As she sits on a metal folding chair in her cluttered office at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Rev. Jane Rothman glows with enthusiasm.
"I truly believe this was a call of the spirit," she says of being pastor of a church where 50 people attend Sunday worship.
Later this year, Rothman, who has been pastor in Lancaster since late 2003, also may become pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Bendena, Kan., half an hour away. The combined job would let her earn a decent wage and let two churches share a pastor they could not afford on their own.
Rothman's case reveals a clergy shortage afflicting not just the Roman Catholic Church, whose priest shortage is well documented. The shortage also is being felt by many Protestant denominations -- especially in small, rural places such as Lancaster, home to fewer than 300 residents.
Church officials and scholars trying to explain the overall problem cite denominations that will not ordain women, the difficulty of clergy making a competitive wage and the debilitating effects of various church scandals -- from television evangelists who bilk people out of money to priests who abuse children.
Here are some statistics:
* In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the number of pastors in active ministry has fallen from 13,841 in 1990 to about 11,100 today.
* In the Catholic Church, the number of priests in the United States has fallen to 44,500, down about 15,000 in the reign of Pope John Paul II. The average age of priests is 61.
* In the 2.4 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA), about 4,000 of the 11,100 congregations are without pastors. Only 55 of the 108 churches in Heartland Presbytery, covering western Missouri and eastern Kansas, have installed pastors.
* In 1990, the United Methodist Church ordained 820 seminary-trained clergy. Ten years later, that figure had dropped by 200, forcing churches to rely on "local pastors" with less training. Only about 60 percent of the 54 churches in the Methodist district that includes Kansas City, Mo., have full-time pastors.
Those numbers may suggest a crisis -- and some church officials describe things that way. But the reality is more complex. Some studies, in fact, show there is no clergy shortage for large urban congregations.
"The challenge," said the Rev. Craig Palmer, Heartland Presbytery's interim leader, "is with the smaller churches, in particular the smaller rural churches."
That is why, to Lutheran officials, Rothman, a former mechanical engineer, is a godsend. But paying her fairly is not easy.
"We are strapped to pay Pastor Jane's salary and our bills," said Wayne Stuck, chairman of the Lancaster committee working on joining with the Bendena church.
When asked about the clergy shortage, Bishop Dean Wolfe of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas responded that "the ministry is one of the professions that in recent years has taken a certain hit in terms of prestige. But maybe more importantly than that, the church did not make young people feel important or wanted."
So, fewer college graduates go directly to seminary for a lifetime of ministry, he said. Seminaries attract second-career people in their forties and fifties looking for a change and spiritual fulfillment. Wolfe himself spent seven years doing sales and marketing before entering seminary.
"One of the numbers . . . that shocked me was that I was told I was the sixth-youngest clergy person in the diocese, and I'll be 49 soon," Wolfe said. If the Episcopal Church had enough full-time priests to go around, he said, "we would have a much more deeply textured congregational life."
Among Protestant churches, the biggest problem is providing pastoral leadership for small congregations where budgets get consumed keeping the building open and paying the pastor, leaving no money for mission or outreach, denominational officials said.
That is what has happened at Terrace Lake United Methodist Church in Kansas City. Terrace Lake had had a full-time pastor since its founding in the 1960s, but membership has fallen below 100, with average Sunday worship attendance of about 60. So it no longer can afford a full-time pastor and recently was assigned a seminary student to serve as its part-time pastor.
"We were able to maintain a full-time minister, but it took all of our budget for ministerial support and upkeep of the building," said Ralph Pugh, chairman of the church's pastor-parish committee.
"Where it really hits it for us," said the Rev. Kenneth R Lutgen Jr., Methodist district superintendent, "is in terms of the whole compensation piece. Lots of churches that used to have full-time pastors have had to go to less than full time because of increases in health insurance and related costs."
That is the problem facing the Lutheran churches in Lancaster and Bendena and why they may share Jane Rothman as pastor. Rothman, 51, entered seminary in the late 1990s, after a 20-year career as a mechanical engineer in North Carolina. She makes about one-third her former salary.
In fact, the Lancaster church is paying her less than the minimum the church recommends, and chances are slim that it ever can afford an adequate wage.
One reason Rothman is a pastor now is that as a mechanical engineer, "I was definitely hitting the glass ceiling. I was sick of the promises." So she quit and went to seminary. When she finished, she told her denomination she would serve a rural area.
"I didn't need to be in a big city with a big salary. But I also spent a small fortune on my seminary education, and I want to be paid fairly and not taken advantage of," she said.
Rothman has helped rejuvenate church committees, reinstitute Sunday school and bring new energy to the church, according to longtime members.
"She is inspiring the congregation to work harder," said lay leader Wayne Stuck.
"This," Rothman said, "is right where I need to be. There are some days when I'm run off my feet, but there's rarely three of them in a row." What she can't yet know is whether that pace will continue if she becomes pastor of two churches.