A message to preach but few to deliver it
With current generation of pastors close to retirement, leaders seek young clergy
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.”