A mes­sage to preach but few to de­liver it

With cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of pas­tors close to re­tire­ment, lead­ers seek young clergy

The Dallas Morning News - - WEATHER - By SAM HODGES

It would be a stretch to call Dal­las na­tive Trace Haythorn the Mr. Fix It for the clergy short­age fac­ing Amer­i­can Chris­tian­ity.

But as the re­cently named pres­i­dent of the Fund for The­o­log­i­cal Ed­u­ca­tion, he’s in the thick of things, with a fo­cus on help­ing young peo­ple hear the call to con­gre­ga­tional min­istry.

“We’re out to make a com­pelling case to them for why this is im­por­tant, not just for the church but for so­ci­ety,” Dr. Haythorn, 42, said by phone from his or­ga­ni­za­tion’s head­quar­ters in At­lanta.

The Fund for The­o­log­i­cal Ed­u­ca­tion was cre­ated in 1954 with prin­ci­pal back­ing from the Rock­e­feller Brothers Fund.

The idea was to train clergy for the many new churches that formed with the baby boom af­ter World War II. (The renowned Chris­tian writer Fred­er­ick Buech­ner was in the class of what were then known as Rock­e­feller Fel­lows.)

Th­ese days, the main­line Protes­tant de­nom­i­na­tions are con­tract­ing. But their ef­fort to sta­bi­lize and be­gin grow­ing again is threat­ened by a short­age of clergy.

Dr. Haythorn said stud­ies show that only seven per­cent of pas­tors in this coun­try are un­der age 35, and about 40 per­cent of to­day’s pas­tors will re­tire be­tween 2015 and 2020.

Mean­while, about half of to­day’s sem­i­nar­i­ans go into fields other than con­gre­ga­tional min­istry.

Those re­al­i­ties, taken to­gether, spell fu­ture cri­sis for main­line Protes­tantism, with some United Methodist Church lead­ers pre­dict­ing the end of their de­nom­i­na­tion if more young clergy can’t be found.

“The work we’re do­ing feels as im­por­tant and in­tense as it was when we were try­ing to keep up with the rapid de­mands in the ’50s,” said Dr. Haythorn, whose re´sume´ in­cludes pas­torates and aca­demic posts.

Many rea­sons are of­fered for the de­cline of young peo­ple en­ter­ing con­gre­ga­tional min­istry. The sec­u­lar­iz­ing of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, and the length and in­flex­i­bil­ity of some de­nom­i­na­tions’ or­di­na­tion process, are two is­sues of­ten cited.

But Dr. Haythorn be­lieves the many pro­fes­sional op­tions open to col­lege-ed­u­cated young peo­ple, com­bined with a lack of at­ten­tion by con­gre­ga­tions to cul­ti­vat­ing fu­ture clergy, best ex­plains the prob­lem.

The fund’s main work con­tin­ues to be pro­vid­ing fel­low­ships for the­o­log­i­cal school stu­dents and col­lege stu­dents on their way to the­o­log­i­cal school. One pro­gram tar­gets black doc­toral stu­dents, in or­der to di­ver­sify the­o­log­i­cal school fac­ul­ties.

Dur­ing the last decade, the fund — whose back­ers in­clude the Lilly En­dow­ment — has awarded 1,600 fel­low­ships, rep­re­sent­ing $16 mil­lion in sup­port.

The fund also part­ners with con­gre­ga­tions, such as Dal­las’ Wil­shire Bap­tist Church, to pro­vide fi­nan­cial and emo­tional sup­port for young peo­ple within their ranks who are be­gin­ning sem­i­nary.

“The lan­guage we use is to ‘no­tice, name and nur­ture’, ” Dr. Haythorn said.

Catholi­cism faces a priest short­age that’s acute in North Texas. The fund, which works across the bound­ary lines within Chris­tian­ity, gave $12,000 to the Catholic Cam­pus Min­istry at South­ern Methodist Univer­sity.

The money will bol­ster pro­grams to help stu­dents de­ter­mine whether they want to go into the priest­hood, the dea­conate, a re­li­gious or­der or lay lead­er­ship.

Dr. Haythorn counts his teenage at­ten­dance at Dal­las’ Pre­ston Hollow Pres­by­te­rian Church as for­ma­tive. He grad­u­ated from W.T. White High School, went on to Austin Col­lege and Prince­ton The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, and has a doc­tor­ate from Syra­cuse Univer­sity.

He be­came pres­i­dent of the Fund for The­o­log­i­cal Ed­u­ca­tion in Jan­uary. He aims to ex­pand fund­ing and form a long-range plan.

“This is not some­thing you fix,” he said of the clergy short­age. “This is some­thing where you con­tinue to cul­ti­vate the next gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers.”

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