There has been a lot of discussion recently about the lack of Biblically qualified men (in particular) offering themselves for full-time pastoral ministry, especially within Anglican and Presbyterian churches in Sydney. While the kingdom of God is obviously larger than just these two denominations — as well as the Sydney metropolitan area! — it’s nonetheless a good snapshot as to what is going on in the wider church.
Paul McKendrick, who works for Ministry and Mission Committee of the Presbyterian Church of NSW & ACT refers to the situation in an unpublished document titled “The Coming Cliff”. McKendrick outlines a number of salient points:
- In the next 5-7 years, there are at least 30 current Pastors who could retire.
- The number of Pastors who are leaving ministry: due to burnout, for changing roles, for Chaplaincy or for just deciding that Pastoral Ministry in the Presbyterian Church is no longer where God wants them to be. It is difficult to put a number on that, but it would be conservatively two people per year. Therefore, approximately 14 people over the next 7 years. That means that over the next 7 years we are looking at approximately 44 Pastors who are currently Pastoring will not be Pastoring in 2026.
- The number of Exit Students over that period, looking at current trends, will only bring about 14 -20 new Pastors into our system.
Likewise, the Rev. Andrew Katay, Senior Minister of St John’s Anglican Church in Ashfield, outlines one of the key issues within his own denomination as follows:
“[A]… number of parishes that don’t have a senior minister, or are vacant. This changes all the time, of course, as senior ministers finish up, and parishes are filled. Towards the end of last year, there were over 40 vacant parishes, which represents about 15% of the total number of parishes. But it’s worth digging into the detail a little.
How does a parish become vacant? Only in 4 ways – the minister dies, retires, is removed, or resigns without retiring. Very few vacancies are caused by ministers dying in place, happily (although I used to work in a study where 2 of the previous ministers had keeled over, and were found with their faces planted on their desks!) My understanding is that 5-7 ministers retire each year, and if you do the math looking through the Diocesan yearbook, that number will hold steady for the next 15 years.
However, what’s really interesting — and important — is that the number of senior ministers who resigned without retiring or taking up another senior minister role in the Sydney Diocese. For the 3 years 2017-2019, 33 senior ministers resigned without retiring or taking up another senior minister role, which is nearly double the rate of retirements. Some were discipline matters with the Professional Standards unit, but most were not.
And it prompts the question — why are senior ministers leaving the role at twice the retirement rate, and choosing other jobs? Reduce that problem, and the crisis goes away!”
While the solution to this complex situation is not necessarily simple, I would like to suggest four things in particular that we should emphasise as we seek to address it.
First, we need to focus on prayer. This might seem obvious, but I rarely hear it mentioned, especially in relation to the current crisis. But, poignantly, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus makes the following observation and promise:
“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.
Ask the LORD of the harvest, therefore,
to send out workers into His harvest field.”
~ Luke 10:2
What Jesus says here is absolutely crucial. The perennial problem within the church is not that there isn’t a spiritual ‘crop’, but a lack of ‘workers’ to harvest it. What we need to do then is to especially pray that our Heavenly Father would raise up labourers to be involved in His earthly business.
Of course, as a priesthood of believers every Christian serves the Lord (1 Pet. 2:9-10; Eph. 4:12), but there is clearly a special calling to full-time Gospel ministry that some individuals are ‘sent’ to do (Gal. 1:1; Eph. 2:10; 4:10-11).
Second, we need to recover the Scriptural truth of ‘calling’. I understand how controversial this statement is, but it’s always been integral to a proper understanding of what it means to serve the LORD, particularly within reformed evangelicalism. As the prophet Jeremiah says,” I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied.” (Jer. 23:21) Hence, Andrew Katay really puts his finger onto a central issue when he writes:
“… why are senior ministers leaving the role at twice the retirement rate, and choosing other jobs? Reduce that problem, and the crisis goes away!”
Could it be that a large part of why many men are leaving pastoral ministry before the age of retirement is because they’ve jettisoned the theological truth of having a “holy calling”? Due to the controversial nature of this point — especially amongst contemporary evangelicals — let me further expand on what I am saying…
When the decision to go into vocational Christian ministry is viewed as merely being a personal preference and not a response to divine leading, this runs the risk of people serving as pastors whom the LORD has not actually chosen (see Eph. 4:10-11). As John Calvin rightly argues in his Institutes of Christian Religion:
“… in order that noisy and troublesome men should not rashly take upon themselves to teach or to rule (which might otherwise happen), especial care was taken that no one should assume public office in the church without being called. Therefore, if a man were to be considered a true minister of the church, he must first have been duly called [Heb. 5:4], then he must respond to his calling, that is, he must undertake and carry out the tasks enjoined.
