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The Great American Clergy Shortage Is Coming

Religious groups across the country are currently witnessing its clergy members step down from the pulpit without a replacement ready to take their spot in vast numbers.

Among various religious groups, congregations are doing what they can to operate without an official lead clergy member. Roughly 3,544 Catholic parishes in the U.S. lack a parish priest, and in some dioceses, as many as six parishes share one priest. In the Reformed Jewish denomination, between 5 and 10 percent more congregations are searching for a rabbi than in a normal year. A few Lutheran churches in America have begun to search for pastors in other denominations because there’s such a large shortage.

Those are just a few examples of religious groups seeking clergy members, and struggling to find someone. Though there isn’t an official national registry for clergy in America, an October study from the Barna Group found that 38 percent of pastors were at least considering leaving full-time ministry. Worryingly, the concern is even higher among Millennial pastors, roughly 50 percent of whom were considering quitting.

Among the reasons for leaving, clergy members claim that the job, which has always been demanding, grew to be unbearable during the pandemic. Relationships were frayed due to deepening political divisions within the Church and fights over social distancing protocols, which more led to pastors struggling to keep themselves and their churches above water.

Peter Chin, a pastor in Seattle, spoke about the grueling workload to the Wall Street Journal, saying, “I love to see real change in people’s lives where they don’t feel hope or don’t feel community. I still find a lot of joy in that. But the scale of it, versus the controversy over mandates, political disagreements, expectations that come with pastoring even in the best scenarios—it feels lopsided now.”

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Contributing to the shortage is senior pastors retiring. Studies show that seminaries are shrinking, as fewer young people go to seminary to become pastors or clergy members. That number has been shrinking for over a decade, but it’s catching up quicker as the pandemic has pushed more pastors to retire earlier. Alternatively, it’s also pushed some pastors to come out of retirement to lead their congregations.

One study from Lifeway argues that there hasn’t been a huge increase in how many clergy are leaving the profession, but the number of ministry leaders stepping down from the pulpit is undoubtedly faster than those stepping up to it. As pandemic pressures continue on, it’s uncertain who will be left to lead local churches.

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