Analysis won’t save us: a response to the “clergy shortage” report

It’s not often that a 19 page internal church report starts trending on my news-feed. Granted, I’m a church nerd so it probably happens to me more than it happens to most of you dear readers. However, over the last week a report entitled “The Supply of and Demand for ELCA Clergy” kept popping up.

In short, the report is 19 pages worth of analysis, statistics, and graphs of a challenge that the ELCA is facing now and will probably continue to face in the future: there are simply not enough pastors right now and will not be going into the future.

Over the course of discussing this problem the report (which can be found here) goes into much more than just the number of churches seeking a pastor compared to the number of available pastors. Declining seminary attendance, declining and shrinking congregations, and shrinking finances all get their time in the limelight.

Now I originally thought about writing a line by line reflection on this report, but midway upon the journey I realized something: I’m tired of mere numbers. I’m tired of only hearing about statistics. I’m tired to dealing with the challenges that Church in North America faces as if they are only a math problem to be solved. I have found the continued analysis and discussion of only numbers and statistics to be woefully inadequate and I have realized that what I am desperately looking for is for someone to speak the Word of God.

Right at the outset I will apologize to the good people who produced this report and the many people at the national church offices in Chicago. I firmly believe that you are faithful people, I am sure you discussed/continue to discuss the theological situation the church is in, and this post is in no way meant to be some kind of rant against only the leadership of the ELCA. This post reflects my own personal wrestling and if anything reflects my wrestling with the whole church. Myself included

NOT STICKING MY HEAD IN THE SAND

I am tired of mere numbers, but that doesn’t mean I want to hide from the problem. My weariness of only hearing about statistics and numbers and graphs is not because I want to ignore the challenges of the North American Church or because I think numbers have no place at all. Certainly we could just ignore the problem and continue on like there is no problem. Continue on in blissful denial. However, I have never really liked pretending to be an ostrich and just sticking my head in the sand.

Perhaps it is my contrary nature, but I find the current challenges of the church exciting. I was fully aware of all the statistics when I went to seminary. I sometimes say that I went to seminary because of those statistics because what I really enjoy is a challenge.

However, only discussing numbers exhausts me. I can quote to you the endless litany of statistics. Shrinking worship attendance, ballooning costs, etc etc… In many ways the physical building that my congregation worships in, with its gigantic stone edifice, is a monument to the statistics that this report describes. We even fit perfectly in the average worship attendance described in the report: 70.

The statistics don’t weary me because I desire to exist in some delusional world of “I’m alright, you’re alright, everyone is alright.” No instead the statistics exhaust me because by themselves they don’t begin to approach the actual issue.

I will be as clear as I can be: I am convinced that the real struggle we are facing in our particular corner of Christianity is that we are going into exile. We are quickly moving from the all dominating power of Christendom, in which State and culture supported and encouraged us in every way possible, to a state of the church in which we no longer possess that power. If these numbers and reports tell us anything, it is that exile is coming swiftly.[1]

And my issue is that by themselves statistics and numbers are incredibly flawed in dealing with this new situation because numbers on their own lead you to believe that what the ELCA is going through is technical problem that can be solved by applying the right strategy.

So we look at statistics regarding the shortage of pastors and we think it is a problem to be managed. It will resolve itself if we find the right funding strategy for ordination candidates and the right recruitment strategy for seminary. Statistics alone make us believe that we can solve the challenge of shrinking congregations if we merge enough congregations and form enough two point perishes. Numbers only lead us to think that the solution to shrinking congregation or synod budgets is to convince people to give more through some stewardship program.

But here is the thing: Exile is not a problem to be solved by math. Graphs will not lead us home from exile. No amount of analysis can solve the problem of exile. No amount of math can give us new life.

THUS SAITH THE LORD…

When I look at how Israel dealt with exile I have found very little numbers. There is no Second book of Numbers in which Jeremiah details shortage of priests after the destruction of the temple.

No, instead what I have found is that Israel wrestled through poetry, lament, complaint, prayer, and worship. Israel’s discussion around exile is not a discussion centered around numbers, but around the fundamental theological problems that they faced. Is God faithful? What is God’s call us to do in this situation and place? Can we speak about a good God?

So to people wondering if God can truly bring life again Ezekiel frankly and honestly discusses how much they messed up… and then frankly and honestly tells them that yes, God can make these bones live again.

To people wondering if their relationship with God had been broken beyond repair Jeremiah honestly and frankly says just how much the relationship was messed up… and then comes those beautiful words “thus says the lord” and “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jeremiah 31:3).

To a people who wonder if there is any word from God that can speak to them in a far off place Isaiah writes “comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1).  

Israel identified that exile is not a statistical problem or an issue to be confronted by strategy. They identified that Exile is a theological challenge that only the blessed words of “thus saith the Lord” can really answer.

And here is the other wonderful thing. In Exile, the people Israel found that God did speak and lead. Part of my issue with only discussing numbers is that our discussion seems to be centered around how we can prevent exile. If we come up with the right strategy maybe we can stop it. Far from being only punishment, however, the people of Israel found that there is incredible grace in exile. Some of our most treasured and love pieces of scripture come from exile. In the wilderness (another metaphor for exile) Israel found that God leads and God speaks. Far from desiring to avoid that, shouldn’t we have hope that we are entering a time and place in which such wonderful grace will occur in our midst?

This all comes to head, for us as Christians, in the person of Jesus. On the road to Emmaus the disciples will utter the saddest words in scripture (that also sum up exile quite well): “we had hoped…” (Luke 24:21). Through the scriptures and breaking of the bread the disciples will find that the resurrected Jesus is right in their midst.

The numbers alone exhaust me because instead of talking about strategies and tactics I want wrestle with that theological problem. I want to, and firmly believe that we as a church need to, express our moment of “we had hoped.” I want to have us all, through prayer, poetry, and worship struggle with the real issue.

Finally, I want us to discover that despite the numbers new life is already in our midst. I want us to say as the people of God together “Thus saith the Lord…”  

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Like many things I write, I cannot take credit for this assertion. Read anything by Walter Brueggemann or Douglas John Hall if you want more on exile and the contemporary church

2 comments

  1. I smiled the whole way through reading this because, Pastor Dave, you have done it again. Your blogs always inspire me and enable me to have a more positive attitude and a much better outlook on the life that I strive to live for our Lord. You have a way of getting to what is most important and I thank you for this.

  2. I will be attending seminary starting in the fall and I’ve been wrestling with the very same issues you’ve raised here. I’ve been a member of the same congregation since I was baptized (with a little “break” in membership while I was on Active Duty) and the congregation has been with the ELCA since the merger back in the 80s. I remember the church being packed on most Sundays when there were 2 services, and they would open up the chapel wing for Christmas and Easter to accommodate the larger crowds. Now we’ve cut it back to 1 service on Sundays and there’s enough room for everyone to lay down in the pews if we wanted to. I agree with you, it’s not the church, or the people, or finding the right strategy to increase simple numbers. It’s about the Word. If we are headed for exile (which I also believe), we need people, faithful people, who will continue to speak the Truth through the Scriptures.

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