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Where are the young clergy?

With religious vocations among the young in steep decline, churches, synagogues, and seminaries are forced to confront their relevance.

By Jane Lampman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 19, 2001

For many years, America's mainline Protestant churches worried about the emptying pews, but now they face a new challenge - graying pulpits. The percentage of ordained clergy under the age of 35 in many denominations has dropped dramatically, as fewer young people enter the ministry.

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The mainline churches are not alone, however, and the declining appeal of a clerical career among Christian and Jewish youth in a country that considers itself religious raises questions about the future viability of the very institutions that have fostered that faith. Are they in a position to reverse that decline, and what might it take?

Religious communities and seminaries are starting to grapple with that question, and some working on the cutting edge foresee changes more radical, though not more bleak, than others may anticipate.

The current picture is unsettling. The Roman Catholic Church not only has fewer young men joining the priesthood, it is already grappling with a severe overall shortage. So far, the shortages for Protestant and Jewish denominations are largely in rural areas. Many middle-aged men and women have chosen ministry as a second career in recent decades, but that means fewer years of service before retirement.

"When I was in seminary in 1988, there was a glut of clergy," says the Rev. Bonnie Perry, the young rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Chicago. "Now people are waking up and realizing that everyone is going to retire [soon], and there is no one to take their places."

Just as crucial is the import of a younger clergy in attracting and keeping teens and young adults in congregations.

"It is a real challenge for the church in America, because your under-30s are the generation walking away from the church," says Edmund Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, Calif. "Very few in leadership really understand the Gen X and Gen Y generations, [which are] looking for a different kind of church."

The shrinking pool

Two recent studies highlight the stark picture. A survey of mainline churches by the Louisville Institute in Kentucky showed a startling change over the past 25 years: In 2000, ordained clergy 35 years or under represented only 4 to 8 percent of the totals (see chart), while in the mid-'70s, they constituted 20 to 25 percent.

A survey of students entering US seminaries in 1998, by Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, confirmed the profession's diminishing appeal among young adults compared with law and medicine. The average age of seminarians was 35, while that of law students was 26 and of medical students, 25. Roman Catholics are the oldest (averaging about 40 years), followed by mainline, evangelical, and rabbinical students (30 years).

"It appears evangelicals have an easier time attracting young people than mainline Protestants," says Barbara Wheeler, Auburn's president. "They have a much more vigorous network of youth and campus organizations."

Yet they, too, need to be concerned, says Dr. Gibbs. Within the evangelical community, he says, the leadership tends to be of the baby-boomer generation. "The mega-churches that attracted boomers in the '80s were very much performance-based entertainment, and you could come anonymously," he adds. "But your GenXers don't want anonymity and entertainment, they want involvement." Even the large churches need to set up alternative churches within them, he suggests.