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.
When Ms. Sparks had entered seminary at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School here in 2005, a career-switcher in her 40s with an M.B.A., financial need was the furthest thing from her profound sense of being called. The Dow Jones average hovered above 10,000, the unemployment rate barely grazed 5 percent, and homes were selling nationally at a record pace.
All that confidence had been shattered by the time she spoke on Romans two months ago, as an impending graduate of Colgate Rochester Crozer. The Friday before that Sunday, the Dow had lost 122 points, sinking to 7,278. Unemployment was on its way to 8.5 percent for the month, and home foreclosures were rising by one-fifth from an already abysmal February.
So 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.
“Suddenly, for me, it’s economic, and it had never been economic before,” Ms. Sparks, 47, said in an interview. “Our plan had always been that I wouldn’t look for anything full time till our kids got out of high school in about five years. Now, with survival at stake, my assumption is that I can’t afford to take a part-time call. And my husband and I are asking how wide a net we need to cast.
“There’s more need than ever for the work of the church, so it’s ironic we’re not exempt from the same factors as everybody else.”
Indeed, the trepidation Ms. Sparks feels as she prepares to receive her divinity degree on Sunday is widely shared among graduating seminarians and newly ordained clergy members. A contracting national economy has led congregations across the religious spectrum to cut or downsize clergy positions, hire part-time lay people instead and delay filling vacancies. Veteran clergy members, watching their retirement accounts wither, are postponing retirement.
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.
Only the Roman Catholic Church, with a well-known shortage of priests, has more openings than applicants. And that, in turn, has led to a round of mordant jokes among seminarians about converting to get a job.
“There’s less cushion this time to absorb the impact,” said Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, comparing the current recession with those in 2001, 1991 and 1982. “It’s a combination of the severity of the overall economic situation and changes in congregational life. You have the makings of a very serious impact because things were thinner to begin with.”
Colgate Rochester Crozer offers a particularly instructive example because it sends graduates to a range of denominations, from the mainline Protestants of the United Methodists to the centrist evangelicals of the American Baptist church to the black congregations of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
Roughly half of the 13 seminarians who will receive their divinity degrees on Sunday have positions. But it has become increasingly common for the typical entry-level jobs — pastoring a small church or doing youth ministry at a large one — to be part time rather than full time. Several students had to drop out in the last year because they lost the outside jobs that were paying their tuition, which ranges from $8,670 to $11,650 a year.
For the first time in recent history, the Rochester seminary this year held a workshop in writing résumés. Twice in the last 18 months, it has assembled panels of untraditional clergy members, like hospital chaplains and ministers to migrant workers, to give students a sense of career alternatives to pulpit pastoring. Seeing many churches depending wholly or partly on untrained congregants to fill clerical roles, Colgate Rochester Crozer is developing a certificate program in lay ministry.
And in perhaps the most revealing trend of all, 10 percent of the seminary’s incoming crop of divinity students told the school they had decided to take up ministry after having been laid off from their previous job.
“It’s not for nothing,” said Darrell K. Jachim-Moore, the seminary’s vice president for finance, “that one of the favorite hymns to be sung at the baccalaureate is, ‘We’ve Come This Far by Faith.’ ”
For Ms. Sparks and her fellow graduates, when the Almighty’s call collides with the earthly economy, faith itself is being tested.
“I’ve been hanging on to the idea that these times are good for deep theological reflection,” Ms. Sparks said. “I’m trying to hang on to this gift.”