The "senior minister drought" is real

It is not just Anglicans

It started as a hotly debated topic among Sydney’s Anglicans – concern that local churches’ Senior Minister vacancies were not being filled, with suggestions that ministers were not stepping into the top chair. Between 30 and 40 vacancies, especially on Sydney’s North Shore, have been in play.

But the problem is wider than an Anglican issue, and it involves a real drought of candidates for ministry, rather than staffers preferring to work in larger churches in teams.

Burn out or pastors “deciding that Pastoral Ministry in the Presbyterian Church is no longer where God wants them to be” will claim roughly 14 ministers over the next seven years.

Presbyterian minister Mark Powell, who leads the Strathfield, NSW, campus of Cornerstone church has written a revealing story about his own denomination’s drought. He references a paper, “The Coming Cliff,” by Paul McKendrick, of the Ministry and Mission Committee of the Presbyterian Church of NSW & ACT (PCNSW), stating:

  • 30 pastors could retire in the next five to seven years.
  • Burn out or pastors “deciding that Pastoral Ministry in the Presbyterian Church is no longer where God wants them to be” will claim roughly 14 ministers over the next seven years.
  • The number of Exit Students over that period, will only bring about 14-20 new pastors into the PCNSW.

“For the 3 years 2017-2019, 33 senior ministers resigned without retiring or taking up another senior minister role, which is nearly double the rate of retirements,” Sydney Anglican Minister Andrew Katay, who leads Christ Church Inner West pointed out in a series of Facebook posts. “Some were discipline matters with the Professional Standards unit, but most were not.”

Katay also points to the cost of employing an assistant minister ($110,000 in Sydney) as an issue – suggesting a move to 4 days rather than full time.

Powell rightly concludes that “While the kingdom of God is obviously larger than just these two denominations — as well as the Sydney metropolitan area! — it’s nonetheless a good snapshot as to what is going on in the wider church.”

Evidence for the problem in the wider church was reported in an Eternity investigation of the student intakes of Australia’s theological colleges for full-time students studying the normal ministerial qualifications, such as Bachelor of Theology and Master of Divinity degrees. We discovered that all the major providers of ministerial trading had the same pattern – a peak in 2011 or 2012, and a gentle decline, of up to 20 per cent over the following years.

This means each denomination, whether conservative and reformed like the Presbyterians and the Sydney Anglicans, or very different, can share the same concern about future numbers.

“It’s a global pattern – the number of full-time theological students has been in decline for the last five to ten years,” says Mark Thompson, principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney commented for our earlier analysis.

Drawing on a world wide research project, he added: “Part-time, distance and online study are increasing. The decline is in undergrads. Postgraduate study, and particularly doctoral study, are also on the rise.”

“When the decision to go into vocational Christian ministry is viewed as merely being a personal preference and not a response to divine leading, this runs the risk of people serving as pastors whom the LORD has not actually chosen.” – Mark Powell, Presbyterian minister

Powell calls Christians to “Ask the LORD of the harvest … to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Luke 10:2). He then makes a point that will cause a ripple in some conservative church circles.

“We need to recover the Scriptural truth of ‘calling’. I understand how controversial this statement is, but it’s always been integral to a proper understanding of what it means to serve the LORD, particularly within reformed evangelicalism. As the prophet Jeremiah says,” I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied.” (Jer. 23:21) …. “When the decision to go into vocational Christian ministry is viewed as merely being a personal preference and not a response to divine leading, this runs the risk of people serving as pastors whom the LORD has not actually chosen (see Eph. 4:10-11).”

At the risk of possibly offending some who have stood down from ministry, Powell calls for resilience.

“One of the most powerful illustrations I have seen in this regard is the example of missionaries my church currently supports in northern Thailand,” he says.

“They have five children, with the older ones having to come back to Australia for work or tertiary education. But rather than leave the mission field themselves, they have made the very difficult decision to stay on the mission field. This has come at great personal cost (see Luke 9:61-62). But having learnt the language and gained the trust of local people, they believe that their best years of service are yet to come.”

Finally, Powell makes that point that we need to support our ministers. Eternity readers, can we start by praying for them?

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Some prayer points to help

Please pray for your pastor. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send out more workers.

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