Congregants of Atonement Lutheran Church in Billing Heights, Montana, have been waiting patiently for their local synod to replace their former Pastor Darren Paulson since he resigned last September as the COVID-19 outbreak entered its second year. Recent reports, however, indicate that this congregation is not the only one in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) with such a problem.

According to lay leader Kristin LaVe, the ELCA, under which the Atonement Lutheran Church works, there is a nationwide shortage of "at least 600" pastors, therefore it may be some time before they find a new pastor.

The wait was caused by a shortage, according to the church's administrator, Nany Rupe, who spoke to The Christian Post on Tuesday. Rupe is in charge of the church's daily operations, which have about 260 members. Their pastor left and accepted a position with another organization in September, according to her, and they've been in the call process since then.

LaVe told KQTV that 35 pastor posts in the Montana Synod of the ELCA remain empty. As a result, as they wait for a full-time pastor, Rupe said the church has had to be resourceful in finding preachers on Sundays. Every week, the church contacts a list of 10 to 12 retired and lay pastors to see who might be available to preach.

"We have a calendar. It's just typically a different pastor each week. It's not always the same pastor," Rupe said.

When asked why there is a pastor shortage, Rupe argues that individuals are no longer as interested in ministry as they once were and that the COVID-19 outbreak was a huge shock to the profession. The Metropolitan New York Synod of the ELCA, led by Bishop Paul Egensteiner, stated on Tuesday that the denomination has been hit hard by a "retirement wave," and that his synod is no exception.

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Growing Pastoral Crisis

Moreover, the ELCA's pastor crisis comes as a growing percentage of pastors in general disclosed in a new analysis that they are thinking of quitting their positions due to stress, loneliness, political conflicts, and other concerns such as their church's downturn.

The ELCA had more than 3 million members and over 9,000 churches at the end of 2020, but LaVe warned it won't happen quickly as it strives to replace the pastors it lost.

A Barna Group analysis published in 2017, far before the COVID-19 outbreak, revealed that the average age of Protestant pastors in the United States has risen by a decade over the previous 25 years, putting them just six years below the current required retirement age of 62.

As the world emerged from COVID-19 lockdowns barely months into the pandemic in 2020, Vanderbloemen Search Group CEO and founder William Vanderbloemen expected considerable staff turnover in churches and a desire for more priestly pastors. Due to the pandemic, many long-serving church officials, particularly men, have expedited their retirement plans.

The ELCA's bishop for Montana, Laurie Jungling, who has also served as a pastor at Atonement Lutheran Church, told The Wall Street Journal in February that ministers' departures from their pulpits began to accelerate in the summer of 2020. Many pastors she knows were compelled to retire or leave owing to the turmoil caused by the epidemic in their ministry, according to LaVe.

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