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Survey: The new recruits

There’s no doubt about it. We need preachers in pulpits. But whose job is it to pull them in?

By Richard Wright

Does the church have enough ministers? Is the church doing what it needs to do to ensure that fresh faces continue to refill emptying pulpits? Of 1,700 respondents, 17 percent reported that their congregation is actively looking for a minister, although only three percent reported that they do not have a minister at this time. What does this tell us? 

It says that many congregations, more than one in 10, are thinking ahead.  

That’s prudent, says Catherine O’Brien, the United Church’s program co-ordinator of ministry personnel leadership, who confirms that there is a looming problem as an aging population of pastors reaches retirement age faster than new, younger pastors are recruited. While there is no mandatory retirement age, she points out, nearly half the current ranks of ordered ministry will reach age 65 within a decade. 

According to survey results, the crisis seems particularly acute in Atlantic Canada, where 21 percent of congregations are actively scouting for new talent. The Prairies and Quebec follow closely with respectively 20 and 19 percent of respondents reporting that their congregations are on the lookout. Ontario, at 14 percent, is least affected by the shortfall.

Whose job is it to attract new talent? Both ministers and individual church members responding to the survey strongly felt that they themselves, collectively and individually, had the lion’s share of responsibility for recruitment. 

Linda Thompson, a member of Annesley United in Markdale, Ont., is an experienced hand. She says she has personally approached other congregation members who show interest and promise, and urged them to take up the call. Five have, she proudly reports: “We’ve had the conversations, and I’ve said I would stand behind them if they chose to do it.” 

Thompson is somewhat extraordinary in this, according to the survey, which asked, if a rising star emerged from within the congregation, would you know how to nurture and encourage that individual? While nearly 80 percent of ministers said yes, only 20 percent of lay members felt the same confidence. 

This is a problem, says Rev. Stéphane Vermette, a relatively young minister at 40, who was installed in his first church, Trinity St. Andrews in Renfrew, Ont., just four years ago. Vermette says the support of congregations in Quebec City and Montreal was critical to him as he wrestled with and accepted the commitment to join the ministry. He clearly recalls congregation members saying, “I always knew you were cut out for this,” or talking to him about his progress through the discernment process. “It was very affirming,” he says. “Those little things can make a big difference.” 

Vermette’s experience is probably uncommon. In a related question, the survey asked respondents to rank seven careers — teacher, x-ray technician, lawyer, doctor, carpenter, artist and minister — in order of which they would recommend to a bright young light. The answers ranked minister fifth, ahead of lawyer and artist but after doctor, teacher, carpenter and x-ray technician. Some notable Christians have been carpenters, laughs Rev. Pat Lawson-Paul, the United Church’s program co-ordinator for vocations in ministry leadership. But, she adds, kidding aside, “It’s a sad statement for the church that we would encourage someone to become an x-ray technician before we would encourage them to be ministers. If there’s someone showing gifts and skills, and perhaps questioning what their career will be, I would have hoped that ministers would talk to them about ministry leadership.”

What about the role of church leadership in recruiting new blood? More disconcerting news from the survey: only 11 percent of respondents believe that church leadership is doing a good job. On the contrary, 40 percent of lay members believe that church leadership is not doing a good job, while 46 percent are unsure. Ministers, however, have a very definite opinion: a full 72 percent of clergy say the church is not doing enough to attract new ministers.

“We’re just not aggressive enough yet,” admits Mark Toulouse, principal of Emmanuel College, the United Church theological college in Toronto. 

Toulouse is one church leader who has seized the bull by the horns. Noting that the average age of divinity students at the college was 40-plus years, he hired a recruiter last September to beat the bushes for more and younger candidates. “It’s too early to see results, but we have a proactive plan,” says Toulouse. “We’ve held three open-house events which went quite well, and we are tracking prospects for the first time in a conscientious way.”

Lawson-Paul is hopeful the church will see more such initiatives. She notes that the General Council Executive turned its attention to this very issue in its May 2010 meeting, resolving to “put in place measures that give priority to recruitment, identification and support of ministry personnel, with a particular focus on a diverse new generation of leadership.” Amen to that, says Toulouse. “We have historically taken it for granted that the ministry will be taken care of, that we’ll always produce enough people who are interested. The last 20 years have shown that’s not the case.”

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