Many are called, says the Good Book, but few are chosen. But what happens if those who are called never get the message?
That, increasingly, seems to be the reality in many Christian denominations in America: fewer and fewer people are entering the ministry, the priesthood, and other forms of religious life. The precipitous decline in the number of Catholic priests and nuns in the past four decades is well-documented. The number of priests in the U.S. is expected to decline to 31,000 by 2020—down from a high of 58,000 in 1965—with enrollment in four-year seminary programs flat for the past decade. The ranks of Catholic nuns in America—sisters who were the mainstays of Catholic schools, hospitals, and other institutions—will have declined by a stunning 90 percent over the same period.
Numbers are more difficult to come by in more diffuse Protestant denominations, but recent studies from the Pulpit and Pew Project at Duke University found widespread shortages of ordained ministers looming in a number of mainline Protestant churches, and increasing numbers of small congregations left without a full-time pastor.
Taking notice that the vineyards of the Lord may well go untended for lack of workers, private donors with an interest in healthy religious communities are beginning to develop programs to encourage more young people to consider a life of religious service. None have stepped up as forcefully as the Lilly Endowment. From 1999 to 2007, Lilly pledged more than $175 million through its Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocations (PTEV) to support programs in 88 religiously affiliated colleges and universities that integrate academic study, faith-based service, and vocation discernment.
The grantees span the institutional and theological spectrum, from large universities with a relatively loose religious affiliation such as Duke, to regional Protestant powerhouses like Baylor, to smaller Catholic schools with a strong religious identity, such as Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland.
The programs are tailored to the schools and denominations they serve. At Luther College, an Evangelical Lutheran school in Iowa, the program has helped develop a series of summer institutes where students could study theology, visit nearby seminaries, and connect with alumni serving in ministry. At Marquette University, a Catholic school in Milwaukee, the program has funded “Manresa Scholars”—junior and senior students who combined academic study in theology with hands-on work in local churches and parachurch organizations. At Whitworth University, a Presbyterian school in Spokane, the program has funded retreats, reading groups, and the expansion of the departments of religion and music.
The goal of all of these programs is not necessarily to increase the number of people who enter ministry—although such an effect would be welcomed—but to provide support and direction to students who think they may be called. Lacking what Lilly spokeswoman Gretchen Wolfram calls “the space to discern,” these students often do not hear from the culture around them that it is acceptable to consider a religious vocation alongside more conventional career choices.
Lilly’s goal is to encourage “students who otherwise might be drawn to law, medicine, banking, and business to think about whether they have a call to ministry,” says Wolfram. “We want the best and the brightest to know that it is an option, if they’re interested.” The funding was focused on programs in colleges and universities, because college is where many young people make life-defining decisions about faith, values, and vocation.
In many ways, what Lilly attempted to replicate with PTEV was the informal “ladder” that used to operate in many Protestant communities. Guided by local pastors drawing upon old connections from their seminary days, this ladder moved young people who discerned a call from their local church, into theological study and then into a seminary, and, finally, into a pulpit of their own.
The Protestant colleges that participated in PTEV were largely affiliated with mainline denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) or the United Methodist Church. The informal ladder is in better shape in evangelical denominations, which have seen membership figures growing in recent years (or at least declining less than their mainline counterparts). Of the 10 largest postgraduate theological seminaries in the United States, for example, 8 are confessionally evangelical.
The informal ladder may work best in fast-growing non-denominational congregations, where, without the support network of a denominational structure, pastoral calls are discerned through apprenticeships and internships. Ministerial candidates are not necessarily expected to have studied for a seminary degree, and they receive their callings to specific churches without the help of a denominational infrastructure. The rich nexus of personal associations and informal, organic arrangements has been weakened in mainline churches, however—and the ladder for young people discerning a call has largely disappeared.
The phenomenon is also apparent in Catholic communities, says Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA). Butler notes that “the institutional church and the Catholic school system used to produce, disproportionate to its numbers, the donors, the volunteers, and the priests and religious on which the church relied.” But the newest generation of Catholics—only 12 percent of whom attend Catholic schools at any point in their lives—are no longer growing up within those institutions. “The institutions no longer are where the Catholics are,” says Butler. As a result, Catholic men and women who feel they may have a call to the priesthood or religious life are left without the institutional support that the aspiring religious of yesteryear could draw upon.
Finding ways to fill in the gap of that missing institutional support has been the topic of several FADICA-sponsored donors’ conferences. What has emerged from those conclaves is a focus on the practical. One donor, noticing that few diocesan vocation directors—essentially, the recruiting staff of the Catholic priesthood and religious life—had formal training of any kind, funded a series of retreats to allow the directors to swap ideas and best practices. The head of a Catholic convent told another gathering that she sometimes called upon a private donor to pay the travel costs of young women who wanted to spend a few days at the convent as part of the process of discernment. For the cost of a plane ticket, just a few hundred dollars, this donor was alleviating a significant and somewhat unexpected barrier to vocations.
The Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations (MEFV) works to level another, much more intractable barrier to vocations: student loan debt. In the days of the robust institutional church described by Butler, young men often entered pre-seminaries in their teens, and were housed and educated by the church every step of the way toward the priesthood. Today, seminarians and other religious are discerning their vocations after college and even after many years in the secular work force, with the average age of entering seminarians 35 years old. This older group brings a wealth of experience to the religious life, but very often, they also bring student loan debt that they cannot pay while studying and preparing for the priesthood or religious life.
MEFV is the brainchild of Corey Huber, a former AOL programmer who, after retiring from the tech industry, started a small family foundation that mostly supported various Catholic causes. His parish pastor, being aware of the foundation, approached him with a particular problem. He knew a young man who wanted to enter the Norbertines, an order of priests in Los Angeles. But the young man had $40,000 in student loan debt and the Norbertines, like most religious orders, would not accept him until the debt was either paid or committed to be paid. Could Huber help?
Huber wanted to help, but the foundation could not simply write the young man a check. Pledging to the superior of the order that he would cover the young man’s entire debt, Huber approached his lawyers to figure out a way for the foundation to pay the postulant’s student loans.
What the lawyers worked out was a grant program operated by Huber’s family foundation that received IRS approval through a private letter ruling. Each grant gradually retires the debt of the grant recipient as he continues in formation for religious life. The program grew for three years by word of mouth, and eventually all the future income of the foundation was committed to paying such grants. Thus, Huber closed the foundation’s grant program to new applicants and started the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations as a public charity so that others could help with the work.
Run by Huber and his wife, Katherine, with a part-time development director, MEFV has to date supported more than 60 aspiring Catholic seminarians and religious who have entered religious life—and made it possible for more than 20 people to discern that their vocations lay elsewhere.
For Huber, it is not a failure when a MEFV grant recipient leaves formation in religious life. (In fact, the young man whose plight sparked the process that led to the creation of MEFV left after a mere six weeks.) “Without us, the question for a lot of the people we support would always have been, ‘Did I have a vocation?’” says Huber. “You can prepare yourself as much as possible before you get to a seminary or convent, but the rubber hits the road when you get in the door and begin to live the life. With the aid of the Catholic faithful, our job is to open that door, and for those that persevere, to eventually eliminate a financial obstacle to their life in religion.”
Contributing editor Justin Torres is an attorney in New Orleans.