THE BLOG

I Used to Be at Preacher Hut

06/02/2015 04:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

In June 1988, I left active duty service as a Navy Chaplain. My Staff Chaplain position at the then Naval Station Great Lakes, Il command was eliminated due to the infamous budget balancing legislative act known as Gramm, Rudman ,Hollings. This legislation passed despite not being terribly popular with significant numbers of Republican and Democratic legislators.

This was a very terrible time for me. I couldn't get a pastoral call to a local United Church Of Christ congregation in the greater Chicago, Il Milwaukee, Wi corridor to save my soul.

I felt awful that I couldn't support my family financially. I ended up working for several months at a pizza restaurant prior to going back to graduate school to get a Master's Degree in Social Work.

My wife's grandmother known for her colorful personality and equally memorable commentary
stated:

"Peter is working at preacher hut ! "

Yes, it was true, I had a Masters In Divinity degree from Princeton, several years parish ministry and active duty experience as a Navy Chaplain. Now I was working at the preparation table assembling pizzas, serving as a restaurant host and attempting to operate a cash register.

I did manage to do well in this position. I am thankful that I was able to work at that time. I learned a great deal about myself and the working lives of others. I sent out a lot of copies of my ministerial profile, got a lot of rejection letters and hardly received any support from denominational officials.

I wish that I could tell you that the church denominations have learned something in the past twenty-seven plus years with regard to taking care of clergy and supporting them in pastoral placement and during the course of their ministry.

Alas, they haven't learned a thing. We are currently witnessing decreased attendance in Protestant churches across the board with the exception of Mega-Church Fundamentalist congregations. More and more churches cannot financially support a full-time minister. More and more congregations are closing their doors, selling or attempting to sell their property, including the closing of Beacon Hill Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, TX that occurred one year ago ( see my previous blog entries What Do You Do When The Beacon Goes Out? And Beacon Hill Is Bleeding ), large congregations are seeking to break away from mainline Protestant denominations due to conflicts over church doctrine and social justice policies, denominational leaders appear to be more concerned about protecting their own positions as opposed to extending ministry to anyone.

A recent broadcast of " Religion And Ethics Weekly Report " ( PBS 05/31/2015 ) highlighted three recent seminary graduates, all of them male. One is 57 and is currently working at a shopping mall as a security guard. He has been trying to get a call to a church but is concerned that he is too old and that a church would be more inclined to call a younger pastor. Another is a filmmaker working for a non-profit organization, and another is unemployed, staying at home with his spouse and children and trying to survive.

Where is the support from the denominations and from the seminaries and divinity schools for these people ?

For that matter, is anyone doing any research and tracking the data regarding the rates of divorces, financial bankruptcy, the costs for physical and mental health care including any inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide rates for these unemployed seminary/divinity school graduates and their families ?

Recently, both Eden Theological Seminary Webster Groves, Mo and Austin Theological Seminary Austin, TX have closed their theological bookstores. Luther Theological Seminary St. Paul, MN. has been forced to eliminate half of its full-time faculty due to budgetary challenges.

In the Religion And Ethics broadcast, the Dean of Yale Divinity School Greg Sterling stated:

"We have a big problem when average student debt is fifty thousand ( 50,000 ) dollars and the average ministerial salary is thirty-five thousand ( 35,000) dollars. "

Currently there are less seminary/divinity school graduates who are going into parish ministry and more numbers are going into chaplaincy including hospital chaplaincy and working for non-profit organizations.

These certainly are very important ministries. That being said, we have a critical need for young and not so young, bright, gifted, talented and well educated local parish clergy to be effective leaders of congregations. This is especially relevant now with the current struggles of urban violence involving police departments, increasing income inequality along with the rise of poverty and homelessness and increasing concern for world climate sustainability due to global warming.

We need to have a radical change in policy in terms of how we prepare persons for ordained ministry.

It's not 1950 anymore.

My recourse is that anyone who I speak to who is interested in pursuing ordained ministry, I'm advising them to only consider applying to dual track programs ( i.e. M. DIV and MSW, M.DIV and JD Law degree, M. DIV and MBA etc. ). Princeton Theological Seminary Princeton, N.J. and Rutgers School Of Social Work, Rutgers University New Brunswick, N.J. have long sponsored such a dual track program. The University Of Texas at Austin,TX and Austin Theological Seminary Austin, TX are sponsoring and offering a dual track program for M.DIV and MSSW and M.DIV and JD Law degree.

This is a far better ethical mode for preparing future church leaders. Here at least, there is a greater opportunity and probability that a graduate will find able and meaningful work instead of long-term unemployment and misery due to the limitations with the present M.DIV alone system.

We need to do better in supporting our current clergy and also supporting and cultivating the clergy of the future. Denominational organizations need to reach out and support their people instead of being concerned about protecting their own positions of power and privilege.

This needs to happen NOW, not another twenty-seven years plus from now.

By the way, I still make a pretty good pizza.