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GEN-X RISING: New stats offer hope for young UM clergy Andrew C. Thompson, Dec 9, 2008
Andrew C. Thompson
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
Are more young adults answering the call to ministry? That seems to be the indication of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
In their book published earlier this year, The Crisis of Younger Clergy, Lovett Weems and Ann Michel gave an analysis of clergy age trends in the United Methodist Church for the years 1985 to 2005. Those stats showed that young clergy elders in the denomination declined over that 20-year period—both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of all elders.
But the Lewis Center recently updated its report, and the numbers for the past three years are more encouraging.
The number of elders in the church who are under 35 years of age rose from a low of 850 in 2005 to 910 this year. The number of under-35 elders as a percentage of all United Methodist elders also increased from 4.69 percent in 2005 to 5.21 percent today.
The improved numbers are still a far cry from those of 1985, when young clergy elders numbered 3,219 and made up over 15 percent of all UM elders. But the upward trend of the past three years offers a sign of hope that the church is beginning to address its problems with recruiting young adult clergy.
Some conferences in the Southeastern and South Central jurisdictions can boast percentages of young clergy elders well above 8 percent. The highest is in the Arkansas Conference, where under-35 elders make up 9.29 percent of the total.
The Lewis Center report shows other significant statistics. For instance, 2008 is the first year in which women clergy make up more than one-third of all under-35 elders. It appears that women will continue to play a growing role in the ordained ministry.
The Lewis Center’s update also offers statistics on deacons and local pastors, which was missing in the earlier report. And it compares those statistics with other denominations, showing how the number of young adult clergy in the United Methodist Church stacks up next to Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and others.
I contacted Dr. Weems, director of the Lewis Center and a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, to get his take on the recent upward trend. Recognizing that the growing numbers of young clergy are not enormous, Dr. Weems calls it “modest good news.” But he also says the growth might be the beginning of a trend that could continue for years.
Dr. Weems also said he felt the church was beginning to take action on promoting the “culture of call” that he and Ms. Michel referred to in their book.
“Behind all this I see very deliberate actions being taken in many conferences related to the culture of the call and to young clergy issues,” Dr. Weems said. He also noted that the denomination’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville, Tenn., appears to be working with annual conferences to help recruit and retain young clergy.
Dr. Weems sees younger clergy taking initiative to bolster their own ranks. “Younger clergy themselves have engaged this issue with energy because they see it so tied to the future of the United Methodist witness,” he said.
The work of Dr. Weems and his staff at the Lewis Center is invaluable on the call and formation of younger clergy. The bare statistics themselves give pastors, laity and annual conferences helpful information with which to act.
But Dr. Weems’ promotion of the “culture of call” is as important as the statistics. Only when campus ministries and local churches provide the right environment for youth and young adults to hear the call of the Holy Spirit can the United Methodist Church expect a wholesale renewal of young adult elders and deacons in its midst.