VOL 5, NO 2
THE CHANGING ROLE OF CLERGY
Several years ago, Rev. Michael Ross
stepped down as pastor of a Nazarene church on the west side of Indianapolis
after only a brief tenure. “It wasn’t a good fit,” Ross says. “There was a lot
of tension and so I resigned—probably before I was kicked out.” After that, he
took time off to recover and “try to find my identity.”
During this sabbatical, something odd happened. He began to get calls
from pastors who wanted to leave the ministry themselves. “I was hoping they
would call to empathize with me,” he says, “but more called to congratulate
me. And then I began to realize that some significant things are happening in
Three years ago, Ross started the Indianapolis-based
Pastor’s Institute to help clergy who have recently left the ministry. The Institute
sponsors a series of gatherings in cities across the nation, where
from 8 to 12 ex-ministers meet and share their stories. “Healing takes place,”
said Ross, who leads the sessions. “They leave with permission to
make good choices about their future.”
The Institute conducts an ongoing survey of former
clergy to learn their reasons for leaving the ministry. (The survey is posted
online at www.pastorsinfocentral.com.) More
than 100 people have responded to date. From their responses, and
from what he has learned at the gatherings of former clergy, Ross
concludes that his original insight that “some significant things are happening
in the pastorate” has been confirmed.
“The biggest response I get is that pastors feel
like they’re running a small nonprofit organization—they’re managers, not
shepherds,” Ross said. The demand that clergy possess the skills of a corporate
executive “puts the pastor in a mode of running a business and trying to make
the business grow.
“The church has a counterpart to everything,” he said. “The world has bookstores, TV
stations, entertainment, so we’ll have those things too.
We’ll have a Christian Yellow Pages. It’s competition, and you get
tired of it, so you just say no. Burnout isn’t the issue. It’s disillusionment.
It’s the feeling that the role of clergy has changed, and you don’t
buy into it anymore.”
For all of the discontent that Ross’s research has turned up, there
is no looming shortage of clergy. In most denominations, there is
an oversupply. Two sociologists at the University of Notre Dame, however, recently
argued that the oversupply actually reflects a loss in the “occupational prestige”
of the ministry.
In the 1970s, the nation’s social-service sector created millions
of new jobs, and many people who once would have enrolled in seminary
instead entered social-service work. The vacuum created by their absence was
filled by a large number of “nontraditionals”—older students seeking to enter
the ministry as a second career, and women, who now compose
about 10 percent of the clerical ranks. In some seminaries, women
students are now a majority. In the view of some, seminaries began
admitting second and third-tier students because the first-tier students pursued
These trends—the changing responsibilities of clergy and the rising number of
nontraditional seminarians—have combined to create ferment and uncertainty within
Both clergy and Americans in general say that clergy should serve as a prophetic
presence in American culture. According to a recent survey conducted in Indianapolis
by The Polis Center, more than three-fourths of residents believe
clergy should have at least a moderate amount of influence on civic affairs.
But other evidence suggests that clergy feel strong pressure to confine themselves
to matters directly affecting their congregations.
In her dissertation, political scientist Sue Crawford reported that
Indianapolis clergy are pulled in different directions regarding community activism:
denominational leaders encourage it, while congregation members discourage
it. Crawford said that the majority of congregational outreach consists of what
she called “gapfilling” activity—for example, providing food and monetary
assistance to the poor. Only a small minority of the clergy in her study were
involved in activism that aimed to accomplish social reform or promote a legislative
Comparing the level of modern clergy activism with that of earlier eras is difficult, in
the absence of hard data. The evidence from the decades of the social gospel
movement (1890s - 1910s) and even from the civil rights movement (1950s - 1960s)
is largely anecdotal. It can be misleading to generalize about the role of clergy
based on examples of a few well-known activist clergy from earlier times.
Since the 1960s, the general trend within American religion has been
toward conservatism. As Crawford notes, conservatives tend to invest
their time and effort in programs that “target individual outcomes” rather than
social reform. Clergy in Indianapolis today are less activist, probably, than
clergy in previous generations. This decline is rooted in a variety of factors—among
them, a theological emphasis on the individual over the social, the
increasing amount of time clergy spend on administrative tasks, and
a perceived demand by congregations that clergy focus on members and their needs.
As well, the rise of other activists, such as lobbyists
and community organizers, has reduced the need, perhaps, for
clergy to be politically active.
