Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Many commentators have written about how the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed clergy in the United States to think about resigning from ministry, including a previous post on this blog. While much of the evidence for this trend is anecdotal, there has also been survey research to back it up. A Barna Group study released in November found that 38% of all clergy, including 46% of pastors under 45 and 51% of mainline clergy have considered leaving ministry in the past year. This commentary about clergy resignations comes on top of news from the Lewis Center that the number of young United Methodist elders in the U.S. is lower than ever.
What has not been much emphasized in the reporting on clergy resignations or on United Methodist clergy age trends is trends among older clergy. The Lewis Center report acknowledged that after decades of a growing number of older clergy, that trend has reversed over the past two years, with the number of older clergy now falling. A Washington Post article looking at the labor shortage across job sectors found that the largest declines in labor force participation from pre-pandemic to the present were among older workers, many of whom opted for earlier retirement. Both these data points suggest there may be an increased retirement rate among clergy, though more specific data is needed to prove that.
Thinking about the dynamics of age and career stage leads to a more complex understanding of the multiple crises facing denominations trying to supply congregations with enough clergy. We can think of three related but distinct crises: the Great Resignation, the Great Retirement, and the Great Reconsideration.
The Great Resignation is one of several terms that have been used to describe a trend across job sectors over the course of the pandemic for people to quit their jobs. In some instances, people have not taken new jobs, but the Washington Post evidence suggests that most people under 55 have found other work. Applied to clergy, the Great Resignation describes the trend of clergy to leave ministry before the end of their careers. While this trend applies across age brackets, the Barna and Lewis Center data suggests this trend is most pronounced among clergy in the first half of their career lives, who have more time to build a career in an alternate field. Late middle aged clergy may feel a greater compulsion to stay in their current occupation, rather than attempt to switch careers in their 50s.
The Great Retirement describes people who, because of the pandemic, denominational uncertainty, or other reasons, are leaving ministry to retire earlier than they would have otherwise. Rather than continuing to pastor until they are at the UMC mandatory clergy retirement age of 72, they retire earlier, perhaps at 62 when Social Security benefits become available. Not all may be retiring a full decade early, but this category captures all whose retirement schedules are moved up because of larger systemic (rather than entirely personal) issues. While losing an older clergyperson with 5 years of service left to early retirement is not the same as losing a young clergyperson with 35 years of service left to another career, given the number of older clergy in the UMC, a trend towards earlier retirement nonetheless has the potential to be significant.
The Great Reconsideration, then, describes people who are considering or might have considered a career in ministry but decide not to pursue that sense of calling because of the same set of COVID-related, denominational, and other external factors negatively impacting clergy work for existing clergy. They reconsider their sense of calling. While the Great Reconsideration impacts people across age brackets, it is likely a significant factor impacting the decline in the number of younger clergy. Faithful young people are finding means to serve God with their careers other than as clergy.
Again, more data would be helpful to establish the scope and extent of each of these three clergy challenges, but the existing data suggests it is fair to think of there being three related but distinct clergy crises.
Thinking of these crises as related but distinct helps clarify the sorts of responses required by denominational leaders to address these crises and ensure an adequate supply of clergy for existing and new congregations. Some of the drivers of these crises are common across categories: the ways in which the pandemic, denominational conflict, and societal polarization have made the experience of ministry more difficult and decreased clergy well-being. But the contexts that shape how these external factors impact individual's sense of vocation, career, and alternative options are distinct according to stage of life and ministry.
Thus, efforts to increase clergy well-being are likely to make a positive impact on each of these three clergy crises. But denominational leaders should also be mindful of the unique needs of clergy at different stages of their lives and careers and seek to provide stage-appropriate resources as well.