During the last couple of years, more than one American bishop has said that the clergy shortage is not unique to the Catholic Church. A recent expression of this view is found in Bishop Wilton Gregory’s letter of Aug. 29, 2003, to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, in which he states: A number of studies in recent years indicate that denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church (USA), as well as other mainline churches with married clergy have also faced a shortage of ministers.
Is this true? After reviewing studies of the clergy situation in the Catholic Church and 10 Protestant denominations, here is what I found.
Defining the Problem
First, the clergy shortage is a complicated problem involving at least five issues:
total number of clergy a denomination or church reports (that is, the supply of clergy)
ratios of church members to clergy and clergy to congregations (the demand side)
distribution (e.g., how many clergy are in parish ministry or nonparish ministries, or in large or small parishes)
demographic characteristics (e.g., how many are single or married, men or women, young or old, first-career or second-career)
quality (e.g., how many have distinguished or undistinguished academic records, or are well equipped or poorly equipped to serve in today’s churches)
So people who claim the clergy shortage is unique to the Catholic Church and those who claim it is not might be referring to the same thing (in which case, one side is right and the other is wrong), or they might be referring to different aspects of the problem (in which case, both sides might be right). Here is a summary of what I have learned about each dimension.
On this dimension, the evidence clearly indicates that the Catholic Church is unique. In the Catholic Church, the total number of priests has declined from 58,534 in 1981 to 52,227 in 1991 and 45,713 in 2001 (a 22 percent loss between 1981 and 2001). In every other group, including denominations in which membership has declined (e.g., the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches), the total number of clergy has increased. In the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) the increases have been rather modest (3 percent to 5 percent). In the Evangelical Lutheran, Lutheran-Missouri Synod and United Methodist churches, they have been larger (11, 15 and 21 percent, respectively). In four groups, the increases have been larger yet. These denominations include the Church of the Nazarene (25 percent), American Baptist churches (27 percent), the Episcopal Church (29 percent) and the Assemblies of God (35 percent).
Given the claims of a very recent clergy shortage in some Protestant churches, I also checked the data for each year between 1995 and 2001. They show steady increases in total clergy in five denominations (the Assemblies of God, Nazarenes, Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians and United Methodists), year-to-year ups and downs with overall increases in four groups (American Baptists, Missouri-Synod Lutherans, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ), annual fluctuations with a slight overall decline in one group (Disciples of Christ) and a steady decline in only one group: the Catholic Church. On this dimension at least, I found no evidence that Protestant churches face a clergy shortage that at all resembles the steadily declining number of Catholic priests.
The Catholic Church also is unique regarding the ratio of church members to total clergy. With the Catholic population increasing steadily and the number of priests declining, the number of laypeople per priest has climbed from 875:1 in 1981 to 1,113:1 in 1991 and 1,429:1 in 2001 (a 63 percent increase). No other religious group even comes close to that increase. Three Protestant groups (the Church of the Nazarene, the Presbyterian Church and the Assemblies of God) have experienced minor increases (from an average of 98:1 in 1981 to 103:1 in 2001, an average increase of 5 percent). In every other group, the number of members per clergyperson has declined (from an average of 250:1 in 1981 to 189:1 in 2001, an average decline of 24 percent).
Five Protestant denominations now have more congregations than they had in 1981, with very small congregations of 100 or fewer members accounting for the bulk of the increase. The Catholic Church also has more parishes (19,946 in 2001, compared with 19,971 in 1991 and 18,903 in 1981), although the number has declined in the last decade. The Catholic Church, with its history of much larger parishes, is the only group to have fewer clergy per parish in 2001 (2.3) than it had in 1991 (2.6) and 1981 (3.1). The number of clergy per congregation increased for all other groups, from an average of 1.5 in 1981 to 1.7 in 1991 and 1.8 in 2001 (a 20 percent increase).
Thus, whichever ratio one considers, there is a growing shortage of Catholic priests but an increasing supplysome analysts say an oversupplyof clergy in most Protestant denominations.
The Catholic Church also is unique in that the declining number of priests in parish ministry is producing a marked increase in the number of priestless parishes. In 1960, only about 3 percent of Catholic parishes had no resident pastor. By 2000 that figure was up to 13 percent, and by the summer of 2003 it had risen to 16 percent. Given the continuing decline in ordinations, there is every reason to believe this figure will continue to grow in the years ahead. The situation is very different in Protestant churches, where pulpit vacancies are highly concentrated in very small congregations, many of which are located in small, rural, poor and/or minority communities. As the researcher Jack Marcum recently concluded in a report for the Presbyterian Church, the situation is less a shortage of ministers than a coming together of related trends that result in a growing number of very small congregations with limited financial resources at the same time that dual careers and other personal considerations have made ministers without calls more selective in their searches. In Marcum’s words: There may be a shortage of pastors, but there is clearly no shortage of ministers. Marcum’s analysis also helps to explain the situation in other Protestant denominations, but not the situation in the Catholic Church.
