Recently I participated in a job fair for high school sophomores from all over northwest Missouri sponsored by the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce. The idea behind the event is a noble one: expose high schoolers to a large variety of careers so that they can know what possibilities may await them if they stay in school, graduate, and then attend college or vocational training. Someone had the idea of having a clergy booth with area ministers at it to talk with youth considering a career in ministry. I agreed to do it, but I was doubtful about 15 and 16 year-olds talking with somebody like me. I’m glad to say that I was flat out wrong. Over the course of two days there was a steady stream of teenagers asking about what a career in ministry might be like.
Along with me, clergy from the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, Disciples of Christ, Southern Baptist and non-denominational evangelical churches talked with the teenagers about career possibilities in ministry, such as an ordained minister, educator, social worker, ministry with children and youth, camp director, missionary and others roles. Reactions to our presentations ranged from mild interest to some of the teens seriously talking about whether God might be calling them to work in a ministry setting.
I once read an op-ed by a Christian writer and former minister who stated that if he could go back to his early career as a minister, one of the things he would do differently would be to challenge every youth he met to at least consider vocational ministry as one of her or his career choices. He admitted that it is God who does the calling of the men and women who choose to become ministers, but looking at the dearth of quality ministers in so many denominations, it appears that either God is calling fewer people or more likely, many people who are called don’t answer.
There are many reasons for the shortage of clergy. In mainline denominations like ours, it is a valid question why anyone would want to throw in their lot with an institution becoming less and less relevant by the day. The suspicion of institutions in general and religious ones in particular has also had an effect. Also, the steady stream of clergy scandals, especially ones involving child molestation, has degraded the profession’s worth in the public eye. Many people with familiarity with churches know that the ministry can be a difficult career path; churches and religious institutions can and often do mask abuse of their employees (ordained and otherwise) in a religious guise that is perverse and difficult to guard against. Finally, there is the matter of money; with some notable exceptions, you will not get rich in ministry. Although I believe the profession is still respected in general terms, gone are the days when the local ministers were automatically granted moral influence in their communities.
Yet, there I was talking with teen after teen about what options are out there for those who wish to work for a church or religious organization. Given the religious landscape of our area, many of the youth came from conservative churches, where I suppose ministers are still held up (appropriately or not) as role models. Inevitably the discussion turned to eligibility issues. I had to level with a lot of young women that their particular denominations placed limits upon what kind of ministry women could perform. Given their religious background, most of the young women accepted this fact as the norm, although I was glad to see some of them bristled at the restrictions. I made a point of telling every one of the young women I spoke with something like this: “I’m not trying to turn you against your church’s practices, but you should know that there are plenty of denominations that have no restrictions upon women serving as ministers. In these churches, women serve as pastors and not just the children’s pastor or the wife of the minister. If you feel God leading you in the direction of becoming a minister, you should know there are options for you out there. My personal advice would be that you listen to God and go wherever God leads.”
Similarly, I had one young man ask if gay people could be ordained. I let him know that most churches consider homosexual behavior to be a sin, but there are some who do not. I shared with him my own belief that being a homosexual is not sinful and shared about some of the denominations that allow for gay clergy (United Church of Christ, ELCA, MCC, UUA, etc.), along with some but certainly not all of the churches in the Disciples of Christ. He seemed surprised and pleased, but when I asked him if he was gay and thinking about the ministry, he started and mumbled that although he was not gay he had friends who were and who might be interested.
I walked away from the job fair with mixed feelings. I was pleased with the number of youth who were interested in ministry, but I was also struck anew about the church’s restrictions upon who could answer God’s calling and who could not. For my part, I will continue to put professional ministry out there as a worthwhile vocation, just as I will continue to fight for the right of all who are called to have the chance to serve.
Grace and Peace,