Hartford Institute Logo
Hartford Institute Site Map Hartford Seminary

Hartford Seminary
The Web

A Quick Question

Is there a clergy shortage?

The quick answer: 
  Yes and no!

The longer answer:   One of the chief worries facing seminary students in protestant denominations as they approach graduation is whether or not they will be able to fulfill their calling to the ministry by finding a job that suits their vocational and lifestyle needs. 

While the answer to these questions vary for each individual, sociologists approach the questions more broadly by asking “What is the structure of opportunities” in the job market? In other words, how many people are looking for a job balanced against how many jobs are available? How likely is it that job seekers will be matched with the right opportunities? 

Current data suggests that as the number of small churches expand and the majority of church goers flock to larger megachurches that the structures of opportunities for clergy are shifting.  Fewer and fewer clergy will be able to follow a traditional career path of upward professional mobility. As opportunities narrow sharply towards the top, more and more individual clergy are finding themselves unable to move into larger churches. 

However, this recent research shows the reasons are not an individual’s failure to fulfill his or her calling but rather a skewed labor market.  This market offers ample opportunities in the smallest churches and increasingly fewer positions in the largest churches.

Today’s clergy market displays four important features:

  • There is a surplus of clergy to fill the available clergy positions.  If one looks at the number of ordained clergy compared to the number of churches in a denomination.   In some cases there are as many as two clergy per church, with seminary enrollments continuing to climb. This data contradicts the perception that there is a clergy shortage.  

  • There is, however, a large vacancy rate if one looks at the actual number of clergy serving in churches.  A high number of churches are without a full time pastor. This vacancy rate supports the perception of a clergy shortage.  What the perception obscures, however, is that the shortage tends to be located in small churches.   

  • The majority of churches in the U.S. are small, with 100 or fewer members.  

  • The majority of the church attendees go to large churches with 350 or more members.

In other words the structure of opportunity provides ample jobs for those clergy interested in serving small churches but far far fewer for those wishing to serve in medium or large churches. Seminary students, most of whom were raised and formed in large churches (as are the majority of the American population) feel called to serve in the kind of churches in which they were raised--- but these opportunities are declining. 

Many clergy express frustration at their inability to find what they consider to be a “better” job in a larger church.  Rather than seeing the realities of the job market, they personalize the issue and feel they failed, were discriminated against, considered switching jobs or contemplated dropping out of the ministry

Looking at the job market in this way reconciles two dissonant impressions held by denominational leaders and clergy. 

Leaders look at the vacancy rate in the small churches and see a clergy shortage that needs to be addressed by increasing seminary enrollments. 

Clergy see a surplus of clergy who are competing for the same jobs, forcing many to work part time outside the church, or move into non-parish positions and ultimately begin new careers because they cannot find an adequate position within a church setting. 

Both perceptions are correct. The problem is not one of shortages, it’s a problem of balance.

Read the detailed article written by Dr. Patricia Chang, Assistant Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and Associate Research Professor of Sociology, Boston College, in the Clergy Leadership Issues section of this web site.


Return to the Quick Question archive



Hartford Seminary
77 Sherman Street
Hartford, CT 06105
© 2000 - 2006 Hartford Seminary, Hartford Institute for Religion Research