Factors Shaping Clergy Careers: A Wakeup Call for Protestant Denominations and Pastors Summary | Pulpit and Pew
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Factors Shaping Clergy Careers: A Wakeup Call for Protestant Denominations and Pastors

By Patricia M.Y. Chang

In Factors Shaping Clergy Careers, Patricia M. Y. Chang examines the careers of Protestant clergy in the United States, taking a look at the typical clergy career path, prospects for advancement and other issues. While ministry is a unique vocation in which most practitioners view themselves as called by God, clergy also tend to think about and evaluate their work in much the same way as do people in other occupations. In many ways, they think of their ministries as both a calling and a career that they pursue to meet certain financial and other obligations.

In the first section of her report, Chang addresses the organizational constraints that shape clergy careers, pointing out how opportunities for clergy employment and promotion are influenced by such factors as supply and demand and organizational boundaries. Most denominations, she contends, are pyramid-shaped "structures of opportunity." At the top are senior pastor positions at large churches, below which are associate and sole pastors of medium sized churches and then sole pastors of small churches, assistant pastors and the newly ordained.

Chang finds that the clergy career pyramid is being affected by two trends she noted in an earlier Pulpit & Pew report: an overall decline in the number of large churches in the U.S. and an increase in the number of small churches that cannot afford to hire a full time pastor. As a result of these trends, Chang concludes, most clergy will spend the majority of their working lives in mid-career positions as assistant or associate pastors or pastors of small and medium-sized churches with limited opportunities to advance to senior pastor positions. At the same time, newly ordained seminarians will have fewer chances to be hired into these positions since they will be competing with clergy who already have several years' experience. Newly ordained men and women face a job market that funnels them into the most challenging positions: multi-point charges, small churches, part-time positions and non-parish positions.

According to Chang, data suggests that seminary graduates face a tighter labor market than a generation ago. Roughly 35 percent of graduates will be unable to find suitable parish work within the first two years after seminary. Some will take secular jobs and eventually be able to move into churches, but a third of those who start out in secular work will remain there. Of those who find parish positions after graduation, many are likely to be in the most challenging churches, those with smaller memberships and smaller budgets.

Chang also addresses the professional status of clergy and suggests that comparisons to law and medicine may not be appropriate. Clergy lack many characteristics of those professions such as the ability to regulate, supervise and discipline their fellow practitioners and to act together as an occupational group. Instead, clergy are a unique occupational class in that they are extraordinarily dependent upon a single organization-i.e., their respective denominations-for training, work environment and career outcomes.

Those loyalties, however, are asymmetrical. While clergy are socialized to act within and uphold the norms, values, beliefs and doctrines of a particular religious body, many denominations in turn have few mechanisms to support clergy and are unable to guarantee lifelong employment or provide health and dental insurance and retirement benefits.

In the second half of her report, Chang draws upon data gathered in two earlier studies to further analyze clergy career patterns and the effects of clergy supply and demand imbalance. She finds that a relatively high percentage of clergy remain in assistant and associate pastor and sole pastorate positions late in their careers and that a large number of clergy work in secular jobs throughout their careers. An increasing number of clergy are also working in non-parish positions. She suggests that denominations take a proactive approach to this development either by working to keep non-parish ministers connected to the church or helping to guide them in these vocational choices.

Regarding senior pastor positions, Chang estimates the likelihood of becoming a senior pastor (supervising other clergy and/or lay staff members) as quite low-about a 1 percent chance in most denominations, with slightly better odds in smaller denominations. Men have twice the chance of becoming a senior pastor than do women, while married clergy have a 50 percent greater chance than unmarried clergy.

The report also includes commentaries from three church leaders knowledgeable about clergy career issues. Robert Dale of the Center for Creative Church Leadership Development offers several practical suggestions for rethinking clergy careers and finding new ways to cultivate ministers. James A. Meek, a former administrator and faculty member at Covenant Theological Seminary (Presbyterian Church in America), challenges Chang's use of a pyramid metaphor to describe clergy career paths and its assumption that upward mobility is the goal of clergy careers. He disagrees, among other things, with her conclusions about a limited job market for clergy and notes that a large number of seminary students never intend to be in parish ministry. Matthew Price, director of analytic research for the Church Pension Group of the Episcopal Church, agrees with much of the report but finds its explanatory framework inadequate.

Open the full report in Adobe Acrobat format (1.15 MB)

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