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Many churches face challenge of declining clergy numbers

Many churches face challenge of declining clergy numbers


SIOUX CITY | On Sunday mornings, Jay Denne conducts the 8:30 service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

As soon as it's over, he heads across town, hoping he doesn't hit too many red lights, so he can arrive at St. Luke Lutheran Church in time to conduct the 10 a.m. service.

"I'm the example of how the denominations are looking outside the ranks to fill their (clergy) openings," said Denne, who's a half-time pastor at each church. "Particularly in the rural areas, you get farther away from the metropolitan area and it gets harder to fill those positions."

The difficulty churches face in maintaining adequate clergy levels was brought to light on Feb. 25, when the Catholic Diocese of Sioux City announced a draft plan that calls for reducing the number of parishes from 108 to 67 by 2017. Sunday Mass would no longer be celebrated at 40 smaller churches, which would be open only for prayer and special events such as funerals and weddings.

Diocesan leaders attributed the changes to declining church attendance and a shortage of priests. The number of priests available for pastoral ministry in the diocese, which includes 24 counties in Northwest and north central Iowa, is projected to fall from 58 to 35 in the next seven to eight years. The diocese has ordained just nine priests in the past 10 years.

Dwindling clergy numbers isn't just a problem for the Catholic church.

"Lots of other groups are facing these same issues," said Bruce Forbes, a religious studies professor at Morningside College.

Forbes said the Catholic church and "mainline" protestant denominations -- Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and Episcopal -- all are seeing declines in membership and clergy members.

"Every single one of them has seen a dramatic decline in membership over a long period of time," Forbes said. "Catholics have a greater concern there because of celibate clergy."

Because Catholic priests must be men and may not marry, the church has a smaller pool of potential clergy members. But allowing pastors to marry and ordaining women hasn't stopped the decline of clergy numbers in other denominations.

"We will face the fact of not having enough pastors to fill vacancies," said Bishop Rodger Prois of the Western Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

Nationwide, the ELCA has seen enrollment in seminaries drop by 50 percent in the past 10 years, Prois said. There will be only 80 candidates to fill the 180 openings for first-call candidates, those who are just out of seminary.

Of the 130 congregations in the Western Iowa Synod, which covers the western half of Iowa, more than half are sharing a pastor, Prois said.

"We have a number of congregations that are open now," he said.

Some congregations have utilized lay pastors, who have religious training but are not ordained ministers. Prois said lay pastors can perform many of the sacramental functions of an ordained pastor and have been vital in helping congregations bridge the gap while searching for a full-time pastor.

The use of lay ministers and licensed local pastors rather than ordained pastors has long been a tradition in the United Methodist Church, said the Rev. Bill Poland, assistant to the bishop for administration in the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Methodist ministers have historically been "circuit riders," Poland said, serving more than one congregation.

"It's part of our history," he said.

For now, Poland said, Methodist clergy numbers are holding steady, but church leaders are concerned that pastors, like the rest of their membership, are aging and there are fewer people being ordained into the ministry.

Dennis Sohl, stated clerk of the Storm Lake-based Presbytery of Prospect Hill, which includes 47 Presbyterian churches in Northwest Iowa, said six smaller churches are being served by commissioned ruling elders rather than pastors. Some churches currently have vacancies, but all are actively seeking to fill them.

"There have not been any churches that have gone from having ordained clergy to not having ordained clergy," Sohl said. "It doesn't appear to be an issue."

Some protestant clergy members, such as Denne, serve across denominational lines to help ease the shortage.

The congregations he serves determined they did not need full-time clergy. Denne was serving St. Luke Lutheran as a half-time pastor, and he learned that St. Thomas Episcopal was having a hard time finding a half-time priest. He offered his services because he knew several members of St. Thomas.

A full-communion agreement was reached between the two churches and approved by their bishops to enable him to serve both denominations.

He chuckled, saying he's a priest at St. Thomas and a pastor at St. Luke, but the arrangement has worked for Denne, who's also a part-time attorney.

"Both congregations have been really cooperative about the situation," he said.

Declining population in rural areas is one reason for the drop in church attendance, Forbes said. Declining affiliation with particular denominations is another.

"The only group that's really growing is called in various polls independent, unaffiliated or other," he said.

If fewer people are growing up affiliated with a particular church, it makes sense that there would be fewer people studying to be ministers or priests. Economic factors also are likely at play.

"Society's interested in making money, so we have people going into business, medical fields (rather than ministry)," Forbes said. "It could be the declining influence of the church in general society."


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