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GEN-X RISING: It takes a village... Andrew C. Thompson, Apr 3, 2008
Andrew C. Thompson
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
People within the United Methodist Church have had a general sense that the average age of clergy was steadily getting older. But findings published two years ago by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., showed just how dramatic the aging of clergy had become.
We now have a mere 850 clergy under the age of 35. That’s a drop from more than 3,200 in 1985.
Besides presenting facts and figures, Lovett Weems and Ann Michel offer suggestions in their new book The Crisis of Younger Clergy (Abingdon Press) about how the church can deal constructively with the trends they represent.
Interestingly, they say that one reason commonly cited for the low numbers of younger clergy—attrition—is actually incorrect. The levels of satisfaction about life and ministry on the part of young clergy are “strikingly high.” Contrary to the perception that young pastors are “beleaguered, dissatisfied, and on the verge of dropping out of ministry,” Dr. Weems and Ms. Michel report that young clergy are fulfilled and positively challenged by ministry.
Young clergy do face some significant problems, and a good chunk of this book is dedicated to looking at these problems and suggesting solutions. But once young men and women enter into the ministry, they tend to be happy that they did so.
The flip side of the coin is that fewer and fewer young people are responding to the call to ministry in general. And this is the real source of the declining numbers of young clergy.
The ordained ministry was once the most likely destination of college graduates in the United States. Now the numbers are so low, clergy would not appear anywhere on a list of most sought-after professions.
Dr. Weems and Ms. Michel take it as a given that God has not stopped calling people into ministry. Rather, they say, “the dilemma is that the church is allowing so many younger persons to ignore God’s call.”
But why would this be the case? Why would the church allow God’s call to fall on deaf ears?
The reasons are complex. One area the authors do not attempt to cover is the changing view of the church in American culture in general. When a society becomes more secular—as ours undoubtedly is—then a changing view of what constitutes the “good life” is sure to follow.
The good life in an increasingly consumer culture is tied to salary, purchasing power and possessions. So the most prestigious professions are going to be those whose financial rewards are greatest.
Where Dr. Weems and Ms. Michel do hit the nail on the head is when they talk about the need for a culture of nurture and formation in the church. Personal involvement with youth, real appreciation of young people’s views and an atmosphere where God’s call is discussed and encouraged are all factors that affect whether or not a young person will be open to hearing God’s call.
Some years ago, Hillary Clinton wrote It Takes a Village, a book on raising children. The title refers to the deep impact that people from all parts of society have on a child’s education and maturation.
Similarly, it takes a village to raise a pastor. Except that the village in question is the church! Every person with whom a child or teenager comes into contact could have an impact on that child’s ability to respond to God’s call.
“God is always calling persons to ministry,” Dr. Weems and Ms. Michel tell us. “However, all of us in the church are recognizing in a new way the need to work together to encourage and support persons in hearing and responding to this call.”
That means the next generation of clergy needs all of us, if we want them to have ears to hear God’s call on their lives.