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Clergy shortage affecting all denominations in Canada

John Lavers outside the basilica of St. John the Baptist church in St. John's.

paul daly The Globe and Mail

Editor's Note: This is the fifth, and final, part of the Future of Faith series.

As the head of human resources for the United Church of Canada, Rev. Alan Hall understands the contemporary struggle to identify and nurture the next generation of religious leadership.

At a cocktail party recently, he met a young woman and introduced himself as a minister. Federal or provincial, she asked. He explained that he worked in the church, not government.

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"Oh, church," the woman said. "My grandfather went to church."

As Canada becomes increasingly secular, many faith groups are searching high and low for young people willing to do God's work. In some cases that has meant recruiting from abroad, where instead of preaching for converts churches are returning to former missionary lands to harvest clergy. In other cases, they're bypassing the young entirely, welcoming older people in their second or third careers. A vocation used to begin straight out of school, but faith groups are now marketing themselves to the teacher, the biochemist, even the spy. Other groups, particularly the rapidly growing minority faiths, are struggling to find Canadian clergy who understand the cultural context in which their congregations live.

Mr. Hall said the talent crunch finally hit home for the United Church just last month when, for the first time, the General Council decided it needed an aggressive recruitment strategy. Half of the ordained ministers in the United Church are between 55 and 65 years old. Eighty-five per cent are older than 45.

"For young people to see only their parents' generation in leadership positions suggests the institution is aged and irrelevant," he said. But with religious attendance in decline, where will the new leaders come from?

The Roman Catholic Church has for many years enjoyed the benefit of recruiting new clergy from abroad, particularly for its more remote dioceses. In Grand Falls, Nfld., for example, roughly half of the priests were born outside Canada and came specifically to alleviate the clergy shortage. Six are from the Philippines and three from Ghana. In St. John's, about 10 per cent of the priests are from the global south.

Immigration rules make it fairly straightforward for foreign clergy to enter Canada. They do not need a permit to perform religious duties, nor is there a formal limit on how long they can stay in the country, just so long as it's "temporary."

"I made a trip to the Philippines once to do recruiting and made some basic contacts. We do a two-year contract with them first to see if they're going to be able to acculturate, adapt to our way. Some don't," said Martin Currie, Archbishop of St. John's. "If things don't work out, you just go home. That's the advantage of it."

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He said some priests from devout Catholic countries struggle with the reality of church attendance in Canada. In a small parish in Newfoundland, attendance can be as low as 12. "They find that difficult," Archbishop Currie said.

His prize recruits this year are all Canadian-born men in their second careers. There's a PhD in chemistry, a school principal and a medic, as well as a former counterterrorism official. John Lavers, 47, spent more than a dozen years at the upper levels of Canada's security apparatus. He can't discuss the nature of his work, but he will have to adapt from seeing threats everywhere to seeing the good in everyone. He gave up a six-figure salary and six-figure bank account before entering the seminary. He also gave up the possibility of marrying and having a family. He will likely be ordained within the next 12 to 18 months.

"It's a call to service, a call to sacrifice. In this world, these kinds of things are not always the more accepted values," Mr. Lavers said.

Archbishop Currie said the advantage of hiring older men is they're more stable. They know who they are sexually, he said, they have good people skills and understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

Most denominations have seen strong growth in older vocations over the past 25 years. The average age of ordainment in the Evangelical Lutheran Church was around 40 in the early 2000s, according to retired pastor and sociologist Kenneth Kuhn, up from 28 in the 1960s. In the United Church it's now 47.

Both denominations have had some success in staving off the talent crunch through the recruitment of women, effectively doubling the pool of potential candidates. About 18 per cent of Lutheran ministers are now women, but they make up half of theological classes.

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Muslims, Canada's youngest and fastest growing religious group, have favourable demographics for leadership recruitment. But only about 10 per cent of imams working in Canada are Canadian-born, according to Imam Alaa Elsayed of the Islamic Centre of Canada. Many are brought in from Pakistan or the Middle East.

The demand for religious training is high among young people, though, he said. This year, 10 people have approached him for letters of reference to go abroad to study the Koran. They would have to spend years in places like Saudi Arabia. He'd like to see imams trained in Canada, so they won't lose touch with the context of Islam as it's practised here.

There was a time when religious orders didn't have to worry about recruiting the next generation of leadership. Clergy were the establishment, trusted by the population and influential in the public sphere. Today, virtually all denominations will have to target and encourage potential candidates if they're going to replenish their ranks.

"We just live in a very different cultural setting," Mr. Hall said. "Religion plays a different role in people's lives."

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About the Author
Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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