As USMB NextGen’s Leadership Pipeline enters its second season, we at the Christian Leader wanted to provide an update after Year One. The Pipeline launched in March 2022 to identify and train a pool of future leaders, beginning in high school and college. But in visiting with Kyle Goings, USMB NextGen chair, I stumbled upon a much larger story pointing to a potential shortage of young leaders.
The number of interns in the Pipeline decreased from 10 interns in 2022 to just four in 2023. Meanwhile, the number of organizations seeking interns has more than doubled, from six to 16.
“We knew we were going to struggle finding candidates,” Goings says. “The second year we are exploding with churches, but we really struggled with potential interns.”
Goings attributes this lack of young ministry leaders to four primary causes: fewer students choosing ministry as a profession, MB colleges not attracting or producing ministry leaders as they once did, a lack of intentionality by churches to call out leaders and the changing expectations Gen Z (ages 7-27) and Millennials (28-40) have of church.
“I don’t know if churches see the sense of urgency that we’re seeing,” Goings says. “We study the statistics and look at leadership development. I do think (a leadership shortage) is coming down the pipeline. That’s not trying to be punny. I don’t know if the American church is ready for it.”
Recalling a similar conversation with Church Planting Mobilizer Brian Harris, who has also identified a leadership shortage, I wondered if the lack of young ministry leaders in the Pipeline is indicative of a widespread trend. Are others in our national MB family experiencing similar declines in students pursuing ministry, and if so, what can be deduced from these trends?
The Pacific District Conference also engages interns, so I contacted District Minister Jordan Ringhofer. While churches are investing in students during the summer, Ringhofer says fewer students are pursuing vocational ministry.
Representatives from all three U.S. MB institutions of higher education report declining enrollment in programs preparing students for full-time ministry. Varied and complex factors—the pandemic, suspicion of church, interest in other vocations and cultural and generational differences—make it difficult to pinpoint definitive reasons for the decline.
The PDC’s Board of Next Generation Leadership has had a summer internship program since 2003 with more than 250 participants. In 2021, its focus shifted to providing grants to churches for internships.
Before the pandemic, the PDC issued close to 20 grants per summer, but after, that number dropped to four or five. This number is slowly increasing as churches return to regular programming, though church budget strains post-pandemic have limited some churches’ willingness to hire interns, Ringhofer says.
Mental health among young adults is another factor.
“Students today don’t know how to cope with their struggles and stressors,” he says. “It’s manifesting in different ways.”
MB Foundation, too, provides scholarships for young people interested in pursuing MB ministry and has, if anything, seen an increase in participants since the pandemic.
Rick Eshbaugh, director of financial discipleship who oversees the Leadership Generation Fund, says the agency has distributed 75 grants to high school and college age students for internships and schooling since the program’s inception in 2016, averaging 10 per year with the exception of 22 in 2017 and five in 2020. Numbers are climbing, he says, and for 2023, he expects as many as 16, to which he attributes word of mouth and repeat applicants.
However, representatives from all three U.S. MB institutions of higher education report declining enrollment in programs preparing students for full-time ministry. Varied and complex factors—the pandemic, suspicion of church, interest in other vocations and cultural and generational differences—make it difficult to pinpoint definitive reasons for the decline.
In the last five years, Fresno Pacific University in Fresno, Calif., has witnessed an approximate 60 percent decline in enrollment in programs preparing students for ministry, corresponding to a 25 percent drop in FPU’s total student enrollment, says Melanie Howard, chair for the Biblical and Religious Studies Division.
“While it is possible that this trend is continuing, tracking more recent data has proved challenging due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic on enrollment across higher education,” Howard says.
Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary has also experienced a decline in enrollment the past five years, from 164 students in Spring 2019 to 113 in Spring 2023. Wade French, director of seminary enrollment, attributes this to a variety of factors, including churches no longer requiring pastors to have seminary degrees, a decreased value on higher education, decreased church attendance and students’ tendency to enroll in career-oriented programs such as marriage and family therapy, teaching or law school. Approximately 55 to 60 percent of the FPBS student body is pursuing a degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, French says.
