay (all of which are often true) but about unrealistic expectations they can never fulfil (preach like Steven Furtick, counsel like Henry Cloud, lead like Carey Nieuwhof, etc.). What if we have not been good stewards of the pastors God has called, so God is not entrusting us with more?
Perhaps…God is answering another prayer.
The church has long lamented the staffing ratio to church attendance/membership (if it hasn’t, it should). This has been growing consistently for years and is a sign of the increasing professionalism of ministry. We have prayed for a reversal of this trend for years and, yet, we haven’t changed our behaviour (it has only worsened). Perhaps God is forcing the church to go “cold-turkey” on its addiction to professional ministry. Perhaps God is answering our prayers by forcing more and more lay people into active ministry roles.
Perhaps, what we are doing (in general in the church) is not compelling to young men and women.
The church has not been known for its ability or willingness to have tough conversations about complicated social issues and address issues of justice (race, disability, environment, etc.). Often the critique of the academy is that we are too focused on these issues, but, as someone who spends time in the classroom, these are the questions young people have, and they are very passionate about them.
Perhaps, we haven’t clearly taught about the call to ministry.
In our good efforts to talk about the call of God on all people with the invitation to see their vocations as equal acts of worship and ministry, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in this direction, and we have unintentionally downplayed the call to vocational ministry. The Church must learn to do this intentionally as well as support young men and women who are exploring and pursuing that call.
Perhaps God is calling more women.
The percentage of young women pursuing ministry training continues to increase. On the one hand, it is encouraging to see so many young women pursuing God’s call to vocational ministry and entering ministry training degrees and programs. On the other hand, it is very discouraging to see extremely talented young women not given the same opportunities to lead as their young male counterparts. Perhaps we have all the people we need for ministry positions; they are just not all men.
Perhaps God is calling more people from mid-career and vocational transitions.
The trend of seeing fewer young men and women entering the ministry is countered by more mature adults pursuing vocational transitions into ministry.
Perhaps young people are not ready to make significant career decisions in high school.
This isn’t derogatory. Young people are taking longer to decide what to do with their lives. It is a huge investment. It is why I think Christian Universities and Bible Colleges need to design their first-year curriculum with this in mind, helping young people to discover who they are, explore their calling and discern what careers might be a good fit for them.
Perhaps, God is doing something new.
Perhaps God is doing something bigger than our traditional methodologies can hold. I am not saying this with resigned pessimism but with innovative optimism. As new models and methodologies are being explored, God will lead in some creative and exciting directions.
Let me know in the comments what you think might be missing here.
In the end, like most things, this issue is very complicated, and the answer is multifaceted. I think the Church needs to speak more clearly on call, learn to care for its pastors better, partner with young people in the pursuit of vocational ministry, release more ministry leadership to women, embrace new methodologies and forms of church, etc. And our theological schools need to address this in real ways by helping students to discern their call, building trust between the academy and the church, teaching students the needed competencies to serve faithfully in our complex world, and pursuing new models and methodologies for excellent theological education (if we trade excellent theological education for pragmatic expedience, the Church will suffer deeply) and ministry training that partners with and actively serves the Church. Again, the answer is complex, and it will take the Church and the academy partnering together. The problem is real, the solution(s) is complicated, and the need is now.