AUSTIN, Texas -- As the daughter and granddaughter of Presbyterian preachers, Laura Elly Hudson knew plenty about the ministry growing up -- mostly that she didn't want any part of it.
The low pay was one reason. And the long hours. Not to mention she was terrified of having to answer the most vexing spiritual questions at the toughest times in people's lives.
Experts say those and other concerns are discouraging young adults from pursuing careers in church ministry and have led to a 20-year decline among mainline denominations in the number of clergy under 35.
Churches, denominations and religious organizations are now trying to reverse that trend to ensure a new generation of pastors are ready to replace the many Baby Boomer ministers preparing to retire.
About 150 college and seminary students are gathering in Austin through Sunday to explore what it means to pastor a church -- and what it doesn't. They're participating in a conference sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education, an ecumenical group that tries to recruit and support young ministers.
In Hudson's mind, being a pastor used to mean boring administrative tasks and tangled congregational relationships.
Until she attended last year's conference, she said, she never realized the ministry could let her blend a love of nature and environmental activism with a passion for songwriting. Or that putting on a play could help a pastor open people's hearts to Jesus.
"It really encouraged me to think of ministry as ... not necessarily what you do but it's who you are," said Hudson, a 30-year-old Indiana native who just finished her first year at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
While the average age of students at American seminaries is going down, graduates are less likely to say they plan to become a church minister, according to the Association of Theological Schools, which accredits Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox graduate schools of theology.
Just half of the men and 40 percent of the women who earned Master of Divinity degrees last year said their first choice after seminary was pastoring a church, a survey found. That's down from 60 percent and 56 percent respectively in 2000.
At the same time, research shows mainline denominations such as the United Methodist Church are experiencing staggering drops in the number of ministers under 35.
A study released this year by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at the Methodist-affiliated Wesley Theological Seminary found less than 5 percent of fully ordained Methodist pastors are under 35, down from 15 percent two decades ago.
About the same percentage of American Baptist and Episcopal ministers are in their 20s and early 30s, according to data gathered by the researchers.
The problem's cause and effect can be seen in many mainline congregations, where the average worshipper is a woman in her 50s, said Melissa Wiginton, the Fund for Theological Education's vice president of ministry programs and planning.
As fewer young people attend church regularly, fewer consider becoming church pastors, Wiginton said. With fewer young faces in the pulpit, fewer young adults feel connected to church life.
"If we don't have young leaders, it's going to be a loss for all of us," she said.
Congregations and denominations are tackling the problem in a variety of ways, from having tiny clerical robes made to fit American Girl dolls to offering semesters at seminary programs that give college students a peek at graduate school life.
Betsy Neely, 24, of Atlanta, attributes her decision to enroll in Vanderbilt University Divinity School to the semester she spent at a seminary in Chicago.
"I really thrived and came back with a profound sense of call," Neely said.
But she's still trying to figure out whether that call will lead her to church ministry or to other jobs young people are choosing more frequently, such as hospital chaplaincies, mission work or teaching.
At this week's conference, Wiginton and Austin Seminary President Theodore J. Wardlaw hope to show Neely and other participants that churches can change the world behind the leadership of gifted pastors.
"You don't just have to be in the midst of some global hotspot to make a difference," Wardlaw said. "You can also be a part of a parish in which your ministry touches people and you can have an impact on people in ways you can't even calculate."
On the Net:
Fund for Theological Education: http://www.thefund.org/
Association of Theological Schools: http://www.ats.edu/
Lewis Center for Church Leadership: http://www.churchleadership.com/