But tending to their own congregations has been the primary focus of clergy
for most of this city’s history.
“After all that I’ve read and seen from the data, I’m not convinced that the
role of the clergy has shifted much,” said Bill Mirola, a sociologist at Marian
College who conducted The Polis Center’s survey. “I don’t think Indianapolis
ever had the kind of social gospel commitment that, say, Chicago had. This city
does not have a significant community organizing tradition.”
Mirola said that in the past, “We looked to the clergy as a source
of commentary on what was going on in the community—or at least we expected
to hear from them as moral arbiters. Now that role is filled by politicians, community
leaders, and academics. If there happen to be clergy among them, that’s
fine. If not that’s fine. It depends on what the issue is.”
Sue E.S. Crawford, Clergy at Work in the
Secular City (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1995).
Chang, Patricia M.Y. and Viviana Bompadre,
“Crowded Pulpits: Observations and Explanations of the Clergy Oversupply in
the Protestant Churches, 1950-1993,” Journal for the Scientific Study of
Religion, September 1999.
James L. Guth, et al., The Bully
Pulpit. The Politics of Protestant Clergy (University Press of Kansas,
William A. Mirola, “Religious Attitudes in
Indianapolis: A Survey,” Research Notes (The Polis Center), May 2000.
William A. Mirola, “Indianapolis Clergy:
Private Ministries, Public Figures,” Research Notes (The Polis Center),
Olson, Laura, Sue E.S. Crawford and James
L. Guth, “Changing Issue Agendas of Women Clergy,” Journal for the Scientific
Study of Religion, June 2000.
SUPPORTING THE CALL: Foundations and the Clergy
The ministry is both alike and utterly unlike
other professions. One may honorably and effectively pursue a career in other
fields without having a vocation—a profound, felt calling—for the
work. As a servant of God, a member of the clergy is presumed to have
experienced a calling to that role.
Ministry is alike other professions in that it requires
years of training and education—at the end of which the candidate enters into
service that is unusually demanding, and often poorly rewarded. There
are any number of practical reasons not to enter the ministry; though aspiring
candidates may be uniquely dedicated, they require support and encouragement
to get there. It is in recognition of the obstacles, and of the part
played by religion in shaping society, that charitable foundations
have come to play a major role in the cultivation and support of clergy.
“Religion is a critical part of American culture,” says Jan Shipps, professor
emeritus of Religion at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. “A
decline in the quality of the clergy is an issue that is bound to concern everyone.”
The Fund for Theological Education was founded in 1953 to address a perceived
crisis in the recruitment of Protestant clergy. Nathan Pusey, president
of Harvard University, and Henry Pitney Van Dusen, president
of Union Theological Seminary, sought support from the Rockefeller
Brothers Fund to underwrite a “trial year” of divinity school for promising
but undecided candidates for the ministry. The program’s purpose was and continues
to be to identify, support, and develop fresh talent for
Christian ministry. In 1959, the Fund established a second program
called the Rockefeller Doctoral Fellowships, designed to support outstanding
young scholars who might be lured to teach in schools of theology and divinity.
In recent years, the Fund for Theological
Education fell on hard times, only to be revived by an infusion of
funds from Lilly Endowment Inc. Based in Indianapolis, Lilly Endowment
has become the foremost supporter of programs to enhance the recruitment, training, and
support of clergy. (Other major contributors in the field include the Booth
Ferris Foundation, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the
Pew Charitable Trusts.) Recently, Lilly Endowment announced that it
would be granting $90 million to colleges and universities around the country, “to
examine how faith commitments can affect decisions young people make about their
The Endowment’s efforts in the area of religion have two main goals, says
spokesperson Gretchen Wolfram: the calling, nurturing, educating, and
supporting of clergy; and building vital congregations. “The two are very much
intertwined,” says Wolfram.
For the past half century, schools of theology have labored under
the suspicion that they no longer attract the best and brightest students. The
public realm has grown increasingly secular, and clergy no longer
command the respect and authority they once did, neither as public
figures nor as the leaders of their flocks. The average age of clergy is climbing, as
is the age at which new candidates for the ministry are entering seminary.
“I hear people speak of a demographic shift,” says Michael Smith, director
of field ministry at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. “We have
more who are coming after a career change.” Smith says that the average age
of incoming students at CTS is 40, with some students being in their
“Lilly’s major concern is the dearth of young people
going into ministry,” Wolfram says. “Look at other professions: the percentage
of lawyers under the age of 35 hasn’t changed. The percentage of clergy under
35 has dropped precipitously.”
