A recent review of pastoral demographics in the United States reveals that nearly 50 percent of Seventh-day Adventist ministers will reach retirement age within 10 years, a discovery that is prompting ministry officials to examine potential scenarios to address the coming dilemma.
Namely, will the denomination hire a new crop to replace retiring ministers, or will it urge much of its experienced, aging workforce to continue working longer than previously planned? Each option has its own advantages, and church leaders say they’re exploring a mix of both possible solutions.
Retirement age is considered 66.5 for the year 2022, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration.
The choice of whether to retain ministers past retirement age into their late 60s and early 70s keeps experienced ministers on staff, church leaders say, but it leaves several generations between pastors and the young adults and teens they minister to. Yet this demographic is small – leaders say the median age of an Adventist in North America is 56.
How leaders address the situation could affect everything from hiring requirements and remuneration policies to seminary tuition and the cultural needs of the region’s diverse congregants. All aspects of developing and supporting ministers could be up for analysis.
“We’re going to be looking at how we can have top-level quality pastors in this opportunity that’s presenting itself,” said Dave Gemmell, an associate director of the Ministerial Department of the church’s North American Division (NAD).
What’s certain is that leaders will explore how to renew recruiting efforts, sponsor more graduate students for theological training and develop the recently formed Board of Ministerial Education. Until recently, NAD was the only one of the denomination’s 13 world divisions without one. The board would offer additional formal training for practicing ministers.
“We have a good system of education, but we haven’t historically had oversight of that in North America,” said Ivan Williams, director of the NAD Ministerial Department.
Church leaders noted that the above statistics on retirement age do not include “regional” conferences, church administrative units that oversee historically African-American congregations in the Central and Eastern U.S. There are nine regional conferences within the division’s total of 58 conferences and one attached field. About 25 percent of NAD members belong to regional conferences, according to statistics from the office of the NAD executive secretary.
Statistics for this survey were gleaned from records in the NAD Retirement office. Regional conferences operate under a separate retirement structure and comparable stats aren’t available as of yet.
The entire division has about 3,460 ordained ministers and 230 commissioned ministers. There are about 920 licensed ministers, typically college theology graduates who have yet to enter the seminary or seminary graduates yet to be ordained.
The 1.1 million Adventists in NAD live in the U.S., Canada, Bermuda, and the North Pacific islands that comprise the Guam-Micronesia Mission.
Hiring the trained
Addressing future staffing challenges in the U.S. also presents opportunities to examine other factors in hiring pastors. Ministerial leaders say they would like remuneration practices to better reflect a candidate’s training. Currently, wages are similar for a pastor who has a doctorate in ministry compared to a pastor who doesn’t have a college degree. That fact could lead NAD officials to consider making an adjustment in salary policies.
“I think [they] should,” said Denis Fortin, dean of the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
But that decision is ultimately up to leaders at divisions, unions and conferences. Fortin says a trend in the past decade is the increased hiring of pastors who don’t have a master’s degree in theology, and sometimes no college degree at all. A seminary professor said a study several years ago found that on average about four pastors in each local conference did not have a college degree.
This practice of filling pastoral slots with Bible workers who have completed a several-week training course actually violates the North American Division Working Policy. Section L 05 states that “educational requirement for entrance into the ordained ministry shall be the completion of the seven-year ministerial training program,” specifying that college graduates “shall attend the Andrews University Theological Seminary.” Exceptions are allowed for “age” and “unusual circumstances.”
Seminary leaders say an increasingly educated membership deserves educated pastors.
“Why would the ministry not need good, solid education when other professions in North America require good, solid education, whether it’s a lawyer or someone in the medical field?” Fortin said.
One potential way to enforce the current hiring policy, Fortin said, could involve requiring a theological education before ordination or commissioning.
Who’s at the seminary now
Fortin said the seminary graduate program has about 350 to 400 students enrolled, depending on the semester, and about 100 graduate each year. Church leaders estimate that about 200 pastors per year will be needed to fill future vacancies.
Walt Williams, an NAD Ministerial Department associate director and director of the seminary’s InMinistry Center, said more second-career students are entering the seminary, many of whom are attractive hiring options to conferences seeking a candidate with more life experience.
The seminary continues to experience an ongoing shift in demographics. Nearly 20 percent of the seminary’s current enrollment of graduate students is women, up from 15 percent a decade ago, Fortin said.
Also, ethnic demographics of seminary graduate students have shifted slightly. Caucasians still make up the seminary’s largest ethnic group at about 35 to 40 percent, but Fortin said that figure is down from about 50 percent in the last decade. About one-third are Black, 15 percent are Hispanic and 12 percent are Asian, Fortin said.
Another consideration up for review by NAD officials is which party will pay for a seminary student’s tuition. Williams said he has noticed a shift in the last 10 years: where conferences once hired college theology graduates for an internship and then sponsored the candidate at the seminary, they now increasingly hire seminary graduates.
Part of that shift may have resulted from an incentive program to motivate conferences to hire seminary graduates. Several years ago the division began offering increased subsidies to conferences to hire unsponsored graduates fresh from the seminary. Some conferences are increasingly waiting to earn the incentive rather than risking sponsorship on an undergrad, with graduates frequently getting nothing to offset their debt.
“Now you have more theology majors going straight to the seminary without that one- or two-year break of an internship, which was very valuable,” Williams said.
In many cases, it has also increased the debt load of more graduates. Now, only about one-third of seminary students are sponsored by conferences.
Division leaders want to reverse that trend. NAD now subsidizes the seminary’s graduate program with about $3 million annually based on 200 students, with another $1 million of subsidies for unions and conferences to sponsor graduate students.
“We want more sponsored students,” said Tom Evans, NAD treasurer. “We don’t want conferences going to the seminary and hiring graduates at the last minute with the graduate having paid for everything.”
NAD Ministerial leaders say most of the conference hiring rate hinges on the economy. Williams, the ministerial associate director, said hiring has picked up some in the past year for the first time since the recession, but also proffered, “the floodgates have yet to open.”
Still, most graduates find jobs. Fortin said seminary research suggests that about 85 percent of newly minted pastors are hired “within a year or two.” Some of those positions are in chaplaincy and not in the traditional pastoral role at a congregation, he said.
Williams said he hopes that conference leaders continue to employ and train young pastors with a long-term focus in mind.
“Any farsighted conference that I’ve been in tends to hire younger pastors,” he said. "It’s going to take such courage to plan for the future."
“But I understand the challenge of administrators who have older pastors on staff who want to remain employed.”