Leadership shortage: Digging deeper

A closer look at trends in education and cultural factors contributing to emerging shortage of young leaders and what we can do about it

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Melanie Howard, director for Fresno Pacific University’s Biblical and Theological Studies program for five years, has worked closely with students preparing for ministry. According to a 2018 informal survey of department chairs and program directors across the Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU)—of which FPU and Tabor College are a part—20 of 28 responding institutions reported declining student enrollment in their religion, theology and/or ministry programs. Photo: FPU.

When the Christian Leader set out to update readers on USMB NextGen’s Leadership Pipeline, a program launched in March 2022 to identify and train future leaders currently in high school and college, we discovered a much larger story pointing to a potential shortage of young leaders.

We talked to someone representing just about every U.S. Mennonite Brethren ministry involved in calling out and training new pastors, youth workers and mission workers. Thanks to Kyle Goings, NextGen chair; Jordan Ringhofer, Pacific District Conference minister; Wendell Loewen, Tabor College professor of youth, church and culture and FaithFront director; Melanie Howard, Fresno Pacific University chair of the Biblical and Religious Studies Division; Brian Ross, associate professor of pastoral ministries at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary; Wade French, FPBS director of seminary enrollment; Rick Eshbaugh, MB Foundation’s director of financial discipleship; and Multiply representatives Galen Wiest, Stephen Humber, Joanna Chapa, Heidi Quiring and Silvia Lopez, for their help in understanding the current landscape.

The limitations of space in print meant we left out a large portion of contributing information for this project. Here is a closer look at statistics from MB institutions, cultural factors and solutions.

A closer look at enrollment

Both U.S. Mennonite Brethren educational institutions indicate that enrollment numbers in programs designed to prepare students for ministry are down.

As director for Fresno Pacific University’s Biblical and Theological Studies program for five years, Melanie Howard has worked closely with students preparing for ministry. She cites a 2018 informal survey of department chairs and program directors across the Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU)—of which FPU and Tabor College are a part—in which 20 of 28 responding institutions reported declining student enrollment in their religion, theology and/or ministry programs.

Data from the past 20 years showing enrollment in degrees preparing students for traditional or non-traditional ministries at Fresno Pacific University indicates a peak of 71 students in 2016. That number has steadily declined in the years since, reaching a new low of 18 students in 2022. Data compiled by Christopher Antons/FPU.

For Fall 2023, FPU anticipates having between 15 and 20 undergraduate students pursuing a degree preparing them for traditional and non-traditional ministries, she says.

Tabor College, meanwhile, expects 11 students.

Trends in enrollment in Biblical and Religious/Theological Studies and Christian Ministry Programs at Tabor College over the past 20 years show a peak of 55 students in 2005 and again in 2007 and a low of 11 students in 2022. Data compiled by Kaitlyn Rempel/TC.

Wendell Loewen, professor of youth, church and culture, says one possible explanation for Tabor’s decline in students preparing for ministry is recruiting strategies. During a time when the overall concern was enrollment numbers, the school heavily pursued athletes. While this boosted enrollment, it didn’t necessarily equate to more students in ministry programs, Loewen says.

At Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to accelerate a trend of students pursuing Bible knowledge but not intending to pursue full-time ministry, says Wade French, director of seminary enrollment.

FPBS’s Ross says current seminary students often share three primary characteristics: their lives have been dramatically changed by Jesus and they seek deeper personal knowledge and experience of him, they have questions about how to relate to a post-Christian culture and they desire formation from instructors familiar with human psychology and the Holy Spirit.

A closer look at cultural factors

TC’s Loewen suggests the role of the church is changing, and the ministry profession may not be as attractive as it once was. In a consumer-centered culture, pastors have been diminished to content creators and experience curators.

“It’s a tough time to be a Christian and to be a public person,” he says. “Pastors can be critiqued and canceled. Who wants to do that?”

It can be hard for a graduate to secure a full-time paid ministry position directly out of college, Loewen says, pointing to his own experience of spending five years volunteering, gaining experiencing, working part-time and obtaining a seminary degree before landing his first full-time job.

PDC’s Jordan Ringhofer echoes this, saying for some, church ministry is an impractical career choice.

“I think the church at some point is really going to have to decide whether or not it views a successful ministry opportunity as being full-time or not, or whether it creates space for pastors to be bi-vocational,” Ringhofer says.

With corporate gatherings not valued as they once were, Loewen sees a trend toward individual, as opposed to a corporate church, calling to ministry.

“Never have I heard in 27 years of a church corporately calling out another generation,” he says. “That used to happen. That used to be sort of a sense of responsibility that the church would have. Who are our leaders? Who’s our next pastor?”

Tabor College professor Wendell Loewen sees fewer students interested in vocational church ministry. “Ministry is just not a valued career option in our culture. The role of the church in a community has changed,” he says. Photo: Tabor College

Additionally, young people are taking longer to decide career paths.

Loewen’s doctoral work in youth and family ministries included adolescent development, and he says today people might not find their place until their early 30’s. In a society where adolescence has been extended, many students no longer know their intended career upon graduating from high school. What’s more, for many students, STEM careers are promoted, while ministry is not given as a career option, Loewen says. At Tabor, degrees in business and education are popular, he says, and students inclined toward giving professions may choose social work or psychology.