No one doubts that talented and committed people of an older age are entering
the clergy, Wolfram says. But there are some in this category who
may view the profession as “undemanding.” She cites William H. Willimon, dean
of the Duke University Chapel, who has spoken of seminary students
who “appear to be attracted to the church as some kind of secure living. You
know, someone who says, ‘After my third divorce, I
thought about, well, why not seminary?’ ”
Shipps says that an emphasis on formal training has had the perhaps unintended
consequence of “professionalizing” the clergy. For this reason, some
are calling for a rededication to “the culture of the call.” The importance
of attracting the young to the ministry comes down to a matter of passion. According
to the noted preacher and scholar Dr. Thomas G. Long, the need is
to attract those who will view ministry as “a thrilling whitewater ride down
the river of human experience.”
In a recent initiative, Lilly Endowment
awarded $14 million to theological schools to develop programs for high school
youth. Calvin College, a Christian institution in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recruits
high school juniors judged to be outstanding in academic and leadership abilities.
The program invites the students to spend two weeks on the Calvin campus, and
two weeks in Israel, with the aim of persuading them to consider the
ministry as a career. Duke’s Willimon says this program gives the church a chance
to say to talented young people, “God is telling us to tell you that
we need you to become leaders.”
SCHOOLS OFFERING CLERGY TRAINING IN INDIANAPOLIS
Indianapolis is home to a highly regarded seminary, and
to a number of other colleges and universities offering religious education
and training for clergy.
Christian Theological Seminary
(CTS) offers eight graduate-level degree programs leading to the Master of Divinity
degree, the Doctor of Ministry degree, and Master of Arts
degrees in Christian education, church music, pastoral counseling, marriage
& family therapy, theological studies, and sacred theology.
CTS originated as the College of Religion at Butler University in 1925, associated
with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In 1958, Christian
Theological Seminary assumed its present name when it was reconstituted as an
independent entity and relocated to its own campus in the Butler-Tarkington
area. The school maintains its affiliation with the Disciples of Christ, but
is ecumenical in orientation, with over 30 denominations represented
among its students.
As is true of other seminaries around the country, CTS is experiencing
a demographic shift in the students it attracts: they are older, and
slightly more than half are women. The average age is 40. Many are second-career
people coming from fields such as law, education, and the
nonprofit sector, says Michael Smith, the school’s director
of field education. The majority of students intend to enter the ministry or
related fields such as church music or mission work.
Indiana Bible College, located
in the former University Heights Hospital on the south side of Indianapolis, is
affiliated with Calvary Tabernacle Church, a United Pentecostal denomination.
White it is not a seminary, Indiana Bible College offers a bachelor’s
degree in theology. Enrollment is 255 and climbing steadily, according
to David Brown, dean of students. The students are generally young, just
out of high school or in their early 20s. About half are female.
Crossroads Bible College, on
the east side of Indianapolis, offers bachelor’s degrees in pastoral
studies, elementary education, international mission, urban
ministries, Biblical counseling and youth ministries. Its background
is Baptist, although it has no denominational affiliation. While the
college was established to serve older, married, working
students, the students are getting younger, according to
President Charles Ware. About 40 percent are female. Enrollment is 223. The
school started out predominately African-American, but is now 46 percent
white. “Our desire is to have a multi-ethnic school,” Ware says.
Heritage Baptist University
in Greenwood is an Independent Baptist Bible college, established
in 1955. In addition to undergraduate degrees in Biblical studies, pastoral
studies, mission, education and sacred music, it
offers the Master of Divinity degree. Enrollment this year is 120. Student demographics
haven’t changed much over the past several years, according to Jeremy
Wilhelm, the school’s registrar. About 60 percent are the students
are full time, and they’re seeing a few more middle-aged students.
Martin University offers a bachelor’s
degree in religious studies, and graduate programs in urban ministry, pastoral
counseling, religious education, parish ministry, and
advanced Biblical studies. About 25 percent of students in the graduate programs
are active clergy seeking an advanced degree. Sixty percent are female; 70
percent are African-American. Total school enrollment is 650. Enrollment is
up, according to Wayne Smith, chair of the graduate program
for urban ministry, and the student population is getting younger.
