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BCA Facing ‘Severe’ Shortage of Ministers

As the BCA’s temples, churches and Sanghas begin to emerge from the pandemic’s prolonged shutdowns and isolating restrictions, another issue is surfacing — the acute shortage of ministers.

The shortage is linked to a number of divergent factors, which are combining to create a perfect storm of a dilemma: a wave of ministerial retirements over the past year and this year, leaves of absence, and the unexpected, unforeseen impacts of the pandemic.

Currently, there are 35 Kaikyoshi ministers actively covering the BCA’s 58 temples and churches. The BCA’s active 130 Ministers Assistants (MAs) are playing a vital role in making up for the shortfall, and by providing Dharma messages for a number of churches and temples. In addition, retired ministers are serving as interim ministers.

Both BCA Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada and Ministers Association Chair Rev. Harry Bridge, Resident Minister of the Buddhist Church of Oakland, raised concerns and issues over the ministerial shortage at the June 5 BCA National Board meeting.

Bishop Meets Ministers

Rev. Harada described the situation as “getting more severe” and said it was “a very, very challenging time” for the BCA. He held one-on-one meetings with all full-time BCA ministers over the past several months to gauge how the ministers were doing during the pandemic and if they had any issues and concerns.

“I learned many things during those meetings, like finding out that many ministers feel they are working even harder during this pandemic,” Rev. Harada stated in his Bishop’s report at the National Board meeting. “Some ministers felt overwhelmed, but all are doing the best they can.”

In addition, he noted that “a good majority of our ministers” are now supervising one or more temples.

“In the Central California District, we have two ministers for seven temples, and in the Northern California District, we have two ministers taking care of seven temples as well, with a very large number of members in the Northern California District,” Rev. Harada said.

The pandemic itself has created a double-edged sword, reflecting both benefits and not-so-obvious costs and liabilities. Ministers have been tasked with creating Dharma talks and Sunday services on YouTube, Facebook Live and Instagram, and as a result, are reaching a national and global audience interested in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. The ministers report their Zoom services are often attended by more than the in-person services, and the virtual services and social media outreach have helped increase BCA membership.

But coming up with all this online content has taken its toll on ministers, too.

“You might think that ministers aren’t having to do as much in terms of traveling during this pandemic, but many ministers tell me that they spend actually more time working during this pandemic than pre-pandemic,” Rev. Harada said. “It takes a great deal of time to create videos, and then there are numerous Zoom meetings. Some ministers have also had to become the computer and (audio visual) AV technician at their temple to put on their internet services and Dharma talks.”

Rev. Bridge said he was preparing for a Shotsuki memorial service in Oakland and noted it would normally take an hour to prepare for an in-person service.

“Instead, I’ve probably put in at least eight hours to make the video between thinking what I’m going to say, printing everything out and then filming all the various sections and then putting it all together and sharing it on YouTube,” he said. “It’s hours and hours of more work.

“Please, have sympathy with the minister and work with them and try to understand how difficult it is,” he said.

Shortage to Last to 2022

Rev. Harada said the shortage will continue through the summer of 2022, when 10 individuals will be receiving their Kyoshi certification. Not all of them want to become full-time Kaikyoshi ministers, he said, but some of them do.

Rev. Bridge said the Ministerial Association also raised the issue of ministerial mental health, and providing outside counseling services for privacy and confidentiality reasons.

“Personally, I find the ministry to be very lonely,” said Rev. Bridge, who added that the pandemic’s isolation has only compounded the situation. “No one knows what it’s like to be a minister except another minister, and it can be actually even difficult to consult with other ministers and not show any weakness and vulnerability.

“You have people coming to you with their issues,” Rev. Bridge said. “That’s one of my favorite parts of ministry because I get to help people. But who do I get to go to?”

For now, with most BCA temples and churches remaining closed for in-person services, the impacts of the shortage have been minimized. But that is expected to change soon once the in-person services resume. Some temples, such as Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Fairfax Station, Virginia, have already reopened, and others are pointing to a fall reopening date.

Despite the ministerial shortage and several other challenges faced by the BCA, Rev. Harada remained optimistic.

“We are on the verge of reopening our churches and temples,” he said. “We have this ministerial shortage. We have decreasing membership. And we just launched a $15 million major campaign (Dharma Forward). But I don’t have any doubt about what we can do to face those challenges. We can take on those challenges together as ministers and members.”

Ministerial Pioneers Cited

Rev. Harada noted what BCA ministerial pioneers accomplished in their careers.

“The late Rev. Hozen Seki (who served from 1936-81) of the New York Buddhist Church was just one minister,” Rev. Harada said. “The late Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai (who served from 1930-70) of the Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple was just one minister. The late Rev. Gyodo Kono (who served from 1944-75) of the Midwest Buddhist Temple was just one minister. But each one of them built temples and education centers from scratch, raising the money and establishing growing Sanghas and have left a legacy that remains today.

“Every one of our ministers has the potential to leave a legacy like a Rev. Seki, like a Rev. Tamai, or like a Rev. Kono — if they have the deep desire to transmit the Dharma. So I know we can grow our temples and our membership despite a shortage of ministers — and really, what choice do we have? We have to turn our membership decline around. And I know that we can raise our goal of $15 million for the Dharma Forward campaign — and we’re off to a great start already with 28% towards our final goal,” Rev. Harada said. “Let’s continue to work to share our unique Shin Buddhist teachings, so that Shin Buddhism will be an integral part of the history of Buddhism in the West,” Rev. Harada said.

“We have much to offer, with our teachings of listening to the Dharma first, of deep self-retrospection, of understanding our interconnectedness, of living with gratitude and reverence for all beings. I think that we have a responsibility to share this wonderful teaching with others who are waiting to hear, encounter, and to receive it.”


1 Comment

Michelle Hedgecock
Michelle Hedgecock
Jul 06, 2021

This remains a difficult time as we begin to emerge from this pandemic. May our ministers feel the gratitude and support from our sanghas, as they each bring to us. We are so appreciative of all your time needed to continue the teachings and Zoom talks to a growing audience, in addition to your other responsibilities. Thank you so much! And thank you for sharing this. 🙏🏼

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