Thirty-five large seminaries across the nation, including Fuller Theological Seminary and Azusa Pacific University, have collectively received $50 million from the Indiana-based Lilly Endowment, to create programs that encourage high school students who are deciding on their career paths to enter Christian ministry by enrolling in those schools.
"We're running out of ministers," said Gretchen Wolfram, communication director for Lilly Endowment, as she was explaining of the need of such funding so that more students can be exposed to ministry as much as medicine, law or computer sciences.
With these grants, the seminaries hope to offset the low-enrolment rate trend that began more than a decade ago, as well as address the problem of the rapidly declining number of youth ministers.
According to The Alban Institute, a Maryland organization that provides resources for congregations, 24 percent of Presbyterian (U.S.A.) ministers and 19 percent of Episcopal priests were under 36 in the mid 1970s. But as the years pass by that number is decreasing. In 1999, seven percent of Presbyterian pastors were under 36 and three percent of Episcopal priests were under 36 in 2000.
Roman Catholics are experiencing the same crisis. They are not only suffering from low enrollment; the number of Roman Catholic priests younger than 36 also dropped from 16 percent in 1975 to 6 percent in 1999.
At Fuller, the program called Fuller’s Student Leadership Project (SLP) ended last Friday, July 9, with 30 high school students. It was the third year Fuller ran the program. The program has been funded by the $1 million Lilly grant the school received in 2002, and was led by the leaders of Young Life, an international Christian youth organization.
"If seminaries will take notice of youths and care for youths, then that's going to pay off big dividends in the future," said Chapman Clark, associate professor of youths, family and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena who is a co-director of SLP.
Students from across the nation gathered at Fuller campuses in Pasadena and Colorado and received theological instruction, learned about issues like urban community development and discussed a Christian response to other social issues concerning poverty and impact of pop culture.
Frank Clark, executive director of the Ecumenical Council of Pasadena Area Churches, said young ministers are needed because ministry takes a lot of physical energy especially in leading youth.
"If the church is going to grow it needs youths," Frank Clark said. "It needs young pastors and the vitality that youth brings with it."
Clark said since high school students are not developmentally ready to decide what they want to do after college, the program has been designed to allow 15 adults to work with students in creating a faith community that is authentic and centered on Jesus Christ.
"We're having adults enter the lives of kids and care for them, give them a taste of thoughtful, deliberate Christianity that is not limited to politics or gender or where they happened to grow up," Clark said. "Everybody realizes we can't talk high school kids into going to seminary. We're trying to take them seriously, give them a voice and give them exposure to being a thoughtful Christian leader."
The program also focuses on providing mentoring to the youth. According to Rob Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller, each of the students meets several times a month with a youth leader in their hometown and they return to Fuller in February for a three-day conference. Kara Powell, executive director of Fuller's center for ministry to youths and their families, explained that the mentoring component of the program might be the most important, since young people often lack role models who are involved in ministry.
To date, many of the students who were involved in the first two years of the program have gone on to attend Christian colleges to become ministers, revealing the success of the multi-faceted program.