Because the school has a mission to reach out to the poor, he says, “many
students have unresolved issues,” such as the death of loved ones or witnessing
violence. “We are focusing more intentionally on healing,” says Smith. “Because
we have smaller classes—15 to 25 per class—we can take a more personalized approach.”
Kathy Whyde Jesse
TAUGHT BY CONGREGATIONS: How Clergy are Being
Trained on the Job
We expect our clergy to be educated, both in
the general sense and in ways specific to their calling. Their charge is to
teach as well as counsel and lead by moral example. This expectation is common
to all great religions. Rabbi means teacher—Jesus was called rabbi—and
imam connotes a scholar. The great universities of Europe were founded
by or regarded as being in service to the Catholic Church. In America, the Puritan
preachers who led the first English settlements came with degrees from Oxford
or Cambridge and they founded our first universities; the original mission of
Harvard and Yale, among others, was for the education of clergy.
Among mainline denominations, a pattern
developed for the education of clergy similar to that of other professions, such
as medicine or law: an undergraduate degree in the liberal arts; followed by
graduate training in a seminary or school of theology; then ordination and posting
to a congregation as pastor. This is still the model, though increasingly
clergy are receiving training within the congregations they serve.
Fundamentalist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal denominations—the
most rapidly growing segment among Christian churches—have traditionally allowed
ordination by individual congregations, without requiring formal seminary
training for clergy. As these denominations mature, however, they
are moving toward more formal structures and requirements, while continuing
to train their clergy within congregations.
Some mainline churches, meanwhile, are moving to identify, nurture, and
support potential candidates for the ministry within their congregations. Whether
mainline or not, the more ambitious programs for in-house clergy training
tend to be located in large congregations having significant resources.
Debra Peoples-White is associate pastor of Christian education and programs
at Light of the World Christian Church. A predominantly African-American congregation
of the mainline Disciples of Christ denomination, Light of the World
is one of the largest churches in Indianapolis. The church’s Ecumenical Covenant
Christian Fellowship program, she says, attracts lay people
“who think they may have a calling.”
Participants in the program range in age from high schoolers to at least one
octogenarian. The fellowship meets twice a month for training in prison ministry, youth
ministry, and other outreach and service programs. There is a separate
“seminary track” for those who intend to go into regular ministry. The training
is practical and hands-on.
“We don’t question people’s calling,” says White. “Through exposure to the real
world of ministry—visiting the sick or prisoners, or academic study—the
fellowship tends to weed out those who discover that it wasn’t what they thought.”
There are currently about 50 people in the fellowship; most are from the congregation.
The success of the program may be judged by the number of people from Light
of the World now in seminary or serving in the ministry. In addition to those
attending other seminaries, there are currently 10 from the congregation
studying at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. White says she doesn’t
know the exact figure, but there are “more than 20” currently active
clergy who came from the congregation of Light of the World.
The rapid growth of independent, evangelical churches has had a profound
effect on the training of clergy. Historically, evangelicals have
not followed the traditional path of college and divinity school to ordination.
The Pentecostal movement that originated early in the 20th century placed a
premium on direct apprehension of the Holy Spirit, rather than formal
As the evangelical movement has matured, however, it
too has moved in the direction of providing more training and education for
its clergy, by developing its own institutions and innovative programs.
Brian Peters is pastor of education at Community Church of Greenwood, a
large independent congregation in a suburb of Indianapolis. As with many evangelical
congregations, Community Church “grows its own,” with a variety of
training and educational programs.
Community Church serves as one of six satellite campuses for Trinity Evangelical
Divinity School, a fully-accredited institution in Illinois. “The
TEDS program is aimed at those who are currently full-time pastors,” says Peters.
Most of the students come from outside the congregation, mainly from
independent churches in the area.
“These pastors have been ordained by their congregations or denominations,”
Peters says, “though they have not received a degree from a school
of divinity. This program allows them to receive a masters degree while continuing
to work as pastors.”
Students can take all required courses for the Master of Divinity degree at
Community Church, but for one three hour course which much be taken
at the Chicago campus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
“There is a growing recognition that lay people bring life experience to ministry
that can’t be learned in school,” says Peters. “People in the congregation can
relate better to someone who has worked in business and dealt with life issues, just
as they have—rather than someone who has spent his whole life inside the church.”
Peters says that while he is pastor of education, he doesn’t have
a divinity degree. “I was trained as a lawyer, and practiced law for
ten years.” He will, he says, be taking courses in theology
and ministry through the TEDS program.
