Where Have All The Pastors Gone?

By Tom Fuller, Oregon author
Oregon At Work: 1859-2009
Images of America: Salem

Oregon celebrates 150 years of statehood this year. It’s kind of cool to look back 150 years to see what things were like, working in 1859, as opposed to 2009. In 1860, just a year after statehood, there were 125 clergymen in Oregon. That might not seem like a lot, but it represented about 1% of all workers. Compare that with the top occupation, farmer, at 7,861.

Zoom forward to today. The most recent statistics from the Oregon Employment Department state that right now there about 3,773 clergy working in the state – men and women, of course.

That might seem like a lot, but when compared to the total of those employed in Oregon, pastors and all other religious workers combined make up about one third of one percent. So basically, the percentage of those working in pastoral or religious work have fallen by two thirds over the 15 decades of Oregon’s history.

Why is this? I think it has more to do with history than a change in attitude. Though the very first Europeans in Oregon were mainly trappers or explorers, the first real wave of immigrants were clergy and missionaries. Jason Lee arrived in the Willamette Valley in 1834 to find an area populated almost entirely by Native Americans. His job as a Methodist missionary was to spread the gospel. Many of Oregon’s most famous early residents were the so-called “Circuit Riders” like Abraham Garrison (on page 37 of Oregon at Work: 1859-2009). The work was hard, the hours long, and the pay pretty miserable. One pastor, Arthur Gardner, was paid about $600 a year in the early 1900s. That’s the same wage a common laborer would expect to make at the time.

As Oregon became more popular not as a mission field, but as a home, the next wave of people coming over the Oregon Trail were those farmers and laborers who sowed and reaped a crop more physical than spiritual. There are still plenty of people working in the state, and growth opportunities are a little more than average. By the way, the average annual salary for pastors has grown a bit since 1900 – now it’s just over $44,000 a year.

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