Nationwide, more than 60 churches and temples affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America serve thousands of adherents to the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, but with many of its clergy members at retirement age, the network of churches is encountering a shortage of ministers further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Even before the pandemic, we were short, and the shortage was getting more acute,” the Rev. Marvin Harada, bishop of the BCA, told the Nichi Bei Weekly.
Harada said new assignments for ministers have largely been put on hold for a number of reasons during the pandemic. With international travel deemed unsafe, students at the Institute for Buddhist Studies have been unable to travel to Japan for their tokudo and kyoshi certifications, the two levels of ordination allowing would-be priests to become full-fledged ministers.
Meanwhile, ministers from Japan, who had previously supplemented the BCA’s numbers, have also been prevented from moving to America to accept open positions.
Even among existing ministers, Harada said new assignments for clergy members were put on hold as a safety precaution. He estimates there are around a dozen open positions among the churches today.
“It was pretty much on hold other than when a minister might retire, and then I have to find some minister to take that person’s place,” he said.
And a number of clergy members have retired since the beginning of the pandemic, including ministers for congregations in San Francisco, Stockton, Calif., San Diego and New York.
The Rev. Henry Toryo Adams of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple has overseen the Buddhist Church of San Francisco since August of 2020. Although he took over the church during the height of the pandemic, he said he was familiar with many of the church leaders and minister’s assistants since they have worked together in the past. Adams said he also relies on San Francisco’s team of minister’s assistants, as well as San Mateo’s group of informal assistants to keep the two temples running. The assistants take on a number of duties to help
Adams, including holding regular services and funerals.
“Sometimes I have another commitment in San Mateo, or I’m out of town. Sometimes the minister’s assistants have been able to hold those services, and then also to do subsequent funerals and memorial services and so forth,” he said.
Adams added that his assistants at both churches have supported him throughout his time as a supervising minister, with San Francisco assistants coming south to San Mateo to help and vice versa when he was unavailable.
“I feel that it’s important to have to be physically present at BCSF, to the extent that it’s possible, and to actually get to connect and spend time with the sangha members as their supervising minister. And so, once a month, I am committed to going up to BCSF in person to do a service, and so when I do that on a Sunday, one of the minister’s assistants from BCSF will come down to San Mateo and to do a service here in San Mateo.”
The Northern California district of the BCA has a much more acute shortage with two reverends overseeing seven churches, along with one howakai (a Buddhist study group without a formal church). The Rev. Matt Hamasaki took over the Buddhist Church of Sacramento Betsuin at the beginning of the pandemic when its previous minister, Harada, left to become bishop in April of 2020. Hamasaki said he and his staff of minister’s assistants currently care for three additional churches in Florin, Placer and Marysville. Meanwhile, the Rev. Candice Shibata transferred from the Buddhist Church of Florin to take over Stockton after its reverend retired. Shibata currently oversees Stockton and nearby temples in Walnut Grove and Lodi, as well as the howakai in the unincorporated community of Cortez.
“I’m actually from Stockton, so I grew up at the Buddhist Church of Stockton. They supported me emotionally, but also financially to go to the Institute of Buddhist Studies, and so I think that was always the hope for me … to eventually come back in my ministry,” she said.
Hamasaki said he once heard that the ideal ratio of minister to parishioner is one minister for every hundred parishioners. Although he knows that ratio is seldom achieved, he recognized that he is at his limit. His church alone has 700 members, which would usually be overseen by two ministers, and he presides over Florin and Placer, each having 170 parishioners, and 27 members in Marysville. While the pandemic has led him to record and stream a single Sunday service for all four temples, Hamasaki said he would not be able to stay on top of his job if not for his minster’s assistants. One Sacramento minister’s assistant has taken the lead to care for Marysville, and Placer has a number of assistants willing to do services. Nevertheless, Hamasaki said he is trying to establish a new minister’s assistant program at Florin since they lack the staff to keep up with demand.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it without them. Their role kind of differs depending on the person. So their availability, their comfort level and their ordination status,” he said. “So, some of them are not ordained, some of them have the first level of ordination and some of them have the second level of ordination. And so, depending on all those things, they do more or less for me.”
And while Hamasaki has a half dozen or so minister’s assistants to help him oversee his churches, Shibata an hour south in Stockton officially has one assistant at Walnut Grove to help her oversee its 79 members along with her congregation of 300 at Stockton and 120 at Lodi.
