In more than one setting, I have recently heard the word “crisis” in relation to a pastor shortage. According to reports, one-third of the SBC churches are without a pastor in the state of Mississippi. Six hundred churches in North Carolina are without pastors. Seventeen percent of churches in Louisiana are without pastors.
Additionally, my own experience validates these concerns. Throughout my studies at three different Baptist institutions over the last 10 years, a notably lower percentage of my fellow classmates were aspiring to be lead teaching pastors. A lot of students have aspirations for counseling, para-church ministry, college ministry, youth ministry, and/or perhaps academia, but you will find fewer young men with a burning desire to step into pastoral ministry. That reality is noticeable in the seminary, but it’s also noticeable in the churches around me that have been pastorless for years now. But why? Where are the aspiring pastors? Here are some thoughts as I process my own hypothesis.
1.) Prolonged Adolescence
While eighteen-year-old men in my grandparent’s generation were making the ultimate sacrifice on the beaches of Normandy, most men in my generation actually avoid what they would consider adult responsibility until their mid-thirties. In fact, men today are hesitant to make strong commitments to any one job, place, or family until much later in life if at all.
It’s not because this generation of men is by nature weaker or more scared of commitment. They have been inundated with more options than any previous generation in human history. The culture has told them that the purpose of life is primarily one of self-fulfillment. They have been told to secure for themselves the best conceivable and most fulfilling life. Technology has created the ability to choose and manipulate that future life. In generations past, men wrestled with identity and responsibility at a young age. Consuming hours of entertainment at their fingertips was not an option. They had to be producers, cultivators, and laborers in a particular craft. If they were going to marry, it was likely going to be to a woman in their village or town. They were not overwhelmed into paralysis by the thousands of options they could swipe through until landing their soul mate. Today, however, you can choose to work, live, or travel to any place in the world. The world is your oyster for your self-fulfillment, and that fulfillment is found in the freedom to do as you please. All of this creates an aversion to growing up. The constant feed of social media’s version of the good life, the crippling effect of pornography addiction, and the influence of expressive individualism have all contributed to a pandemic of prolonged adolescence.
I recently heard someone define mature manhood as a lifestyle of commitment to deny yourself for the care, protection, and progress of others. Manhood in its essence is taking responsibility not just for yourself, but primarily for the flourishing of others. That is exactly what is avoided in prolonged adolescence and that is exactly what is required for pastoral ministry. Pastoral ministry will not be appealing to men who don’t feel like adults yet, and who fear the kind of sacrifice and responsibility that would invite others to rely on them.
If we are going to see more men aspiring to the pastorate, it will start with active discipleship at an early age. We must consistently call them to swim against the raging cultural current that pushes off adulthood as long as possible. They will not drift into maturity or self-denial. They will not accidentally commit themselves to God’s version of the good life.
I mentioned the crippling effects of pornography above, but it deserves more attention in this discussion. Pornography is devouring potential pastors. I have rarely met a seminary student who has not at some point had their spiritual growth severely stunted by the death grip of pornography addiction. Young men are discovering pornography on their devices as early as eight years old. Whereas pornography once required a hidden magazine acquired from a classmate or a store, it is now ever-present on the phones in their pockets, their gaming consoles, tablets, and t.v.s. Whether young men go looking for it or not, pornography comes looking for them in the form of fake social media accounts or ads thrown in their faces on a daily basis. All it takes is one glance in the pre-teen years for the devastating addiction and mind-numbing habits to take root. Not only does pornography prevent men from becoming the kind of self-controlled, sober-minded, one-woman men that Scripture requires of a pastor, but pornography also alters the brain, destroys ambition, induces shame, and distorts sexuality. If we are going to see more qualified men step into pastoral ministry, we need to wage war on pornography as the pastor killer it is. This will mean deep discipleship of men that goes beyond the kind of information transfer that takes place in a seminary classroom, but more on that later.
