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LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: Matt Seilback graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, but now he creates videos. He made a choice that an increasing number of seminary and divinity school graduates are being forced to do something other than being a pastor.

MATT SEILBACK: I had some interviews, but nothing ultimately panned out. Our film company that I started, our focus is to cultivate goodness, to uproot ugliness and cultivate goodness—and to show good in the world.

SEVERSON: Allen Sipe started looking for a pastoring job long before he graduated with a master’s degree three years ago. For now, he’s working as a shopping-mall security guard.

DIVINITY-GRADUATES-post01ALLEN SIPE: It’s disheartening. You know, you send out scores of resumes and get no answers.

SEVERSON: The reality is there are not nearly as many available jobs as pastors as there were even a few years ago. Seminaries and divinity schools have seen a drop in enrollment, and especially in the number of graduates who become pastors. There are several reasons, but the main one is that not as many people are attending mainline churches anymore. So there is less need and less money to afford a pastor. This is Greg Sterling, dean of the Yale Divinity School.

DEAN GREG STERLING (Yale Divinity School): There are about 300,000 congregations and churches in the United States. I don’t know what percentage of those are financially viable in the sense of having the capacity of supporting someone on a full-time basis, but my guess is that the majority are not.

SEVERSON: Yale Divinity School students come from several different denominations. Last year only one-in-five graduates went on to become church pastors. Sixteen percent became chaplains at hospitals and schools. About that many will teach in parochial and independent schools. A majority of the rest go to work for nonprofits, like Steven Masbach. Even as he completes his three-year master’s degree, he’s working for a church organization that builds affordable housing. He has a master’s in real estate development and was arranging financing for rich home buyers, but something was missing.

STEVEN MASBACH: Missing in the sense that when you’re giving financing to multimillionaires in New York City, and you’re saving them an eighth on their mortgage rate, you’re not really helping anyone but them.

DIVINITY-GRADUATES-post02SEVERSON: So he applied at Yale, and he’s received generous financial aid from the school. He won’t have a congregation, he says, but he’ll have a ministry: building affordable housing.

MASBACH: For me, being a pastor is something that’s sacred—that you have a calling that the Lord has placed on your heart. And I felt that my calling has been in the social sector in housing.

SEVERSON: Dean Sterling says is it is not unusual to have students who had promising careers but found it spiritually unsatisfying. Twenty percent of entering Yale Divinity School students hold advanced degrees, like Allyson McKinney, who has law and MBA degrees. She has worked as an international human rights lawyer specializing in women’s rights.

ALLYSON MCKINNEY: I realized that a lot of what I wanted to say about human rights and about women’s rights I wanted to say to my own faith community, because I believe that justice is the work of the church. It is a ministry that we’re called, as Christian believers, to be involved in.

SEVERSON: Enrollment in theological schools has been dropping since 2006. Dean Sterling says along with the declining membership in virtually all but the more conservative denominations, another big factor is student debt.

STERLING: You incur $50,000 in debt, through graduate school. But if your annual income is $35,000 a year, it’s an enormous sum.

DIVINITY-GRADUATES-post03SEVERSON: It’s the seminaries sponsored by individual mainline denominations that have taken the biggest hit in enrollment. Luther Seminary in St. Paul was forced to cut its faculty after losing enrollment the past five years. Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis is run by the Presbyterian Church in America, and some of its graduates are having a hard time finding jobs. Five years ago, Brian Brown moved his wife and four kids from Alabama and his job as an accountant to attend Covenant and become a pastor.

BRIAN BROWN: I was always thinking there’s going to be a job at the end of this, you know. That was the hope and that was—and that’s the desire. It’s still the desire.

SEVERSON: Now, a year after graduation, he’s working two part-time jobs. His wife works full-time. Brown is struggling to make ends meet and to find a church that wants him and can afford a pastor.

BRIAN BROWN: Churches depend on the giving of others for their support and for paying for the ministry that is done. So as other people suffer in the economy, it trickles down.

STERLING: These students genuinely feel that existentially they have been challenged by God to serve people. How are they going to do that if they can’t be supported by one of these churches?

SEVERSON: The Lilly Endowment, which is the main funder of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, also sponsors a program to subsidize the salary for the first two years of some new pastors, like Corinne Ellis. She will leave Yale for a small church in Iowa.

DIVINITY-GRADUATES-post04CORINNE ELLIS: I’ve seen the impact that God has had on my life and the lives of people I love, and I want to share that and help build that for other people.

SEVERSON: Increasingly students are planning on holding onto whatever careers and training they had before, and after they graduate becoming part-time pastors. It’s the new reality of smaller congregations.

STERLING: I think people are distrustful of institutions, religious institutions, political institutions.

SEVERSON: Donna Desilus had an MBA from Harvard before she came to Yale Divinity. She thinks she knows the problem and the solution.

DONNA DESILUS: I think to the degree that we can connect people spiritually, then the churches thrive, because people want to experience God. So when the church helps people experience God, the church has members. When the church doesn’t help people experience, then I think the church doesn‘t have members.

STERLING: I’ve said to the students, I said to them this fall when they first matriculated, “You will write the future of Christianity. I don’t know what it will look like. I’m sure it will be different than it is today, but you will write that history, and we’re here to prepare you to write that history.”

ELLIS: I think church is going to change in the future. I don’t think, you know, denominations as they exist today are going to exist the same way in 20 years. I think the church is changing and has to change, and I think it’s exciting to be part of that.

SEVERSON: The exciting part hasn’t materialized for Brian Brown yet. He and his family continue to hang on. He’s still sending out resumes, still has faith that someone up there is going to help him find a job as a pastor.

BROWN: The decision to move my family and go after this was really the following of a call, and I couldn’t have done this and my wife couldn’t have done this with us together without an understanding of this is what we believe is my calling.

