According to the Fund for Theological Education, fewer than half of all rural churches have a full-time, seminary-trained pastor. And for the first time ever, the majority of seminary graduates aren’t from rural areas. When the higher cost of attracting new pastors is factored in (those with seminary degrees now average a starting salary of $35,000), this means most rural churches now face a triform, cyclical dilemma: 1) Fewer pastors are willing to lead a rural church because 2) these dwindling (and aging) congregations can’t afford to pay high enough salaries to at least cover their seminary debt—which 3) ultimately leads to fewer new leaders and pastors emerging from such communities.
In recent years, dozens of small-town churches have responded to the problem by “sharing” a pastor with other congregations. Some ministers travel hundreds of miles in a weekend to serve as many as five churches (which have even crossed denominational lines). Yet many congregations—particularly in the Midwest, where only one in five has a full-time pastor with a seminary degree—have been forced to close.
“It’s a religious crisis, for sure,” said Daniel Wolpert, a 30-something seminary graduate who serves as pastor of First Presbyterian in Crookston, Minn. “And to the extent that these churches are anchoring institutions, it’s a crisis of community.” [time.com, 1/29/09]