3.) Overemphasis on Personal Calling
In my circle of evangelicalism, there has been a large emphasis on the personal and internal call to pastoral ministry. As a result, a lot of guys are still waiting on their burning bush. It is true that Jeremiah was called by the audible voice of God into his prophetic ministry, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s profession is decided by similar theophanies. When Paul discusses criteria for the next generation of church overseers in 1 Timothy 3 and 4, he assumes three overlapping sources of confirmation. (1)The individual desires the work of pastoral ministry. (2) The qualifications and capabilities of the individual are affirmed by the congregation. (3) The elders of a congregation affirm that he is qualified and capable of the task through the public laying on of hands. The Spirit uses the ministry of the whole church to call out and confirm those who should pursue pastoral ministry. Individualizing the call as a miraculous moment actually decreases the number of men who perhaps should be asking whether the work of pastoral ministry is something that they should pursue. This is not to say that all men should aspire to the office of overseer, but rather it is the congregation as a whole that helps discern who is gifted, qualified, and called for the task and it is the congregation who encourages a man to desire the work or to even consider the work. Some men need the congregation’s help to see that pastoral ministry is not for them at this time. Some men need the congregation’s help to see that pastoral ministry should be something they consider. Even Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey was not a result of subjective personal feelings. The Spirit set them apart, but he did so through the prayer, fasting, and affirmation of a congregation and their leaders.
4.) Missiology Without Ecclesiology
Many passionate young men that believe in Jesus and want to make a difference in the world assume that pastoring a local church is not the way to do it. Because of their experiences in unhealthy churches, they have disassociated missiology from ecclesiology. Perhaps they did not even hear the true gospel until their campus ministry, though they had attended churches all their life. Perhaps they were hurt by the constant turmoil of congregational life and now yearn to live on mission without the church slowing them down. If local churches do not teach and model the centrality of the local church as the God-ordained means of accomplishing the great commission, then passionate young men will not consider the pastorate to be a good stewardship of their life. Seminaries and local churches are going to have to break through bad experiences and cultural assumptions about the local church. God aims to make his manifold wisdom known through the church. He aims for the nations to be reached through pastors who equip the saints for the work of the ministry in and through the body of Christ. If we are to see a generation of men aspire to the work of pastoral ministry, we are going to have to start teaching ecclesiology and showing its God-ordained connection to missiology. Biblical healthy churches led by biblically healthy elders are the missionary force that most effectively preaches the gospel and models the power of the gospel.
5.) Generational Consequences of Rejecting Elder-Plurality
I am convinced that the New Testament clearly models a church polity where multiple qualified men pastor together over individual congregations. Those elders labor together to shepherd the flock. They also labor together in the work of raising up more elders. Because this church polity was lost by so many churches in the mid-twentieth century, a whole generation of churches built their ministries around individual pastors who did not share the pulpit, nor the shepherding with anyone else. Generations of men grew up within churches thinking that a pastor was a unicorn of miraculous creation. Only the holy man could preach. Only the holy man could give counsel. Few dared aspire to such a task. While this may have provided some job security for the holy man, it provided no security for the future of the church. In a church setting where there is only room for one shepherd, more shepherds are not likely to be raised up for the future of that local church or any other local church. When a church loses a pastor for whatever reason after over a decade of his ministry, and no one in the church can preach or shepherd the flock in his stead, then there may be a problem. If God designed the church to be led by a plurality of elders, then one of the great responsibilities of an elder is to continually raise up more elders. His job is to continually work himself out of a job.
6.) Pastor Training Delegated to Institutions
I love seminaries and I am thankful for them, but any good thing can be used in the wrong way. If a young man begins to aspire to pastoral ministry, the reaction of the pastor and the congregation in many churches has been to swiftly ship him off to professional training spaces called seminaries. Rather than train in the local church where they already have opportunities to exercise their giftings and where they are truly known and held accountable, young men are encouraged to move cities shortly after realizing their new call to ministry. They may be incredibly immature. They may be struggling with secret sin. They may be horrible shepherds of their wives and families. There may be a whole host of areas that disqualify them from pastoral ministry. Seminaries are not built to recognize and confront these issues in the personal lives of students. In the seminary, they learn a lot of things, but they often are minimally involved in their local churches because of their workloads. Upon graduation, they are released into the wild world of hiring and firing where churches will interview them according to the credentials and processes of the business world. The system is not exactly conducive to the kind of character development that Paul assumes is necessary for discipling future pastors. Furthermore, since the local churches are not actively training, affirming, and sending out elders from within their own congregations, there is even less exposure for men who perhaps would aspire to the noble task. When pastor training is entirely delegated to an outside institution, congregations do not sense the corporate responsibility that they have to identify and develop pastors.
These are just a few ramblings on the pastor shortage that many are discussing. I’d love to hear more thoughts in the comments below.