ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) – Ray Swift spends a lot of time maintaining contact with churches across Louisiana. One thing apparent to him has become apparent to many – there are a lot of churches looking for pastors, and not nearly candidates enough to fill them.
“The pool is getting smaller,” said Swift, director of the Pastoral Leadership Team for Louisiana Baptists. “There are just not as many who are surrendering to the call [to pastor]. We can look at a lot of reasons for that.”
A clergy shortage plagued churches nationwide 20 years ago as well, but by and large it didn’t affect the Southern Baptist Convention to the same degree. Reasons for the difference included doctrinal fidelity as well as healthy enrollment figures in SBC seminaries.
However, a different set of circumstances in recent years has impacted Southern Baptists. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to an at-times paralyzing season of ministry for pastors forced to navigate debates over masks, social distancing and when to reopen. At the same time, the murder of George Floyd triggered a national debate over race during a hotly contested presidential campaign. Many found another job, saying the role of pastor had become almost impossible.
Those factors joined the natural attrition that accompanies the pastoral role.
“A significant number in our state retired last year,” Swift said. “A lot of guys reached retirement. Others died from various causes. Unfortunately, some were terminated.”
Doctrinal fidelity remains strong in the SBC, and the number of Southern Baptist seminarians remains consistent even as data suggests there were as many as a million fewer college students in the U.S. last fall. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s mentoring program is designed to increase enrollment while building connections beyond the classroom.
A discussion of “calling out the called” – engaging with those considering a call to vocational ministry – needs to include a focus on seeking out the called as well, said Bo Rice, dean of Graduate Studies for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“We need to find those God has gifted and bring them under our wing [to train for ministry],” he said.
New Orleans Seminary launched its mentoring program in January 2015 when Rice joined the staff as associate dean of Supervised Ministry and Mentoring Programs. He went into his current role in August 2018 and continues to direct the program. In that time, he has led the faculty through a revision of degrees and curriculum so that a majority of students are required to take a mentoring course.
“Out of the first 100 students who applied for the mentoring program, about 75 said they wanted a mentoring relationship because they’re never had one. They realized what they had missed,” he said.
Through a report he conducted, Swift learned that 268 (17 percent) of Louisiana Baptist churches are without a pastor. What’s more, 243 of them have fewer than 100 in average attendance.
“That indicates a lot of churches needing a bivocational pastor,” he said.
Lane Corley, church planting strategist for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, shared that observation.
“Even before the pandemic, our church planters seemed to be more bivocational,” Corley said. “We’re seeing some retired pastors coming out of a traditional ministry setting and starting a new church. They feel called to something new.”
Many of the church plants are actually re-plants, he said. In a re-plant, a church receives new leadership, renewed vision and most often a new name.
Louisiana Baptists work to plant 30 churches a year. John Kyle, the LBC’s communications director, said that while 24 churches, on average, close their doors in the state annually, that still leaves a growth in number of congregations.
“From 2010-2020 we planted about 270 churches,” he said. “We were on track to plant 300, but COVID affected us.” By 2030, he added, the goal is to have 2,000 Louisiana Baptist churches, in total.
Those churches will need shepherds. And when you add established congregations still searching, there simply aren’t enough candidates to fill the pulpits.
In addition to the aforementioned factors leading to fewer pastors, Louisiana has also had to deal in recent years with hurricanes, tornadoes and even ice storms. The subsequent rebuilds have added another layer to pastoral stress.
The ability to provide for a family also becomes a driving factor.
“Those contribute [to the smaller number],” Swift said. “Guys feel they can do something in a secular position.”
Rice’s father and grandfather, though not pastors, mentored him as a boy by being dedicated church laymen. After sensing a call to the ministry at 14 years old, Rice’s youth pastor served as his first ministry mentor. As a student at Auburn University, Rice became one of the numerous “preacher boys” mentored by Al Jackson, pastor of Lakeview Baptist Church.
“Those men intentionally poured their lives into me,” he said. “It goes beyond the classroom. We’re suffering from a lack of that.”
Also at play, Rice added, is that there are fewer seminary students expressing a call to serve as a pastor. At least some of that requires non-staff church leaders to take a look in the mirror.
“We have students who have heard the ‘horror stories’ of what it can be like to be a pastor,” he said. “They feel called to ministry, but it’s not to be a pastor.”
Wherever a church is in the pastor search process, Swift encouraged them to start with prayer.
“We can’t second-guess what prayer can do,” he said. “When a pastor leaves, there’s a transition and process to the next pastor. It’s important for churches to get ready for their next shepherd, but continue to do what God has called them to do in the meantime.
“We’re blessed to have a good seminary in our state. “[President] Dr. [Jamie] Dew is aware of this need and they’re doing everything they can to get guys to the seminary, provide the training and get it done. We’re working together to get more men who are called by God to serve these churches.”