Community Church doesn’t just train new clergy—in some cases, it provides
them with a congregation.
“We have a program where we grow new churches within this congregation,” says
Peters. “We have 12 daughter churches and several granddaughter churches. It’s
not formalized, but it’s a very intentional effort.”
He says that the church generally has at all times a church “planter” on staff.
“They work here for a year or two before starting their own church.” Typically
the planter comes from outside the congregation.
“Pastor Charles Lake tries to keep our membership at around 2,000,” Peters
says. “We don’t want to be any bigger than that. The planter is identified as
such to our people, and at the right time we will say, ‘Here
is the location of the new church, and you know who the pastor will
be—pray about it.’ Every two or three years, 50 to 100 of our members
will leave with the planter to found a new congregation.”
Jim Mathias is pastor of Midtown Vineyard Community
Church, an independent congregation that he planted after serving
a three year apprenticeship at Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Indianapolis.
Mathias previously worked in business. He has taken courses through Trinity
Evangelical Divinity School, but doesn’t hold a divinity degree.
The general route to ordination in Vineyard churches, he says, is
to be licensed as a lay minister, then to serve three years in a congregation
in an assistant capacity. At the end of that period, the candidate
is examined by ordained ministers, after which he may be ordained
by the congregation.
“Vineyard is a church planting movement,” he notes. “Eventually, I
will be looking to train someone.”
Dan Mosely, professor of practical parish
ministry at Christian Theological Seminary, had a full career as a
working pastor—which makes him somewhat of an anomaly in the academic world
of the seminary.
“I occupy a chair created to bring actual preachers into the seminary,” he
says. “Generally, Ph.D.s in specific academic fields teach in seminaries.
I have a Doctorate of Ministry rather than a Ph.D.”
He says that many clergy today are “like deer caught in the headlights. They
have a stunned look.” Ministry, he says, is “the only profession
where you get your degree and are then supposed to be able to do it without
apprenticeship. It’s almost like a hazing process.”
Mosely says that judicatories are beginning to recognize that seminaries alone
can’t create effective pastors. “The churches abdicated to the seminaries, at
a time when the seminaries were an arm of the church,” he says. “Now seminaries
are part of the academy. The churches are going to have to reclaim their role, and
find new ways of training their pastors, with the seminaries supplanting
“I was a pastor for 30 years,” he concludes. “I was taught by congregations.”
PRODUCTS FROM THE PROJECT ON RELIGION AND
The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis
Falling Toward Grace: Images of Religion and Culture
from the Heartland
Voices of Faith: Making a Difference in Urban Neighborhoods
Atlas of Indianapolis Religion
Sacred Circles and Public Squares
See You in Church?: Religion and Culture in Urban America
Rising Expectations: Urban Congregations, Welfare Reform,
and Civic Life
A Public Charity: Religion and Social Welfare in Indianapolis
Souls of the City: Metropolitan Growth and Religious
Change in America
Religion as a Window on Culture
Faith and Community in Broadripple
Religion and Public Life will be an 11-part series examining three main themes:
The Indianapolis Religious Landscape; Private Faith and Public Lives; and Religion’s
Place in the City. The videos will constitute a basic curriculum on the role
of religion in public life.
Falling Toward Grace (an expanded selection of photographs from the book, exhibited
at the Indianapolis Museum of Art; also at the Indianapolis Art Center.)
Covenant: Living in the Presence
of God, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Fall
Religion and American Community: Teaching the Role of
Religion in American History (published on The Polis Center Web site)
Ten Good Questions About Faith-based Partnerships and
Faith & Community: A Historic Walking Tour
Neighborhood Timelines (4 issues)
Prologue: The Role of Religion in Shaping 20th Century
Indianapolis (6 issues, published on The Polis Center Web site)
Religion & Community (7 issues)
Responsive Communities (19 issues)
Research Notes (12 issues)
Clergy Notes (26 issues)
The Project has produced a rich database, with
information on over 400 of the 1,200 congregations in Marion County; the database
is now being prepared for use by outside researchers.
Spirit and Place Festival
In partnership with other
local institutions, The Polis Center initiated and sponsors the Spirit
and Place Festival each November. The festival features nationally known
authors as well as local artists, writers, dancers, and
performers who creatively explore the links between spirituality, creativity, and
community in Indianapolis.