At Tabor College, Wendell Loewen, professor of youth, church and culture, recalls having 40 students enrolled in Bible or ministry majors when he came to the MB institution in Hillsboro, Kan., in 1997. That number has dwindled to 11 for Fall 2023.
“I see fewer and fewer prospective students interested in ministry,” Loewen says. “Part of it might be a recruiting strategy, but that’s not the whole answer. Ministry is just not a valued career option in our culture. The role of the church in a community has changed.”
USMB NextGen’s Goings cites a 2017 Barna study highlighting a shortage of young leaders and referring to the “graying of America’s clergy.” The study reports there are more Protestant pastors over age 65 than under 40. The number of pastors over 65 nearly tripled from 1992 (6 percent) to 2017 (17 percent), while the percentage of pastors under 40 decreased from 33 percent to 15 percent. Contributing factors include longer life expectancy, economic concerns causing pastors to work longer and fewer young people going into ministry.
“We’re heading toward a cliff as church in America,” Goings says. “These wonderful, dedicated, Jesus-loving pastors are retiring. There’s either going to be a huge influx of potential new leaders or many churches will shut down because they can’t replace their pastor.”
Data suggests the number of people identifying as atheist is rising. A 2018 Barna study labels Gen Z “post-Christian,” reporting that 59 percent of Gen Z claim a Protestant or Catholic Christian religious faith, compared to 65 percent of Millennials, 65 percent of Gen X and 75 percent of Boomers. While 7 percent of Millennials identified as atheist, that number nearly doubled for Gen Z (13 percent).
Tabor’s Loewen says life no longer centers around work, school and church in a culture where church is an add-on for spiritual consumers.
“Studies show that spirituality is still important, a need for something that helps a person get through life,” Loewen says. “But for many, Christianity isn’t the answer and maybe even the church isn’t the answer, even if they are Christians.”
FPU’s Howard notes an increased interest among Gen Z in studying Scripture and ministry through non-profits and nondenominational mission organizations.
“This seems consistent with most data on Gen Z Christian students that indicate they are deeply committed to Christ but are not convinced that they can follow him faithfully in existing church structures,” she says, listing abuse scandals, ultra-politicization and inner-denominational and inner-church squabbles as contributing factors to this hesitancy.
Brian Ross, associate professor of pastoral ministries at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, echoes these findings, saying many social institutions, including churches and seminaries, were not built for the world Gen Z is living in, which includes access to smart phones and the internet, a rapidly diversifying cultural demographic and an unstable world affecting mental health.
“Now, quite literally, the whole world is available to everyone in their back pocket,” Ross says. “If one wants to lead a respected, positive community today, their first thought is not church ministry.”
Reasons for hope
If younger generations, specifically Gen Z, are leaving the church, and if fewer young people are pursuing ministry roles, what solutions might we employ? Where is the hope?
Regarding openness to faith and church, FPBS’s Ross suggests that when a person hits rock bottom, they may become open to a different life. Christian spiritual disciplines are personally transformative, and when culture doesn’t work, Jesus and the Bible become more attractive, he says.
For Tabor’s Loewen, the pandemic proved people still need community.
“Jesus is still the answer,” he says. “How we help people address their needs, their brokenness, might end up looking different than it has.”
The Pipeline, while not a catch-all solution, will continue to be a resource, Goings says, but churches must call out young leaders.
“An intern is not just another hired hand,” Goings says. “An intern is investing in the next generation. Most churches don’t have strategy or intentionality when it comes to leadership development.”
Goings says Gen Z students are hungry for a genuine, authentic relationship with Jesus. He likens the current cultural moment to the Babylonian exile during the time of Daniel. The future of the church hinges on finding the faithful remnant whose faith is not compromised.
“We’re living in this ‘modern-day Babylon,’ Goings says. “We need to look for the few but resilient disciples, the resilient next generation who’s going to lead us back. I don’t think the church will ever fail. God’s pretty clear on that. I think Gen Z is the greatest hope the church has seen in five generations.”
For a closer look at statistics from MB institutions, cultural factors and solutions, read this companion article.
Janae Rempel is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Rempel is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Rempel graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She attends Hillsboro MB Church.