Catholics also are unique in having a declining number of priests in nonparish ministries. With a dwindling supply of both diocesan and religious order priests, the Catholic Church is no longer able to staff other forms of ministry with priests as it did in the 1950’s and 60’s. There is a well-established decline, for example, in the number of priests teaching in parochial schools and Catholic colleges. In contrast, a growing number and percentage of Protestant clergy are involved in noncongregational ministries, such as denominational administration, social outreach, hospital and school chaplaincies and missionary work.
The Catholic Church also is unique in having a clergy that is comprised almost entirely of unmarried men (the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod also limits ordination to males, but its clergy may marry). Protestant churches have always ordained married men and, with a few exceptions, have been increasingly willing to ordain women.
But the Catholic Church is not unique in experiencing a shortage of people in the age range 20 to 29 who want to be ordained. Although young adults are still going into fields like law and medicine in their 20’s, the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations are not attracting as many twentysomethings (whether male or female, single or married) as they used to. The average age of Protestant seminarians and recently ordained clergy has increased, just as it has in the Catholic Church. In addition, fewer young adults are choosing ministry and the priesthood as their first career. There is a growing number of members of both the Protestant and the Catholic clergy who have had careers in other sectors (including marriage and motherhood for many Protestant women) before deciding to enter seminary and the ministry.
The matter of quality involves many issues related to the screening practices and academic standards of seminaries, which I will not explore here. It also involves a great deal of subjectivity and many competing judgments about the types of spirituality, theological orientations and pastoral skills that members of the clergy ought to have at any point in time. For every liberal who worries about the increasing number of conservative seminarians and young priests, there is a conservative who celebrates the very same trend.
Setting such contentious matters aside, however, the Catholic Church does not appear to be unique in recent expressions of concern about the academic prowess of the men (and in many Protestant churches, the women) who are being admitted to seminaries and ordained. Data indicating declines in seminarians’ graduate-school admission test scores (relative to others who took these exams) and in the percentage of Phi Beta Kappa’s who choose religious life tend to support this claim. Another growing concern in both Protestant and Catholic circles is whether seminarians and newly ordained clergy are theologically and emotionally prepared for pastoral ministry in today’s churches. This concern is reflected in reports that fewer seminarians have educational backgrounds in theology and philosophy, and that a sizable number of young clergy leave the ministry after struggling with laypeople and older clergy who do not share their outlook on life in general and faith in particular.
In short, the Catholic Church is unique in several areas: the dwindling supply of priests, the increasing number of laypeople per priest, the declining number of priests per parish, the increasing number of priestless parishes and the declining number of priests in nonparish ministries. It also is unique in some demographics (having a clergy that is comprised almost entirely of unmarried men), but not in others (the declining number of young adults for whom the priesthood is a first career). It is not unique in terms of quality issues (growing concerns about intellectual prowess and suitability for parish ministry).
Because the church is not entirely unique in experiencing changes in the demographic characteristics and quality of its clergy, there must be forces in society and/or religious life generally that are making it difficult for many faith groups to attract talented, young, first-career men and women the way they used to (and the way some other fields still do). The researcher Jackson Carroll, among others, points to the diminished status and authority of clergy both in the church and in the broader culture. Such perceptions, other influences and possible responses need to be examined by Catholic leaders, perhaps in conjunction with leaders of other religious groups that are experiencing similar challenges.
On the other hand, because the Catholic Church is unique with respect to total clergy, ratios, distribution and some demographics, the root causes of and possible solutions to these problems are more likely to be found in the church itself. Bishop Gregory’s letter deals only with celibacy, because that is the issue the Milwaukee priests put on the table in August. But any analysis of the causes of and solutions to the uniquely Catholic aspects of the clergy shortage should be broader than that. It should explore any and all church-related circumstances that might adversely affect priestly vocations. These might include church teachings (for example, the post-Vatican II church’s positive view of marriage and modern society), ecclesial policies specifically relating to priesthood (like norms relating to poverty and obedience as well as celibacy), contextual conditions relating to parish ministry (large parishes, for example, and demanding work schedules) and the laity’s attitudes and behavior (like the reluctance of some parents to encourage their sons to enter the priesthood). A comprehensive analysis of such issues might result in a decision to reaffirm some of these conditions, in spite of their adverse effects on priestly vocations, but it also might lead to changes in others.