A Surplus of Students for the Ministry

Recently one of the better known-religious magazines dealt with the question which forms the title of this editorial. I do not have the article at hand as I write this, but I recall that it made the point that some denominations are troubled by such a surplus and that in some cases there is even a glut of potential ministers. Statistical projections were made which pointed to the possibility in one of the major denominations that in process of time there might be a minister for every five or six people if present trends continue. 

It is not my purpose, however, to discuss this question with respect to other denominations. Nor do I purpose to analyze possible reasons why other denominations may or may not have a surplus of potential ministers. 

My concern is with our own Protestant Reformed Churches. 

Do we have a surplus of potential ministers? 

I raise this question for more than one reason. In the first place, I have heard the suggestion made from time to time that we have such a surplus. The question has been raised: what are we going to do with all those students in the seminary and in the pre-seminary department? In the second place, the churches ought to be aware of the situation in their Theological School. If there is a surplus of students for the ministry, this might prove to be somewhat of a problem, even a somewhat embarrassing problem. But then that problem will have to be faced. Perhaps a surplus is not a bad problem to face; in some cases, at least, a surplus is a rather nice problem to have, much nicer “than a shortage. But it is a matter to be faced. If, on the other hand, the supply is normal or nearly so, that is, if there is a rather close balance between supply and demand, the churches should be aware of this, too. Then the task is, if possible, to maintain that balance. And if there is a potential shortage, then this problem must be faced by the churches also, so that if possible it may be remedied. 

First of all, a little background information is necessary. Not many years ago, there was a rather severe shortage. It was not at all unusual, when I first took up my labors at our school, that we had a student body of one or two students, so that our seminary had a faculty larger than the student body. There were churches without pastors. There was need for mission work; but because of the shortage of ministers there was undoubtedly a reluctance to leave the congregational ministry for the home mission field. Besides, what hope could we give to any newly organized congregation when we suffered from a shortage of ministers? In addition, looming large on the horizon was the fact that in the not too distant future some of our older ministers would be retiring. At that time our churches were much in prayer that the Lord would raise up young men to be prepared for the gospel ministry, and pastors and elders counseled more than one young man to consider seriously whether the Lord called him to the ministry. And the Lord heard our prayers. He gave us several young men. The shortage was so severe, however, that in the late 1960s, about the time when our pre-seminary program was revived, we even instituted a speed-up program for several of our present ministers, so that they might graduate a year earlier than normally. 

About that time our pre-seminary program was approved and given permanent status in our school. Then our seminary building program was begun and was completed in early 1974. Through all of these circumstances and by the Lord’s gracious guidance our student body grew in number to a level which it had not known since our early years as churches. And our churches rejoiced at this. Once again the Lord ,had provided and made all things well with us. This year it appears that when our three candidates eventually have a place; there will be one vacant congregation. And while no one wishes that a congregation be without a pastor, the situation is rather normal and healthy as far as supply and demand are concerned. 

In the second place, what is the present status of our student body in both the seminary and pre-seminary departments? In my Rector’s Report to the 1978, Synod I furnished a brief survey of this; but this report usually receives but brief attention at Synod and then gets lost in the dust of the archives. The following is the situation as reported to Synod: 

1) In our seminary department: 

a) There are 5 potential graduates for 1979. 

b) There is no class of 1980 in the seminary. 

c) There are at present 2 students in the class of 1981. Hence, for the next three years, the Lord willing, there is a possible total of 7 graduates. 

2) In our pre-seminary department (a four-year promgram): 

a) There is no class of 1979, and therefore no potential seminary graduates in 1982. 

b) There are three students in the class of 1980, and therefore three potential seminary graduates in 1983. 

c) There is no class of 1981, and therefore no potential seminary graduates in 1984. 

d) There is no class of 1982, and therefore no potential seminary class of 1985. 

Now admittedly this picture could change somewhat. For example, there may be applicants who have had part or all of their pre-seminary work elsewhere and who apply, for seminary entrance during the coming years. But taking the above figures, we conclude that between now and 1985 there is a possibility of 10 graduates to become candidates for the ministry in our churches. While we also note that the present picture is of a rather sporadic supply rather than a steady stream, let us notice that this is an average of far less than 2 graduates per year. Study of past years will also show that such an average supply is less than adequate to meet the needs of our churches. 

On the basis of the above statistics, I propose: 

1) That our churches certainly should not cease to pray that the Lord raise up young men for the ministry of the Word among us. On the contrary, they should continue to pray for this. 2) That parents, pastors, and elders should by all means not discourage potential students for the ministry in our congregations. On the contrary, they should encourage them. They should certainly not say things like, “Why do you want to study for the ministry? We already have too many students, and there won’t be a place for you.” But they should tell them: “If you believe that the Lord wants you to study for the ministry, by all means go ahead. Our churches will need ministers. Besides, if the Lord calls you to prepare for the ministry, He will also provide a place of labor for you.”

And may I add—especially for the sake of any young men who are considering the ministry—that I speak from personal experience? When I graduated from our seminary in 1947, I was one of three graduates; but there was only one pastorless congregation, and it was a time of brewing strife in our churches. If I recall correctly, that was the only time in our history that such a situation of “surplus” prevailed. Furthermore, the one pastorless congregation did not call me. Yet the Lord provided me a place in His time and manner, and today by His grace I have a place while the other two graduates have since forsaken us. 

But I hear someone suggest that I am not facing the reality that we have a potential surplus in 1979, when possibly there will be five candidates. Now far be it from me to try to lift the veil on the future. And anyone who knows me also knows that I am by no means a mystic. But I have always maintained—and maintain today—that the Lord did not give us all these students for naught: He had a reason and a purpose in giving them to us. On this subject also I have some thoughts: for apart from the matter of averages and average supply and demand, I am not convinced that we have a real surplus—surely, not a surplus that can be wasted or cast aside. But on this subject I will submit some thoughts at a future date.