We can often note this in Paul, who, when he wishes to commend his apostleship, almost always alludes to his call along with his faithfulness in carrying out his office [Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1]. If so great a minister of Christ dare not claim authority for himself to be heard in the church – save that he has been ordained to it by the Lord’s command and faithfully carries out what has been committed to him – what shamelessness will it be in any mortal, devoid of one or both of these, to claim this sort of honor for himself?”1
Understanding that some might be personally deceived into thinking they have been called to be pastors—when in reality they have not — Calvin goes on in 4.3.11 to distinguish between an “outer” and “inner” call. The inner call being the subjective conviction an individual has as to what the LORD is calling them personally to do. And, alternatively, the outer call being the objective recognition of the church that the individual in question has been equipped to serve in this particular capacity.
Holding these two complementary truths together is paramount. On the one hand, it guards against an overly rationalistic coercion that one should go into ministry because it’s the most important thing a Christian could do. And on the other hand, it protects the church from accepting individuals who genuinely believe that they are “called”, but do not have the convictions, character or competencies to fulfill it.
Third, we need to develop resilience. Christian ministry is hard work. Anyone who has been involved in church leadership with understand what I mean! And there have been more than a few times where I have not only felt like giving up, but even questioned whether this was something that the Lord Jesus had appointed me to do. But, in His grace, He keeps bringing me back to the truth that these are the good works He has prepared for me to do (Eph. 2:10) and that His power will be made manifest through my weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
Significantly, just before He tells His disciples to pray to the Lord of the harvest for more labourers, Jesus outlines in Luke 9:57-62 the practical cost of following him. In particular, it will mean turning one’s back on possessions, family and particularly one’s own personal aspirations. But He also promises us, it will all be completely worth it (see Mark 10:29-30).
One of the most powerful illustrations I have seen in this regard is the example of missionaries my church currently supports in northern Thailand. They have five children, with the older ones having to come back to Australia for work or tertiary education. But rather than leave the mission field themselves, they have made the very difficult decision to stay on the mission field. This has come at great personal cost (see again Luke 9:61-62). But having learnt the language and gained the trust of local people, they believe that their best years of service are yet to come.
Following on from this, it’s helpful to meditate on the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4. For the nature of Christian ministry is such that God’s apostle can say, “but we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” He then goes on to talk about how the message of the cross is not just the content of one’s ministry, but also the shape. Thus, all Christian service is profoundly incarnational, reflecting both his person and work (Col. 1:24-26).
My fourth and final point is that congregation members need to support those who lead them. I wasn’t going to mention this particular aspect, but the people in my weekly small group said that I should. In the Presbyterian Church of Australia, whenever a minister is ‘inducted’ into a new parish, he makes a number of promises. However, the members of the congregation are also required to make the following affirmation:
Do you cordially receive him as your minister, promising to provide him with suitable maintenance, and to give Him all due respect, encouragement, and obedience in the Lord?
It’s not only an excellent question, but an aspect that we should regularly remind ourselves of. There’s a saying in ministry that you can keep going for three months on one word of encouragement! What a wonderful blessing it is when God’s people express their genuine appreciation for one’s service. And while one must be careful of seeking it (see Luke 17:7-10) I do wonder how many good men have left their calling due to personal discouragement…
While I am very conscious that what I have written is not comprehensive, I do hope that it goes some way in addressing the present situation. It is a wonderful blessing to shepherd His people (1 Timothy 3:13). And it should be counted as one of this life’s greatest privileges to be called by the LORD to preach His Holy Word.
May the Spirit of God raise up godly and gifted men (Acts 20:28) to oversee the flock which Jesus has purchased with His own blood. And may they be willing to persevere through discouragement and trial. And may people see and experience Christ Jesus Himself working in and through us the comfort which He Himself has achieved (2 Cor. 1:3-7). For the building of His church and to the glory of His holy Name.
1 John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion 4.3.10. Emphasis added. This statement is all the more significant when one considers the emphasis the Reformers placed on the “calling” or vocation of all Christians to serve God. John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles 1-13. Translated by John W. Fraser and W.J.G. McDonald. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1965.
“This must always be a maxim in the Church, that no one may claim honour for himself.” 23; See Allister McGrath, “Calvin and the Christian Calling” First Things June/July 1999, Number 94. Pages 31-55; John Calvin, The Gospel According to Saint John: 1-10. Translated by T.H.L. Parker. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1961.
“What we have to grasp now (as I mentioned before) that what is said about John is required in all Church teachers: they must be called by God, so that the authority of teaching may have no other basis than God alone.” 14; John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark & Luke and James & Jude. Translated by A.W. Morrison. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1972. 322.