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Q & A
Q&A: Why young clergy are important for UMC Robin Russell, Mar 28, 2008
The United Methodist Church has seen a severe decline in the number of its young clergy. From 1973 to 2007, the percentage of under-35 clergy dropped from 21.2 percent to below 5 percent. Out of the denomination’s 17,800 elders, only 876 now are under age 35. The average United Methodist elder is 53.
A year ago, the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., took the pulse of these young clergy, and the response was tremendous; nearly half of the clergy under 35 participated.
The findings are presented in a new book, The Crisis of Young Clergy (Abingdon Press), by the Rev. Lovett Weems, distinguished professor of church leadership and director of the Lewis Center, and Ann A. Michel, the center’s associate director. Managing editor Robin Russell spoke recently with Dr. Weems.
Why are young clergy so critical for our future? What do they bring to the church?
One is energy, vision, vitality that’s always needed from young leadership in any organization. Also they are more adept at reaching emerging generations. They are closer to the culture, to the life experience of younger persons. With the emphasis on new church starts, research has shown that the age group that has been most successful is the 25-35 age cohort. Are young clergy better? No, but they’re younger, and that’s not an insignificant thing.
What motivates a Gen-Xer or a Millennial to consider a call to ministry?
It’s a call to serve, a call to be a part of something larger than themselves. They are not thinking primarily in organizational or institutional frameworks; it’s a more mission focus, a purpose focus. Sometimes it’s not well-defined, but just a sense of wanting to serve others, to be responsive to God’s claim on their lives.
Young clergy, you say, often feel the pressure of the “lifesaver mentality” when assigned to a church. Explain.
They get this a bit from people in the church structure as well, that, “We need you to help save the church.” They’re a bit uncomfortable with that. They are very interested in revitalization, but they know that’s something they can’t do by themselves.
You also say they are “younger” and more “different” than young pastors years ago. Is there a bigger age gap?
There is a significant age gap, not only with the other clergy, but within congregations they tend to serve. Sometimes there will be a two-generation gap between the age of the clergy and the age of the membership. They just obviously are shaped more by their generation and their culture than those in the churches they serve and other clergy tend to be.
There’s a real tension there. In the local congregation the lifesaver type of thing comes in: “Well, since you’re young, you should be able to reach younger people.” But there is no expectation that the church itself is going to change. Many young clergy report that they are able to get some younger people to attend church, but it’s hard to keep them there because the expectation of the congregation is they will join what has been. And younger people are interested in helping to shape something themselves.
So there’s a lot of frustration in that there’s an expectation that younger clergy should be able to reach younger people, but unless things within the congregation are also changing to meet the needs of the younger people, it’s not going to work.
What do congregations need to do to make it happen?
Listening is very important. Listen to the ideas, not only of their young clergy but also of their younger members. Be open to doing some things a bit differently. Be open to some new leadership. One of the disturbing things about the findings of the State of the Church report was that laity wanted more younger people in their churches but were not willing to change their worship or their budgets to do so. It’s like they’re saying, “We don’t want to change; we just want things to be better.” And that just doesn’t happen that way.
Older clergy likely feel that they paid their dues and worked their way up. But you say there should be changes in how young clergy today are appointed.
Those appointments tend to be made last. The options available for those appointments are very limited at that time. We’ve got to keep in mind that younger clergy are our endangered species. You don’t eat your seed corn. But you’re right. There is the paying-our-dues mentality, but I’m not sure we can afford that if less than 5 percent of our clergy are under 35. How can we get them where they will learn something, where they can be mentored well?
Most young clergy say they don’t believe the UMC system of itineracy works well. Why is that?
Less than 5 percent believe it works very well. This could be an issue causing some younger clergy to choose other traditions. There is a lot of anxiety around the itinerate system. Part of it is just feeling so out of control of one’s destiny. But also how that impacts spouse and family, and spouses’ employment. These are not tensions that are not felt among all clergy, but the system is looked at even more skeptically, I think, by younger clergy.
It seems that young clergy sense there’s some unfairness in how clergy are held accountable.
They see tremendous attention given to the screening process for them because of anxiety in the church about poor clergy leadership, and they feel often that that’s unfair because they have not had a chance yet. They are kind of paying the price for ineffective older clergy, and so there are more and more restrictions that get put on them. They also feel—and not without justification—that the primary factor in advancement tends to be years of service. So it gives them the impression that what they do and how well they function doesn’t count as much as just years served.
How has educational debt impacted young clergy?
Educational debt is increasing. There’s no evidence that young clergy are leaving any more than clergy of any other age, or people in any other profession. There’s a high degree of satisfaction among young clergy in terms of their ministries. The financial stress tends to be more on women and single clergy. We found that about 20 percent of young clergy are in pretty significant financial distress, but you can’t say that about all young clergy. It varies with a lot of other factors.
How do young clergy spell r-e-s-p-e-c-t today?
While some older generations will look at respect in terms of, “Listen to what I think you should do, and do it,” younger people have no expectation that people are going to do something just because they say it. But they do want to be listened to and heard. And that is the simplest thing that can be done, but it is not being done in many cases. This is an endangered species. We have got to find ways to listen. So time that can be spent by bishops and district superintendents, just gathering folks and listening... This is happening in a number of places. I just saw in the Missouri Conference Review a picture of Bishop [Robert] Schnase meeting with all the young clergy. This coming summer in Michigan there’s going to be a family retreat for all the young clergy from both of the Michigan conferences. Young clergy really feel a need to be together. Many of them are just many, many miles away from one another.
You say that one of the first things churches should do is develop a strong youth ministry.
The key reason for few young clergy is that fewer young people are entering ministry. That sounds like a very obvious thing to say, but it’s not. It’s not that we have all these people entering the clergy and then leaving. That’s not happening. It’s the number entering that’s the issue. What we found from our survey, what the current under-35 clergy have in common, is they were active in their church as children and as youth. Most of them responded to their call before going to college, in the context of their own home congregation. So when you start seeing the decline that’s been going on in the number of youth involved in youth ministry, you can begin to see one of the reasons why there’s a decline in younger clergy.
And it’s not just a United Methodist problem.
That’s right. All of the mainline denominations have very similar statistics: Some a percent or two better, some a little bit less. But what’s different is the United Methodist Church is seeking to do something about it. When we did our 2005 report, we did it not just for the United Methodist Church, but we did it for all of the other denominations that were willing to participate in that. We made that information available. But as far as we can tell, it’s the United Methodist Church that’s leading the way in trying to address this.
You cite the Future Farmers of America as an organization that reinvented itself and reversed its declining numbers. What can we learn from it?
That’s an organization that almost has no reason to still be around. If it had died, you could understand that, but not to come alive and have its largest chapter be in urban Philadelphia. They changed their name just to FFA and they started looking at their work through a little different lens. They kept continuity with the past, but they expanded to include not only growing food, but food preparation and the economics of food, environmental-type concerns. And in doing so, they took a dying organization and brought it back to life. They just realized that to keep doing what they were doing would not work because if you depend on just high school students who come from farm families, that number’s going down every year.
What it means for the church is, what happens when organizations are in decline is that they’re trying to perpetuate the forms. What they need to do is to go back and say “What’s at the heart, what’s at the essence of what we’re trying to do?” and then say “What would that look like today?”