Of course, we utter words like above to our children about becoming a professor, a doctor, or a pilot. Why do we never say it about becoming a pastor? I wonder. This matters more than we think. With two other pastors, I am helping a 2,400-member Florida UCC church seeking a new senior pastor. Even with a position as attractive as that, they are finding no one qualified and interested. That stunning reality should send a chill up our spine about the future of the church.
So what has changed? Scandals have rocked the Church at large for decades now. Sexual predation of children in male-dominated churches resisting change reflects even upon our likes, without such issues. Conservative evangelicals sell their spiritual birthright for worldly power in national partisan politics. Unscrupulous greed from prosperity preachers–“God will mightily bless the new Learjet you’ve provided me”–further harms the bona fides of the Church at large.
Thirty years ago the public ranked judges and clergy as bringing the highest honesty and ethics. New Gallup and Associated Press polls reveal that a mere 36% believe this today. Although frequent churchgoers still respect clergy integrity, only 52% of monthly churchgoers consider us trustworthy. Teachers, physicians, and scientists all rate 80% plus for their “favorable impact on society.” Clergy are at 55%. So if pastoral work was difficult when I began, it has gotten harder.
Of course, no time has ever existed when emotionally insecure people could thrive as ordained ministers. We proclaim a higher standard than we could ever equal. People like to remind us of that. But today prospects avoid my pastoral vocation in droves, even among seminary students.
I take a longer view on this. Pastoral ministry has survived for 2,000 years, even longer if we count the priestly tribe of Levites among the people of Israel. Both the integrity of clergy and the perception of our role have taken major hits in the past. Before the Reformation, over a hundred bishops in Europe didn’t know, when asked, who had originally said the Lord’s Prayer. That question is about as hard as, “who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” So things have been worse.
A big part of the weakness in perception toward clergy has to do with the wider lack of interest in organized religion and the practice of faith. Peter Marty writes of clergy, that we, “can seem like that of a piano salesmen trying to convince people to revive the household sing-alongs that animated family life several generations ago. It’s an uphill slog.” But trust can be earned and that thought should weigh upon all pastors in how we lead the church and conduct our lives. Chaucer once observed about the morals of the clergy, “If gold should rust, what will iron doo?”
I say this: serving as a pastor is a great life. You let me stand close to you in the most intimate and pivotal moments of life. Talk about one’s work making a difference! You have me sum up the meaning of your loved ones’ lives as they pass on. Talk about power! You ask me to tell and reinterpret the greatest story ever told. Talk about creative challenge! Harry Emerson Fosdick claimed if he had a thousand lives, he would live them all as a pastor. I charge you to put this time-honored work and viable vocation before your budding youth as they dream their dreams. The ordained ministry of today’s Congregational church cries out for children as gifted as yours.
-Rev. Dale Rosenberger