“At times, I feel like I’m kind of disjointed running around all over to care for my temples and my members,” Shibata said.
Hamasaki concurred, saying, with only two ministers, he and Shibata are sometimes attending meetings every night of the week due to their district hosting both this year’s dharma school teachers’ conference and Buddhist Womens Association national conference.
“We try our best to, but ultimately, it ends up being both of us on (meetings), just because we’re both splitting our time. So if we can both be on it, then if one of us can’t make it, the other one can cover for each other,” Hamasaki said.
Meanwhile in the Eastern District, the Rev. Ron Miyamura of Midwest Buddhist Temple in Chicago has been overseeing two congregations since before the pandemic. Prior to the shutdown, Miyamura traveled to Minneapolis and Cleveland six times a year each to help manage their congregations. Since the pandemic began, he has started supervising New York Buddhist Church after their reverend retired late last year. Miyamura credited the minister’s assistants for helping to keep the churches running smoothly, saying, “without them, they wouldn’t survive.”
“The major challenge is to find the lay leadership. That’s how Twin Cities survived, the lay leadership. With the ordination, with at least with tokudo, the minister’s assistants are able to do more, because the two things that will hold the congregation together are Dharma school and funerals,” Miyamura said.
New York Buddhist Church returned to in-person services in September of 2021, one of the first churches to do so. Gail Inaba, the church’s board president, said their three tokudo minister’s assistants conduct the services at the temple, along with the online livestream services via YouTube and Facebook.
“While COVID was tragic and presented many challenges to the NYBC, some of the changes it forced upon us proved to be felicitous and helped us to remain a vibrant community,” Inaba said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “We recognize one of our most significant challenges is how to stay connected with the very elderly who are not on the Internet and do not use streaming services of any kind. This has been a common challenge for all the BCA temples and like a number of temples we have engaged in telephoning and sending cards to those we know cannot attend our live or virtual events.”
One blessing in disguise during the pandemic has been the pivot to online sermons after churches shut down in early 2020. The ministers agreed that, while virtual services cut off congregation members who can’t access the services online, they did help connect or reconnect new members to the church, while reducing leadership’s workload overall by enabling the reverends to combine services. Hamasaki said churches individually decide whether to resume in-person services and many churches have continued to hold online services after the omicron surge dampened outlooks for an end to the pandemic in 2022.
Sacramento also reopened last year and Hamasaki said he has met several consistent new congregation members who first started attending through his online services. Miyamura meanwhile said his group in Minneapolis will continue indefinitely online and opt to meet in-person only once or twice a year.
“One of the families moved out to New Mexico and still keeps contact with Twin Cities,” Miyamura said. “And they would drop off if you went to in-person only.”
While there is an acute shortage of ministers, some relief is in sight. Harada said the Buddhist Churches of America plans to hold its first ever kyoshi certification in America this coming August at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, Calif.
“That would be sort of historic. It would be the first time that that second level, or kyoshi, has taken place outside of Japan.”
Harada also noted that enrollment at IBS for new minister hopefuls went up during the pandemic and said new ministers will likely be inducted in the next few years, although the latest crop of ministers will not wholly alleviate the shortage either.
“So we have a number of people in the pipeline now at IBS and in maybe about three years or so, we could have many of our vacancies filled,” Harada said.
The bishop said there is no hierarchy for which vacancies are filled first, but he did say he is aware of the various factors that will go into allocating new ministers, such as the number of parishioners and the overall lack of ministers in the temple’s district, such as in Northern California.
Miyamura said he is worried as well, noting the Rev. Nari Hayashi of Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Virginia oversees only 75 members at his temple. He also oversees Seabrook. Compared to other churches with twice the number of members or more without ministers, he worried the Eastern District may be left by the wayside.
“Well, our fear is they’re going to pull Rev. Hayashi out of Ekoji,” Miyamura said. “If the numbers game plays out, yeah, we’re in trouble.”
However, nobody knows which positions will be filled within the next year or so.
“The bishop’s job is not one that I envy. I know everyone’s hurting and so everyone could use some help, and it’s not easy to be able to pick and choose who needs or deserves it more than the other places. So I do sympathize with the bishop trying to make that decision,”
Hamasaki said. “I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I hope it’s good.”