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Young, male and married: What search committees want

by John Dart

Churches seeking a new pastor tend to want a man under 40, preferably
married to a nonworking woman who volunteers on church committees. It's
a caricature, but only slightly so, says sociologist Adair Lummis, who
is describing not congregations from the 1950s, but those today. This
preference exists "even in those denominations which have ordained
women to full ministerial status for 50 years or more," according
to her little-publicized nationwide study.

The preference for a male may be unspoken or obliquely voiced by search
committees, especially in liberal Protestant denominations where "it
is totally unacceptable to refuse" pastor candidates because of gender,
race or ethnicity, and it is "frowned upon" to make age or marital
status an issue, said the study, published last year as part of the Pulpit
& Pew project at Duke Divinity School.

But Lummis, who works at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research,
said interviews with regional church officials in seven denominations
showed they "can guess quite well the search committee preferences."
As put by two unnamed officials she quoted:

They tell me they want "someone" in the pastor's family [meaning
a wife] "who can help with small groups or children's ministries."
I look at them and say, "Well, do you know that a third of our UMC
pastors are single now, and 50 percent of the people in the seminary are

If I send out a profile of a pastor who is mediocre along with a picture
of him with his family, and he is 35 years old, has a cute wife and two
beautiful children, I guarantee he will be interviewed if not called.

Though lay members of search committees may feel that to attract young
couples to church they at least need an under-50 clergyperson with church
experience, Lummis said the chances are relatively slim with so many older
students in theological schools. "Our average seminary graduate is
in his or her 40s, and our average UCC pastor is 57," said one regional
church official. "Everybody is looking for a 32-year-old with 15
years' experience--we have one [candidate who is both young and experienced]."

More important than gender or age is the pastor's sexual orientation,
Lummis wrote. Even in the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ,
where gay and lesbian pastors are sometimes permitted, "search committees
may not be so accepting," she said. Lay leaders that Lummis interviewed
in the fall of 2001 were forthcoming about why not, a number of them saying
that the congregation, to begin with, was not "open and affirming"
in relation to gays.

By contrast, another congregation that was officially open and affirming
said it wanted a pastor who agreed with that stance whether or not he
or she was gay. "We had a lesbian-partnered woman as interim, and
now we have a [heterosexual] black woman pastor who is a wonderful minister
to everyone here," the lay leader said.

Lummis said that regional leaders across denominations "also tend
to be exasperated with those search committees and congregations who say
they want a pastor who will 'grow their church,' but then do not want
to undertake the necessary changes for this to happen." One official
put it this way: "A lot of parishes say, 'We want younger people'--except
that younger people bring new ideas and that is what they do not want.
They want to incorporate younger people so that they can teach them the
ways of the old school."

That's not all. When trying to fill a pulpit vacancy, churches capable
of paying a full-time salary have expectations of finding a fine preacher
and spiritual leader, an innovator with good "people skills"
who can build consensus, and a person who will be devoted to ministry
pretty much around the clock.

The stereotype of a pastor on call 24-7 "is seriously questioned
today," Lummis wrote in her report, What Do Lay People Want in
"Clergy psychologists and others who have to deal with
clergy health problems and 'burnout' now strongly caution pastors that
to enhance their overall physical, mental and spiritual well-being and
maintain effectiveness as pastoral leaders, they must learn to maintain
boundaries, particularly between church work and private time."

Executives at regional denominational offices, whose authority varies
according to denomination, try to recruit pastors with the ability and
"self-assurance" to negotiate boundaries for personal and pastoral
time. One official advised: "If they are wishy-washy, they are going
to get walked all over in a lot of congregations. If they are strident
people, the congregations are not going to appreciate that either."

Lummis found plenty of search committees that encountered candidates lacking
that self-confidence ("Several members on our committee voted against
him because he would not make eye contact with us when he talked").
Some showed inordinate interest in other activities. One asked "whether
he could find a small farm so he could bring his [exotic animals] with
him." Another was rejected as "a person who wanted to play more
than work--a person who was also into sailing." Lummis indicated
that some lay leaders knew that a pastor with good time-management skills
could establish agreed-upon office hours or other policies that would
strike a reasonable balance.

Small churches, alas, cannot be so choosy. Fewer and fewer congregations
are able to pay a salary sufficient to support a pastor and his or her
family, Lummis said. Graduates with a M.Div. degree have a pile of debt
to pay off, a factor that virtually forces them to cross small churches
off the list. Moreover, any pastorate is difficult in rural areas since
a part-time job for pastor or spouse may be hard to come by.

One regional church official said bluntly: "The small churches that
cannot afford to pay even a beginning full-time pastoral salary in many
cases now are happy to get anyone with blood pressure of ten over five!
They are not very particular. They fall in love with some preacher who
'loves the Lord,' and that is the end of that."

As for ideas to help small congregations, Lummis discussed a) developing
financial supports and incentives from denominational sources, b) using
retired clergy, c) employing clergy from other denominations, d) ordaining
people to less-than-full clergy status and e) using lay pastoral leaders
or cluster teams of clergy and lay leaders.

Budget problems faced by small churches, and even larger ones, could be
alleviated if a new passion for tithing were to catch hold in church life,
said Anthony Pappas, an American Baptist area minister in southeastern
Massachusetts who commented in the study on Lummis's findings. Saying
that the average family in mainline congregations gives about 2.5 percent
instead of 10 percent, Pappas added, "How many small churches could
be players in the pastoral 'market' if spiritual passion and faithfulness
governed their priorities?"

Pappas also declared that too many seminary students are being equipped
to be "chaplains" for local churches rather than being prepared
as "entrepreneurs." That conclusion, he wrote, came from seven
years trying to place "some of the nicest, sweetest, caring-est persons
God ever created into congregations that desperately needed total transformation."

More advice came from William Chris Hobgood, top executive of the Christian
Church (Disciples of Christ), in his commentary printed in the Lummis
report. When he wrote his analysis, Hobgood was regional minister for
the Disciples in Washington, D.C., and a longtime consultant to the Alban
Institute. Hobgood called for some bold changes "in this important
postmainline time." He said that seminaries should prepare would-be
pastors for a "tent-making" option.

"We are today becoming more like the frontier church, where most
pastors had second jobs," Hobgood said, and alternatives to traditional
seminary degrees need to be further developed, and "they need to
be accorded real credibility and dignity."

First among Hobgood's recommendations, however, is to create "a massive
education program" especially for lay leaders, to convince them that
good pastors are available in the female gender and in all colors. "Sticking
with that bias for a 35-year-old man, married, etc.--unless challenged
directly--will leave many congregations without pastors in a few years,"
he said.

John Dart is the Century's news editor.

Copyright 2004 Christian Century. Reproduced by permission from the March
3, 2004 issue of the Christian Century. Subscriptions: $49/year from P.O.
Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097

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