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Ministers Without Master’s Degrees a Growing Trend

Until 1997, the PC(USA) had always mandated post-baccalaureate education for clergy, but the denomination found itself having to adapt to changing conditions. So, in 1997 church leaders created the “commissioned lay pastor” position (now called “commissioned ruling elder”), thinking that “ministers with less formal theological education could minister to immigrant churches and to small churches in remote locations,” according to an article by Emilie Babcox for the Spring 2011 issue of In Trust Magazine, a publication by the In Trust Center for Theological Schools. Unexpected developments resulted, however. To save salary expenses, nursing homes and prisons started hiring lay clergy. Then, facing reduced financial resources at the congregation level, established urban and suburban churches began to hire clergy with those approved lower levels of education. A key incentive for cash-strapped churches has been the Presbyterian policy that local congregations “are not required to pay health care and pension benefits for lay pastors or to meet the minimum salary the presbytery has set for that area,” according to Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. 

Those trends continue, with unwelcome consequences. Because the cost of a seminary education is steadily climbing, the number of Presbyterian churches is declining and the financial resources of remaining congregations are shrinking, fewer people can afford to enter the ministry at the master’s level. Dr. Hinson-Hasty anticipates a potential shortage of fully educated Presbyterian clergy as early as 2030.

The problems facing PC(USA) are common to all Christian faith traditions in North America. In Kansas, for example, the Episcopal Church has responded to the same trends by establishing the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry, which trains Episcopal lay leaders for congregational leadership and ordination. 

“The school, created out of existing diocesan programs … has no connection to a seminary,” the article notes, yet “it does provide theological training.” Similarly, according to Roland Q. Dudley, chair of intercultural studies at Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, North Dakota, the Assemblies of God denomination has said the cost of education is “one of the biggest problems” facing AG congregations, because many “can offer only modest salaries and by necessity … [must] seek part-time ministers.” The United Methodist Church has a long history of recognizing, honoring and utilizing lay clergy, but clergy with less than a master’s degree are more likely to experience a diminished status within the UMC and typically receive less denominational support, according to William B. Lawrence, dean at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

As denominations are becoming increasingly open to lay clergy leadership, theological schools are being forced to respond. Seminaries are “becoming more involved in the training of lay pastors” through agreements with denominations to provide online courses that can fulfill the minimal educational standards of partner denominations at cheaper, faster rates than seminaries have been accustomed to offering. That is a powerful sign “that a big shakeup in theological education is coming, whether we’re ready or not,” according to Babcox. 

Here is some related material you might appreciate: For data about shrinking churches, see our feature article “Latest Census of U.S. Congregations,” and our resource link on patterns of church growth and decline. For perspective on denominational decline and its relation to societal changes, see “Denominational Decline Related to Birthrates, Societal Changes.” For perspective on church finances and stewardship, see our article, “Best Resources on Stewardship and Finance.” 

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