SEVERSON: Allen Sipe is still looking. He thinks churches won’t hire him because he’s 57-years-old, and they can get a much younger pastor.

SIPE: I’ll do whatever I have to do. I have a wife to support. I have bills like everybody else. I will do what I need to do. That’s why I’m walking around the mall. But until I can’t breathe anymore, I’m going to continue looking for opportunities to be able to teach and to be able to preach and to work with people. That’s because that’s what I am. It’s not just what I do. It’s what I am.

SEVERSON: Dean Sterling says the number of students going into ministry reached its nadir three years ago when only half as many graduates as in the past entered the ministry. He says that number is improving, but doesn’t believe it will ever get back to what it was.

For Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, this is Lucky Severson in New Haven.

Diminishing Job Prospects for Protestant Pastors

  • Lilith

    The mega churches seem to be growing, but they are a cult like situation and need not a minister, but a good entertainer who demands good money and even a grand style of living. There are associate ministers under them to do the real ministering–and I wonder what they actually make.
    Now that people are beginning to think more for themselves and not letting a church tell them what to believe, there are more and more break away churches who are usually small and cannot afford to support a fulltime minister-let alone one with a decent salary. Buildings are expensive to keep up, too. I know of one building that has an alter for the Christian services and it turns around to become an Ark for Jewish services on their Shabbat. There is that need to conserve funds and work together in order to survive.
    Yes, religion is changing, and I think that is good. I think it is good that people are beginning to take their religion into their own hands.

  • Dedangelo

    As a current seminarian, you might imagine I too am nervous about this. I hope to find at least part-time work as a chaplain and reactivate my counseling license.

  • C Watts

    This story breaks my heart for younger ministers and those whose heart’s desire is to serve a church. I find it very sad that there are such diminishing opportunities. I had hoped one of my children would go into the ministry but I am reluctant to encourage any of them to consider such a decision. I am thankful for the opportunities I have had to do such meaningful work.

  • jon

    Thankfully the building of His church and the fulfillment of the Great Commision is not restricted to the “mainline denominations.”

  • jon

    Thankfully the building of His church and the fulfillment of the Great Commision is not restricted to the “mainline denominations.”

  • jon

    Thankfully the building of His church and the fulfillment of the Great Commision is not restricted to the “mainline denominations.”

  • jon

    Thankfully the building of His church and the fulfillment of the Great Commision is not restricted to the “mainline denominations.”

  • jon

    Thankfully the building of His church and the fulfillment of the Great Commision is not restricted to the “mainline denominations.”

  • jon

    Thankfully the building of His church and the fulfillment of the Great Commision is not restricted to the “mainline denominations.”

  • jon

    Thankfully the building of His church and the fulfillment of the Great Commision is not restricted to the “mainline denominations.”

  • jon

    Thankfully the building of His church and the fulfillment of the Great Commision is not restricted to the “mainline denominations.”

  • jon

    Thankfully the building of His church and the fulfillment of the Great Commision is not restricted to the “mainline denominations.”

  • jon

    Thankfully the building of His church and the fulfillment of the Great Commision is not restricted to the “mainline denominations.”

  • jon

    Thankfully the building of His church and the fulfillment of the Great Commision is not restricted to the “mainline denominations.”

  • Granny Nerd

    Every year about this time — graduation time — media publishes articles about “diminishing job opportunities” for nearly every undergraduate and graduate degree there is. MDiv and DMin degrees are no different. For centuries, pastors have known that at some points they will probably be bivocational — even St. Paul was bivocational.

  • Granny Nerd

    Every year about this time — graduation time — media publishes articles about “diminishing job opportunities” for nearly every undergraduate and graduate degree there is. MDiv and DMin degrees are no different. For centuries, pastors have known that at some points they will probably be bivocational — even St. Paul was bivocational.

  • Roger D. Miller

    The “dirty little secret” that is never shared in Protestant Seminaries is that there are only two kinds of pastors: those that have been fired, and those who are going to be.

  • Roger D. Miller

    The “dirty little secret” that is never shared in Protestant Seminaries is that there are only two kinds of pastors: those that have been fired, and those who are going to be.

  • Mark

    Interesting piece! There’s another side to this story, and that’s the entitlement that many seminary graduates have of working only in churches that fit their exact specifications (either that or they plant one so they can “create their own church culture”). I’m a pastor that was able to find a job quickly after graduating seminary because I opened myself to any church in my denomination throughout the US and Canada. I have classmates who graduated with me a few years ago and are still looking for jobs, but that’s not because of a scarcity of opportunities. It’s partially because they’re not willing to move and only want to serve a certain type of church. In this sense, pastors can be just as guilty of the consumer mentality as their parishioners.

  • http://www.midamericacenterforministry.org Fran Schnarre

    While the number of churches that can afford full-time seminary-educated ministers declines, there is a growing need for part-time bi-vocational pastors, persons who go into ministry in retirement, or even full-time pastors that do not have the burden of paying for an expensive graduate education. Men and women who have varied life experiences can be quite capable ministers, given proper training. The Mid-America Center for Ministry provides this training for mainline pastors through distance education. http://www.midamericacenterforministry.org.

    a few seconds ago · Like

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  • Jason from Canada

    The problem with this video and the attitudes behind a lot of seminary graduates is that being a pastor is synonymous with getting a job. A biblical understanding of a pastor is someone who leads a group of people spiritually. The most prominent idea of a pastor/elder in the scriptures is that of a shepherd. This is the farthest thing from a “job”! The need for people in North America today to hear the gospel and be shepherded spiritually exists whether or not you get compensation for it. If the gospel and the shepherding of God’s people is really at the heart of who a pastor is, then they will find a way to minister, regardless of any other work that needs to be done to pay the bills.