Pastoral Vacancies bring challenges and blessings

Mark G. Schroeder

In my travels around the synod, some of the questions I often hear are, “What is the situation with pastoral vacancies? Do we have more vacancies than normal? With smaller class sizes at the seminary, will we be facing a pastoral shortage in the near future?”

As of the last meeting of the Conference of Presidents, there were 77 vacancies in positions requiring pastoral training. Since there are about 1,570 such positions, this represents a vacancy rate of about 5 percent. While somewhat higher than it has been in the last few years, the vacancy rate has not risen dramatically. The Conference of Presidents feels that any vacancy rate under 8 percent is manageable.

It’s true that classes at the seminary now and in recent years have been smaller than in the past. While class sizes had been averaging near 40 for some time, some classes lately have been in the low 30s. So we can expect the vacancy rate to increase in the short term. It should be noted, however, that several classes now at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minn., are larger and much closer to the previous levels.

Several years ago, there were concerns that we would see a significant pastoral shortage when pastors born in the “baby boom” era began to retire. This shortage has not materialized for several reasons. More pastors are choosing to serve in a semi-retirement capacity in small congregations that may not need a full-time pastor. In addition to that, we are seeing an increase in the number of small congregations, especially in rural areas, joining together with a neighboring congregation as a dual parish that can be served by one pastor. Both of these developments have served to keep the vacancy rate from rising more than it has.

In general, our current vacancy rate is not a bad thing. Having a certain number of vacancies results in more pastors receiving and accepting calls, and periodic changes in ministry are often beneficial both for the congregation and called worker. It is always a good thing for a pastor to have the opportunity to receive a call and prayerfully to consider his current ministry and the needs of the other congregation. It’s also beneficial and healthy for a congregation when its pastor receives a call. The members not only have an opportunity to reevaluate the work that the congregation is doing, but they also have the privilege of giving encouragement to their spiritual shepherd. It’s also an opportunity for everyone to offer prayers of thanks for the way God has provided leadership; direction; and, most important, the regular proclamation of the gospel, God’s power among us. And even though a vacancy provides some significant challenges for a congregation, it can be a good time to reassess thoroughly the needs of the congregation.

The fact that the synod’s vacancy rate now and in the near future does not indicate a looming pastoral shortage is a real blessing from God. But that is not a reason for us to relax in our efforts to encourage young men to prepare for the pastoral ministry. The ninth grader who is beginning his pastoral education next fall will not be ordained as a pastor until the year 2028. We can’t know what the needs of the church will be that many years into the future. What is certain, though, is that when we have a young man saying, “Here am I, send me!” we should be ready and committed to having a place for him to serve.

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Author: Mark G. Schroeder
Volume 103, Number 2
Issue: February 2016

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