To fill the nearly 4,000 empty pulpits and to compensate for the aging pool of church officers, the Presbyterian Church USA launched a vigorous campaign to scout out and “cultivate” the gifted, young leaders of tomorrow.
The Pastoral Leadership Search Effort (PLSE), which was launched last year by a group of determined church lay-leaders, have garnered the attention of several other denominations, including the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ.
Attorney John Aldridge Sr., an elder at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, initiated the effort when he learned that a third of PCUSA’s 11,150 churches are without pastors, and that almost two thirds of the vacancies are in churches fewer than 100 members.
Another startling statistic he learned is that more than 40 percent of active PC(USA) pastors are 50 years old or older, and only 7 percent are under 35. More than two-thirds of PC(USA) seminarians are second-career students, with a median age of more than 35 years, which means they’ll have less time in ministry than those who start studying for ordination in their 20s.
Aldridge’s solution: a “virtual community” in which gifted, young leaders of tomorrow will be cultivated, in an environment that will help make them “better able to hear and respond” to a call to ministry. The PLSE, in collaboration with the Fund for Theological Education Inc., will begin scouting potential church leaders as early as their high school years, and will build a vast church-wide database of youth identified by their congregations as prime candidates for service.
“The concept of PLSE is not a program in and of itself,” Aldridge said. “It is the infrastructure, the pipes and wires that give us the capability to proactively identify and engage gifted young leaders in the PC(USA).”
Projects and services include mentors, resources, parish internship opportunities and access to ministry programs in their areas. PCUSA seminaries and other entities also have access to the young leaders via email.
Several dozen people have been enrolled to date, and according to the PCUSA website, and the effort is “picking up the pace.”
“Congregations are excited about the program,” said the Rev. Gini Norris-Lane, the Presbyterian PLSE coordinator. “They’re excited about that fact that there is a way for them to suggest ministry as a possibility for some of their talented young people in an intentional way that is easy for them.”
The program is expected to hit full stride by this summer.
“We think the first six months of 2004 is really when we will know and see how much traction PLSE gets at the church level,” Aldridge said. “All the information is now in the hands of the churches. Without active, aggressive participation by our congregations, we won’t be successful.”
PLSE was unveiled during last year’s 215th General Assembly in Denver, CO. It was developed in consultation with a wide variety of Presbyterians, including seminary and denominational staff, pastors and elders.
“It’s like we’ve planted the seeds,” Aldridge said, “and the question is how many are going to sprout.”
In September, PLSE officials sent information kits to all PC(USA) churches describing the idea and encouraging congregations to identify high school and college-age students who might have gifts for ministry, and to urge them to consider the pulpit as a possible career choice.
Aldridge said it’s anybody’s guess how many churches will participate during what he calls the “initial thrust.”
“I think the higher estimates were maybe up to 50 percent,” he said. “The lower estimates were down around 20 to 25 percent, somewhere in that range.”
According to the PCUSA’s office of Churchwide Personnel Services, the PLSE is the denomination’s primary point of coordination.
“It’s really reactivating feeder systems for the development of leadership that … used to work to send people off to seminary,” said the Rev. Marcia Clark Myers, the PC(USA)’s associate director for CPS. “The whole system is designed around (the idea that) every church has somebody to promote.”