The economy in divines

Talking about the clergy job market may seem a little crass -- pondering the job market in the midst of widespread job loss, even more so. As an ordained minister, I tend to think of the folks in congregations who are losing their jobs, and the impact it has on their lives rather than wondering how my fellow clergy or seminarians waiting for calls to congregations are riding out the storm.

I haven't come across any other articles on this topic, so I was happy to see New York Times religion writer Samuel Freedman examine how one seminarian, Lynette Sparks, is coping with seeking a call in turbulent times. As I've said, I have a bias towards matter-of-fact stories about how people cope with daily life and make practical decisions, because I feel that this is where most readers tend to connect with newspapers or online media. Freedman's story certainly fits that bill, although there are moments of what may be purposeful vagueness that are a little irritating.

Freedman's story begins, appropriately enough with a sermon:

One Sunday in late March, Lynette Sparks stood at the altar of a Presbyterian church in upstate New York to sermonize about seven verses from Romans and the notion of transitions. Ms. Sparks talked about the early Christians waiting for divine revelation. She talked about the construction project under way near the sanctuary. She talked, as preachers sometimes do, indirectly about herself...

Ms. Sparks was engaging in both homiletics and autobiography when she called transition a "wilderness place, a place of wandering, a place of suspended animation, a place that appears dry and lifeless." Her husband, Brad, who works in the auto-parts industry, had barely escaped three rounds of layoffs. And the ministry, her chosen profession, was suffering from a recession of its own at the very time she was going into the job market.

Freedman immediately draws the reader into the very human problems confronting the Sparks family -- although he probably upset a few Presbyterians who do not, as a matter of conviction, have altars, but tables at which to commemorate the Last Supper. Then Freedman makes the larger point: clergy, like other job seekers, are watching their pension funds "dry up" and seminary graduates are being compelled to look for part-time work.

The anecdotal evidence collected by the Association of Theological Schools, which covers 250 graduate institutions in the United States and Canada, has found job listings for ministerial positions down by about one-third at major seminaries serving both evangelical and mainstream Protestant denominations. The Jewish newspaper The Forward reported last month that Jewish seminaries accustomed to placing nearly all their newly minted rabbis were finding jobs this year for only about half.

Denomination by denomination, the severity of the current downturn does vary. While evangelical churches tend to see it as a temporary reversal in a continuing boom, the Conservative Jewish movement and mainline Protestant denominations like the Presbyterians had been retrenching well before subprime mortgages and credit-default swaps intruded into congregational finance.

Here's where I'd like to see some quotes and facts and rather than generalizations. Are all Jewish seminaries having problems placing graduates? What "evangelical churches" is Freedman talking about? What does "retrenching" mean in this context? Later in the story, Association of Theological Schools executive director Daniel Aleshire is quoted referring to "changes in congregational life" as they impact clergy employment, but Freedman doesn't analyse what that means -- doctrinal battles? Culture wars? A shift from mainline churches to megachurches as some Americans move fluidly from denomination to non-denomination?

More clarity would have been really helpful in anchoring this essay. I'm still grateful that readers get to experience the dilemmas and anxiety of a clergy family so much like their own family or that of their neighbor. And I love the end quote.

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