Ministry Opportunities “Narrower” in Current Economy: Seminaries, students need to develop networks and nurture relationships

Kelly Kurth, a 2010 Master of Divinity graduate from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, wants to pastor. His spiritual gifts include shepherding, teaching, discipleship, and serving. Kurth’s ministry experience spans serving as regular pulpit supply for a local church, youth ministry, six years with campus ministry, as well as volunteering with a local church’s men’s ministry.

Kurth and his wife have been married almost 10 years and have two young children. He has no student loan debt. Seminary classmates describe him as utterly trustworthy, genuine, gifted, and mature – the sort of pastor a church would be blessed to have.

Despite all this, Kurth has not yet found a pastoral call.

It’s one example of what a June 2010 USA Today article labeled “one of the worst job markets for Protestant ministers in decades.”

“The first year after graduating from seminary came and went, and I was hopeful,” Kurth said. “I’ve applied for a lot of [ministry] jobs, and the response from churches was basically a long list of ‘thanks but no thanks.’”

John Currie, Westminster Theological Seminary’s director of student development and alumni relations, said ministry job opportunities are “narrower” than before. About 80 percent of WTS’ yearly Master of Divinity graduates are either considering or moving into ministry calls, he said.

“Smaller churches are challenged economically because their people are challenged economically, and some churches can’t afford to call pastors,” Currie said. “The economic downturn also has older pastors staying in the pulpit longer [instead of retiring]; pulpits have not freed up as much as they would have in the past.”

Ed Eubanks Jr., senior pastor of Dove Mountain Church-PCA in Tuscon, Ariz., and author of the 2011 book From M.Div. to Rev. — Making an Effective Transition from Seminary into Pastoral Ministry, said every church he’s known has struggled during the recession.

“In many congregations, giving dropped substantially,” Eubanks said. “I know of a handful of men whose positions were eliminated and a few more whose salaries have either been reduced, or the cost of living not matched, to the point where they are significantly strained in personal/family finances.”

“The effects for seminary students are profound and are compounded in a recession,” Eubanks said. “The reductions and stresses mean that an increased number of experienced, ‘seasoned’ ministers are searching for a new call, too — which further challenges the new graduates’ prospects because they will often (and wrongly) be overlooked because of their lesser experience. Even if they’re the better candidate, they may not get the opportunity to demonstrate that because they appear, on paper, to be unproven and therefore less attractive.”

Joel Hathaway, Covenant Seminary’s director of alumni and career services, said both seminaries and their graduates can better prepare and be prepared for finding a call.

“We can improve upon emphasizing, from day one, the need for students to be developing networks and nurturing relationships, getting to know other pastors,” Hathaway said. “Seminary graduates should know that when they talk to churches and search committees, [they should] be willing to love, pray for, and minister to them. You have to be willing to do for free what you want them to pay you to do.”

However, Hathaway said the recession isn’t the sole cause of fewer pastoral job listings. From 2000 to 2007, Hathaway notes, publicly posted pastoral job openings decreased about 80 percent; more churches now opt to hire pastors via relational networking and word-of-mouth referrals, instead of posting positions publicly.

“Many churches are also starting to conduct searches in a more covert manner, not using public listing services or job boards,” Eubanks said. “In other words, they are employing a ‘network’ approach to the search process, too.”

This was the case for Brad Wright, lead pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church-PCA in Sugar Land, Texas, who once tried to find an assistant pastor via public job announcement.

“I received so many résumés and replies,” he said. “The amount of time it took to sift through them all became unproductive. It was all over the gamut, and I couldn’t filter it. It didn’t end up being fruitful for us to do it that way.”

So when Wright wanted to hire an assistant pastor two years ago, he used a different approach.

“I just called some pastor friends, seminary professors we know and trust, asking if they knew anyone looking to pastor,” Wright said. “If you can ask someone you know who’s already worked with them, you get to enter into a relationship you haven’t built, because you trust that relationship they have with someone you do know. The natural connection that comes from being part of the body of Christ – that’s networking.”
 “It’s an opportunity to turn your theology into biography,” Currie said. “If a man is called and it’s been affirmed, Jesus hasn’t lost sight of them. The way they go through this wilderness will have a profound shaping effect on the kind of pastor they will be when the Lord does open the door.”

Currie said the struggle does have unintentional benefits for seminary graduates.

“It’s an opportunity to turn your theology into biography,” Currie said. “If a man is called and it’s been affirmed, Jesus hasn’t lost sight of them. The way they go through this wilderness will have a profound shaping effect on the kind of pastor they will be when the Lord does open the door. You have to trust as you are diligent to seek your opportunities, the Lord is shepherding you.”

For Kurth, the extended search for a call hasn’t diminished his desire to pastor. In the meantime, he’s started a painting business, and his wife continues to work full time as a teacher.

“I feel like I’m wading through the water; some days are better than others,” Kurth said. “[My wife] loves what she does, so that helps. Do I sometimes get discouraged? Yes. Do I know where God’s leading in this moment? No. On the better days, you feel like you’re trying to faithfully make it to wherever the next step is.  God is so much better than we deserve. It’s forced me to trust in the Lord in ways I didn’t expect.”

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