When Bill Heithold turned from ranching to ministry at 41, he ended up riding farther than he ever did on the range. On Sundays the central South Dakota minister logs more than 100 miles driving to three different churches. He also travels long distances to Bible studies during the week.

"It's got to be done," says the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) pastor, who counts fewer than 300 in his extended flock. "There's no way around it."

These churches are not alone. Migration to more heavily populated cities and towns has left schools, hospitals, and other institutions in rural South Dakota struggling to fill vacancies. Heithold, a pastor for four years who lives in the southern town of Winner, is one of three LCMS pastors in South Dakota who each tends a trio of congregations. Yet these churches are faring better than eight others. Vernon Schindler, president of the 118-church district, says the eight are too spread out to share a pastor, let alone to afford their own.

The South Dakota situation may signal national trouble ahead. Today 14 percent of churches in the heavily rural LCMS lack pastors. A 1999 LCMS study projects that by 2020, 30 to 40 percent of LCMS congregations will have no pastoral leadership. LCMS leaders are beginning to strengthen recruiting and retention efforts before the crisis hits full force.

The denomination of 2.6 million is not unique. In recent years, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have all faced significant numbers of empty pulpits.

In the ELCA, the synods with the most vacant pulpits are most often in economically weak areas.

In addition, the ELCA is shrinking overall. In 1988, there were 10,030 pastors and 11,120 congregations in the ELCA. Ten years later, there were 447 fewer pastors and 258 fewer congregations.

Research requested by the ELCA Council of Bishops identified several reasons for the clergy shortfall: more small congregations able to pay only a modest "first call" salary, graduates restricted geographically because of a spouse's career or children's education, and student debt.

The survey, completed last year, reported that both rural and urban churches are having difficulty finding pastors. The study also found that 5 percent of male and 17 percent of female pastors go on leave after their first stint as pastors.

Mission Growth Ministries, a Kansas City consulting firm, recently interviewed nearly 200 current or former ministers, their spouses, and their children. It concluded that 40 percent of LCMS pastors are moderately stressed or suffering depression and burnout. Why? Low pay, unreasonable time demands, contentious parish relationships, harsh criticism, and threats. In one church, a pastor suffered a fatal heart attack after a shouting match with a member.

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"It put us in a blue funk for a couple months," says Alan Klaas, president of Mission Growth, about the survey. "It discouraged us when we found out what is going on and the intensity of it."

Putting Lay Leaders to Work

New LCMS President Gerald Kieschnick calls the clergy shortage one of the most crucial issues he faces. He acknowledges that some churches will be forced to merge or fold. But he also thinks the problem will stimulate efforts, such as the lay-led Stephen Ministries, to take up the slack in pastoral care.

"It puts a focus on the priesthood of all believers," says the former Texas pastor.

The more liberal ELCA evidently agrees. Its South Dakota Synod has proposed a lay leadership program for churches that cannot find ordained clergy.

More than two years ago, the LCMS created a 10-year, $400 million college scholarship endowment campaign for potential teachers, pastors, and other church leaders. Schools have wide discretion in how they disburse the funds.

The denomination had raised $69 million as of June 30 for students in the 10 schools in the Concordia system. The LCMS hopes the endowment will increase the overall number of pastoral candidates and decrease the financial burdens on students.

The LCMS also plans to assign a vice president in each district to oversee recruiting. And working with Concordia Publishing House, it plans to offer new publications for pastors. The LCMS also seeks to expand support programs for new pastors and their spouses.

Klaas says rural and urban congregations alike are experiencing pastoral supply problems. A longtime member of various LCMS boards, Klaas is sympathetic to attempts to stem the tide. But he believes the solution won't come from denominational headquarters.

"It has more to do with relationships," he says. "This happens individually, within the hearts and minds of leaders in the local congregation."

On South Dakota's plains, meanwhile, Bill Heithold continues riding his unexpected circuit.

"God's going to have his will done," the minister says. "He's going to have his people there."

Related Elsewhere:

The official Web site Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has news and information on beliefs.

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The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America site has information on the denomination and news releases.

In April 2000, the ELCA discussed the limited clergy supply. A report found that the number of ordained ministers serving in congregations dropped from 10,125 in 1989 to 9,583 in 1998.

A 1999 article in The Lutheran asked, "Does the ELCA face a clergy shortage?"

A release from the United Methodist New Service in April said that while there has been a drop in seminary-trained candidates ordained as elders—from 820 in 1990 to 621 in 2000—some in the denomination claim an increasing number of local pastors has more than picked up the slack.

Last February, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ expressed concern over a looming clergy shortage.

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