Why is There a Shortage of Ministerial Candidates

One would hardly look to the Saturday Evening Post as the place to Bod a diagnosis of the ills of the Church. And yet an article in its November 17, 1962 issue entitled “Why I Quit the Ministry” in an unusually blunt and concrete fashion offers such an analysis.


It is in the context of the present critical shortage of clergymen in America (plus the fact that Protestant theological seminary enrollment is said to be at a five-year low!) that the story of an anonymous ex-preacher is told. The substance of his explanation for quitting the ministry is that he could not tolerate the circumstances under which he was asked to work by his congregation.

After a hard struggle to gain the required education, this promising young man found himself called and welcomed to the pastorate of a suburban First Presbyterian Church with commodious buildings and a membership roster of 800. The neighborhood was attractive, the salary substantial—the whole thing looked like a most inviting prospect.

At his first service some 400 people appeared, an attendance never again equaled except at Christmas and Easter. As he became acquainted with his parishioners he found that his visits were welcomed—until he attempted to talk about matters of faith and religion. “Almost every time they would cough, hesitate, smile shyly, try to change the subject and as soon as possible rush me to the door.” Contributions to the church were very meager in comparison with the high average income of the members, and were directed largely toward the meeting of local expenses. This fashionable, wealthy church was not interested, and not to be interested, in the plight of people outside of its class.

There was plenty of sociability and organization, but it almost altogether lacked anything of a specifically religious character. Questionable business ethics even on the part of members of the Session of the church came to light, as did instances of flagrant immorality among the teen-agers of the congregation. There was virtually no knowledge of the Church’s doctrinal beliefs, and little if any interest in gaining such knowledge. An effort to get a Sunday-school teachers’ training program met with sharp rebuff, and efforts to get the more spiritually-minded into office failed.

No support could be gained for a proposal to remove from the membership register those who might be considered “dead wood.” People must not be offended, especially if they are business associates. Significantly, the issue which brought things to a head was the pastor’s criticism of ornate and expensive funeral practices. This aroused the anger of a mortician and florists in the congregation, expressed finally by an elder-banker who said, “We like you. But if you get too controversial we’ll have to ask you to leave.”

After three years of such experiences this minister decided to quit. He was discouraged to the point where he no longer felt able to continue. He could only conclude that the members of the congregation were not minded to accept an honest ministry of the Gospel as he professed it. And he was likewise disgusted with the political maneuverings and time-serving of fellow clergymen. He decided to return to school in order that he might be prepared to earn an honest living in teaching or as a social worker.

This is, in essence, his indictment against the church.



Perhaps unintentionally the writer of this disturbing article offered an even more pointed analysis of the church problem when he presents his own self-portrait. Early in his account he tells us, “I had become an ardent believer in Jesus Christ.” This sounds very good, and with me many might ask, “What more could one want?”

Reading further we can find out what this confession of faith really means. In his first sermon in his new church the writer exposes his view of the significance of Christ’s death: “He died for a cause that required your acceptance of a conception of men as brothers, a standard of value based on unselfishness and love, a commitment to change men and society no matter what the cost to your comfort.” Entering upon his ministry this young pastor expected to find difficulties and shortcomings in his congregation, “yet knowing the power of Jesus’ teachings and the capacity for good that lay in many people all around me,” he hoped that a minister, “if he were well trained and tried hard,” could correct them.

In other words, this minister went out from the firm conviction that he could by virtue of his training and diligence overcome the weaknesses, imperfections and wrongs he expected to find in his congregation. A clue to the way in which this great improvement would be brought about is to be found in this analysis of the religious and theological need of the people of his congregation: “only a handful could separate mythology from probable fact as other student ministers and I had been taught to do at our Presbyterian seminary.”

It seems to me that the author does an even better job than he himself realizes of revealing the trouble with today’s so-called Protestantism, and the reason why men like himself quit or do not even enter the Gospel ministry. Obviously this man did not put his trust in the God of the Scriptures, nor did he believe that the Bible is God’s holy and infallible Word. How can churches which have lost interest in the Word of God (which interest they can only be expected to lose if it is not in all reality the Word of God!), and how can ministers trained to deny rather than to preach that Word demonstrate the reforming and transforming power that earlier Protestantism believed and experienced to be found only in the Word of God?

The tragic decline of American Protestantism is all too plainly apparent in this remarkably typical and graphically related story. While we observe what is happening to larger and older churches which once professed the same Faith as we do, can we afford to forget that we too must complain of a critical shortage of ministers? To the oft-raised question as to the cause of this shortage no definitive answer seems yet to have been offered. Is it possible that our shortage reflects the same waning interest in the authority and power of God’s Word? Do we have a weakening conviction and lessening enthusiasm concerning this Word?