Bypassing The Pulpit – Number Of Young Pastors Declining

By Tom Mitchell, Daily News-Record

Laura Amstutz

Two months ago, Laura Amstutz completed her education at Eastern Mennonite Seminary with half of what she needed for a profession in the pulpit: Amstutz, 25, had her calling card, a Masters of Divinity, but not a calling.

“For me, it was just not the right time,” said Amstutz.

With pastoring plans on hold, Amstutz took a job at EMS as the seminary’s communications coordinator, a post which allows her to use her bachelor’s degree in communications from Bluffton (Ohio) College.

The detour Amstutz took from traditional seminary training mirrors alternative paths followed by many of her peers. With many young adults questioning church customs, including worship styles, rising ranks of seminary grads are eyeing other types of Christian service.

A recent Associated Press story on the Fund for Theological Education Conference held last weekend in Austin, Tex., referred to a 20-year decline in the number of clergy younger than 35 in mainstream denominations.

According to the AP report, the average age of students at seminaries in the U.S. is falling and fewer graduates of seminaries are heading to the pulpit.

The AP account states that, in a survey conducted by the Association of Theological Schools, 50 percent of men and 40 percent of women who earned Master of Divinity degrees last year said that pastoring a church was their first choice after seminary.

The AP article cites seminarians’ growing preference for alternative Christian service and, on a deeper level, declining church attendance among the nation’s younger populace that reduces the number of potential pastors for the future.

Promoting The Pulpit

The wire story also refers to efforts by congregations to make preaching appealing to as many people as possible, with promotions that range from clerical robes on American Girl dolls to cost-free semesters at seminaries. The latter perk, according to the report, gives candidates a glimpse of seminary life.

Ervin R. Stutzman, vice president for Eastern Mennonite University and dean at EMS, won’t concede that prospective pastors are getting cold feet. Stutzman, 53, admits that today’s young adults are challenging church values and more reluctantly link themselves with what they sense as mutually leery congregations. “In my opinion, adults trust young people less today than they did 30 years ago,” said Stutzman. “They’re afraid that the church doesn’t want them [as leaders], since they’re not ready to promote the same things.”

Earlier youth fought wars, says Stutzman, while current editions seem less likely to leave home, much less lead a church. Stutzman refers to the latest generation, children of mid-20th century-born ‘baby boomers’, as ‘boomerangs’: children to come back home to live after college.

“I think that staying at home [after graduating from college] was a lot more unusual 30 or 40 years ago,” said Stutzman.

Changing Climate

Educators see social change as part of an historical shift in prevailing thoughts of today’s churches. Sara Wenger Shenk, 53, associate dean at EMS, believes the church environment is changing: specifically, that socializing is moving outside the church.

“It’s not that people are less religious, or less spiritual,” Shenk. “They’re meeting at cafes, bars, coffee houses and at work rather than going to established churches. There is a general sense that the church, perhaps, has missed the revolutionary power of the Gospel.”

Young adults, Amstutz says, want more than a weekly religious routine.

“The current perception is that church is something you do on Sunday, it makes you a good person and then you go on with your lives,” said Amstutz, whose husband Brandon sells cars for a Harrisonburg dealership. “Young adults want their spiritual lives to be consistent – they don’t want to be ‘Sunday Christians.’”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Tom Mitchell at 574-6275 or