Thursday, October 17, 2002

Where have all the Pastors gone?

In the late 50s, Pete Seeger wrote Where have all the flowers gone? It was a very melancholy song, made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary, about young girls, who used to pick flowers, marrying young men. The young men went off to war and ended up dead in foreign graveyards. The flowers are gone; the young girls are gone; the young men are gone; nothing left but the graveyards. A real hurtin' song.

There is something else to be melancholy about. Another stanza could be added to the song. A stanza that asks, "Where have all the pastors gone?" Awhile ago I wrote about how almost every North American denomination is suffering a shortage of ministers. There is no over abundance in the Canadian Reformed Churches either. As far as our sister churches in the Netherlands goes, the shortage seems to be reaching chronic proportions. Dr. John P. Elliot, executive director of Christian Observer, reported the following in Presbyterians-Week:

Dramatic Shortage of Reformed Pastors Expected

Despite a year long campaign to attract new students only six have enrolled for their first year of study at the Theological University of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) in Kampen, The Netherlands. Kampen II launched a campaign in 2001 with the goal of recruiting 25 students.

The (Liberated) Reformed Churches have 302 ministers serving 126,456 members. Some 55 congregations have vacant pastorates. A large number of pastors will begin retiring in 2010. As a result the shortage is expected to rise dramatically.

In an interview with the Nederlands Dagblad Kampen's Greek professor J.A. Meijer underlines the fact that real numbers are even worse than they appear to be at first sight. Two of the six new students are women. And the faculty knows from experience that only half of the men who enroll will become ministers. The Reformed Churches can realistically expect only three freshmen to enter the ministry. Since 12 students enrolled in 2001, the two classes combined will probably produce no more than nine pastors.

Over the past 12 months Kampen II has made serious efforts to publicize the school and find potential candidates. Last spring 25 interested candidates visited Kampen for an information day. The school also received many responses from men who had already completed university education and were interested in full-time ministry.

Meijer continued "After all that effort we did not expect this response." Professor Meijer further notes that potential theology students are aware of what is going on in the church. Many pastors are on forced leave and "That has not escaped the notice of these students."

In an interview with Christian Renewal the Liberated Reformed Synod's new moderator, Dr. Erik de Boer, points to the dramatic rise in the number of pastors who leave the ministry or who are forced to leave their congregations. He estimates that up to 30 percent of the denomination's pastors have been in some sort of difficulty over the past few years. In his own classis two of the eight pastors have been released from their congregations.

"Twenty five years ago congregations were willing to accept the weaknesses of their pastors. They viewed them as God's servant, with all his strengths and weaknesses. Congregations today demand much more from a pastor and are less willing to be patient with him. If the minister does not live up to the expectations of a part of the congregation, a body of resistance may develop. A shift in the church council may tip the balance against a minister," according to de Boer.

Our Dutch sister churches are running an 18 % vacancy rate with more ministers slated to retire soon than new students entering Kampen. We are doing a little better currently running a 12 % vacancy rate; however, a number of our ministers plan to retire within the next couple of years while there will probably be a mass exit from active ministry, including all the professors at the College, between the years 2010 and 2020. The ranks at the College are very thin. International students who plan to return home to their countries of origin are numbering almost as high as national students. Added to the vacant pulpits is the need for missionaries. Several churches are working to send men out on the work of mission. Further, we are still growing by an average of a congregation per year.

Conservatively, we need 20 men graduating from our College in the next four years. With an average of five graduates per year, we will only be holding our own. At best, we will only attain one third of that. If the congregations do not triple the number of men going to the College, the math suggests we may be facing up to 15 vacancies four years from now. This ought to be of no small concern to the churches.

What ought we to do? As in all of life, we need to pray and work. Also in this we need to depend upon the Lord. He will raise up faithful preachers for the church and the world. We do not depend upon the numbers but upon the Lord. We need to pray the Lord to provide preachers. At the same time, the Lord requires us to work, also in encouraging young men to take up the wonderful task of preaching the glorious gospel. Has your congregation produced a minister? If not, why not? Is your minister praying regularly that young men of the congregation would see it as beautiful work to perform? Elders, are you speaking with promising young men about this calling? Parents, are you talking with your sons about the great need for preachers?

Let us pray for an explosion of students at the College. The churches should not be saying, "College, send us ministers!" Rather, the College should be telling the churches: "Send us your young men!" If the congregations send the blocks of wood, the professors will carve the blocks into arrows.

Let us once and for all time rid ourselves of the notion that there will be no places for the graduates to work. Do not worry about "a glut of preachers on the market." There is enough work waiting to be done. Our country, our world, needs preachers of the gospel.

Previously published in Clarion, October 2002.