“I am heartened that lots of young people want to make a positive difference in the world,” Loewen says. “But in terms of ministry, that may not be the way they want to make that difference.”

Brian Ross, associate professor of pastoral ministries at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, agrees, noting that in the past, young people turned to Christianity for peace and fulfillment, or even pastoral ministry when seeking a life of service. Today, they might try other religions or strategies like Cross-Fit, virtual reality, psychotherapy or participating with a non-profit to find peace, Ross says.

Secondly, cultural demographics are diversifying rapidly, with about 50 percent of Gen Z being non-white, Ross says, adding that people from varying backgrounds have different experiences and ask different questions.

“To many younger people, when our churches or seminaries proclaim, ‘This is what Christianity or the Bible teaches…’ they sometimes reply that we sound like people from a particular background, who have not adequately considered peoples who have had different experiences, and so we assume our own cultural perspectives to be universal,” Ross says. “We can sound like we have merely baptized our own cultural background and assume it is the vision of Jesus.”

Finally, in an unstable world it can be hard for young people to commit to something long-term.

“Many have written about the mental health crisis afflicting young people,” Ross says. “From suicidal ideation, to depression, to obsessive disorders—young people are struggling. Most come from non-traditional family backgrounds. When the whole world shuts down for a pandemic, when political battles are at a fevered pitch, when climate catastrophes feel immanent, it is hard to think long-term about one’s life. Choices about future education, let alone eternal faith, become harder to nail down.”

Students gather for prayer during the FaithFront 2023 Encounter retreat. Photo: Michael Klaassen

A closer look at mission work

Galen Wiest, Multiply director of mobilization, notes that today’s youth have a lower interest in serving on global mission.

The Mennonite Brethren mission agency, Multiply, partners with the local church helping students gain experience and confidence in ministry. Multiply’s focus has shifted the past 10 years from pioneering work to working alongside national leaders, and the mission agency is taking a developmental approach to training people for the ministry skills needed to serve overseas.

“As we rebuild our mission training programs, we are seeking to understand the cultural and generational shifts that we are encountering and attempting to address these new opportunities,” Wiest says.

Yet, Multiply’s U.S. regional mobilizers Stephen Humber, Joanna Chapa and Wiest continue to see young adults with interest in serving globally, including students at ASCENT, the USMB national summer youth camp. The pandemic, however, limited Multiply’s ability to send short-term teams, causing a loss of momentum in recruitment among MB churches. The mobilizers recognize a need for churches to affirm and call the next generation.

According to the mobilizers, today’s youth are motivated by experience-based spirituality and need to know how faith affects people’s lives. Youth desire to impact society, with high value placed on justice and racial equality, they say.

“Mission has historically been a place where social change has occurred,” the mobilizers say. “Missionaries over a century ago brought education and medical help to the cultures that they served, and it radically changed those cultures. We are looking for where we can create similar opportunities for the next generation.”

Heidi Quiring, Midwest U.S. mission training program coordinator, says two factors have provided challenges when recruiting youth to short-term mission programs, including program cost and lack of time. Many students graduate high school with a four-year plan that requires a summer job to pay for college, leaving little space for summer mission work, Quiring says.

According to Silvia Lopez, Western U.S. mission training program coordinator, young people are interested in short-term missions, but it is important to invite them into work they find life-giving, including opportunities to not only pursue disciple-making but also passions like videography or other talents.

“It’s our job and responsibility to mentor them, as we believe in their abilities, by providing a safe and nourishing environment where they can flourish to their full potential as they inspire others to do the same,” Lopez says.

A closer look at solutions

According to Kyle Goings, USMB NextGen chair, most current MB youth pastors felt called to ministry at a high school event, but in the last five years, he’s seen new youth workers feel the call after high school. To provide such a calling moment for high school students, USMB NextGen will continue to offer events like the national summer camp for high school students.

FaithFront, Tabor’s leadership program for high school youth made possible through the Lilly Endowment’s youth theology institutes initiative, is an attempt to cultivate a culture of calling and let high school students know that ministry is a career option.

MB Foundation continues to allocate up to $50,000 a year for LeadGen scholarships.

The PDC Board of Next Generation Leadership will continue to offer church leadership development grants, but the board is restructuring around collaboration with USMB NextGen and the Leadership Pipeline, Ringhofer says, adding that a key to retaining young people who choose vocational ministry is for churches to continue to engage with the students they call.

“The data shows you can’t send students off to college and expect that they will stay engaged in their local church,” Ringhofer says. “The church needs to keep that relationship going.”

Conclusions

In researching for this project, we’ve listed varied and complex factors contributing to a decline in numbers of young ministry leaders, including the pandemic, suspicion of church, declining church attendance, interest in other vocations and cultural and generational differences.

Certainly this calls for intentional leadership development and creativity in engaging the next generation, but we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. Might this also involve how we live out our faith, as Tabor’s Loewen says, in a winsome and plausible way?

“We’re in a more of a pluralistic, post-modern, post-Christian culture valuing self-fulfillment and personal happiness over accountability,” Loewen says. “I don’t know if the church has been able to answer questions like, ‘Is this faith plausible? Is it beautiful?’ Trying to convert people from one belief system to another doesn’t carry water anymore for some people. This needs to be something I live and it changes my life, not just something I believe on paper.”

This is an online-only companion to an article we ran in print. Read “Pipeline slows to a trickle” here

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