Prospects are generally favorable for those interested in the ministries of the major religions of the United States. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts employment growth for clergy overall will grow by 6 percent, about as fast as the average for all occupations, through 2028. Those who feel called to ministry may not always find positions in their preferred locations or circumstances, but their religion will almost always find a position for them somewhere. Jobs in the religious ministries are not generally highly sought after. The hours are long, working conditions can be poor, the pay is low, and the emotional toll is high. People who seek religious careers do so because of strong belief and conviction to serve in their faith.
All religious organizations were affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which started in late 2019. The business lockdowns and social distancing, as well as stay-at-home orders, caused religious services to be cancelled early in the pandemic. Many organizations have since opened to limited attendance and also have transitioned to conducting services and business operations online. According to a Pew Research Center study, of those surveyed, approximately one-third had reported attending religious services in person in the last month, and 72 percent said they had watched religious services online or on television. Many report that after the pandemic ends, they will resume the religious attendance habits that they had before the pandemic.
The research group IBISWorld reported that revenue for the U.S. religious organizations industry would decline by 5.4 percent in 2020, but that a strong rebound was expected for 2021 alone, and growth is expected to continue through 2026. The accelerated distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 would lead to the reopening of religious institutions and resumption of religious services and other activities. The economic recovery would also lead to an increase in donations to religious organizations, with more people being able to give more money and in larger amounts.
There is a shortage of Roman Catholic priests, which is expected to continue, resulting in a very favorable job outlook. The growing number of Catholics and new parishes combined with declining seminary enrollments are leaving many churches in need of leadership. In response to the shortage of priests, permanent deacons and teams of clergy and laity increasingly are performing certain traditional functions within the Catholic Church. Deacons cannot celebrate Mass or administer the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick, but they are allowed to perform some liturgical functions, such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals, and nonliturgical functions, such as hospital visits, religious teaching, and community service. The number of ordained deacons has grown steadily for more than 20 years, and this trend should continue.
The issue of women in the priesthood is highly controversial in the Catholic Church. Some believe the shortage of male priests suggests a strong need to consider allowing women into the priesthood. Other controversial issues that have arisen to address the priest shortage are opening the priesthood to married men and allowing lay church members to perform some priestly duties.
Church membership in Protestant congregations has seen slow growth, while the number of qualified ministers is increasing. Competition will continue to be strong for paid positions through the next decade. Graduates of theological schools should have the best prospects. The degree of competition for positions varies among denominations and geographic regions. For example, relatively favorable prospects are expected for ministers in evangelical churches, but opportunities in large, urban congregations are few. Ministers willing to work part time or for small, rural congregations should have better opportunities. Some denominations ordain women ministers and welcome female leadership in the church, but similar to Roman Catholic and Judaic clergy, the Protestant clergy is overwhelmingly male. It is estimated that U.S. Protestant seminary enrollments are about one-third female.
Newly ordained Protestant ministers who are unable to find church positions can find work in youth counseling, family relations, and social welfare organizations; teaching in religious educational institutions; or serving as chaplains in the military, hospitals, universities, and correctional institutions.
Opportunities for rabbis are expected to be excellent in all four of the major branches of Judaism, particularly in smaller and poorer communities. Seminary enrollments are remaining steady in the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements and declining slightly in the Reform movement, but the positions available far exceed the number of ordained rabbis. Newly ordained rabbis are increasingly seeking nonpulpit jobs, such as teaching in Jewish studies programs at colleges and universities; serving as chaplains in hospitals, colleges, or the military; or working in one of the many social service or Jewish community agencies.
The three non-Orthodox movements ordain women as rabbis and their ranks are increasing, but there is still an overall shortage, except in large, urban congregations. The Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements are considering ways to increase the numbers of rabbis, such as recruiting new rabbis for underserved congregations in exchange for forgiving student loans, fast-track seminary programs that can be completed in less time than the standard four to five years, and training more people for administrative duties to relieve rabbis of some congregational responsibilities.
Islam has no central organization and no ordained clergy. Muslim leaders are ulemas or mullahs who are scholars and teachers of Islam. They preside at prayers and services and supervise mosques. Mosques with associated schools may hire professional ulemas to instruct students in Islamic law and tradition.
Hinduism has no central organization, no ordained clergy, and no congregational worship. There is such a large variety of sects that it would be impossible to name any consistencies in leadership or hierarchy. There are no guidelines for the relationship between clergy and lay people. Various sects have monks, priests of different kinds, and bishops, but there is no particular training program, and religious leaders do not have any political or administrative influence.
There is no central national group for Buddhists in the United States, so congregations vary widely in beliefs and practices, size, and organization. Some congregations only have a few members who meet to meditate at someone's home. Some are large and include residential meditation centers, monasteries, and businesses. Some congregations have little distinction between lay and clerical roles. Others maintain strong divisions between monks and lay people and place greater emphasis on rituals and ceremonies.
There is a growing need in North America for qualified Buddhist clergy. The larger organizations have seminaries for training monks, priests, lay ministers (teachers), and community workers. Seminary graduates can become full-time priests or monks or part-time teachers. Some choose to start their own temples as affiliates or run their own independent temples.
Many people in America devote their lives and careers to religious ministries with no ambition to work as clergy or congregational officials. Hundreds of colleges and universities offer undergraduate and graduate, non-seminary programs in religion and philosophy. People who study religion can become academic theologians, social workers and teachers in religious-affiliated organizations and schools, journalists for religious publications, congregation-based community activists, and music directors. Those who do not have advanced religious training can find positions in their congregations as secretaries and janitors and other paid and nonpaid jobs.