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At Annual Conference I had an interesting conversation with a few pastors about the state of the United Methodist Church and young clergy leadership. The conversation started when I asked someone if they had seen or read The Crisis of Younger Clergy by Lovett H. Weems Jr. and Ann A. Michel. I was surprised by the response which was something to the effect of, “I don’t really buy into stuff like that.” The explanation was that they did not believe in the myths of scarcity that are often perpetuated in the UMC relating to the absence of young clergy and the general decline of the church. At this point someone else joined in and agreed that they thought all of that stuff was overdone.

After reading Weems and Michel’s presentation of the research done by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, it seems to me that refusing to believe that there is a crisis of younger clergy is ignoring or avoiding the evidence. Here are some of the things that Weems and Michel reveal:

  • In the United Methodist Church and many other denominations, the percentage of clergy under the age of 35 has dropped to below 5 percent. (vii)
  • The percentage of United Methodist elders age 35 and under has decreased from 15.05 percent in 1985 to 4.92 percent in 2007. (2)
  • The total church membership in the United Methodist Church declined between 1985 and 2005, as did the total number of elders, the number of churches, and the number of pastoral charges. But the decline in the number of young clergy has been proportionally much greater than any of these other changes. (9)
  • From 1985 to 2007, the total decline in the number of elders was 3,578. The decline in the under-35 age bracket was 2,343, or 73 percent of the total. (9) [I think there should be an exclamation point after that one!]
  • The Constitution of the United States affords 25-year-olds the right to serve the United States House of Representatives. At 21, a physician can be licensed to practice medicine in the state of New York. Yet 28 is generally the youngest age at which one can be ordained elder in The United Methodist Church; and those who are elders in their 20s or early 30s often are thought not to be ready for particularly challenging assignments. (22)
Ultimately, Weems and Michel demonstrate very convincingly that there is a problem. However, the major strength of their book is not that they are able to convince the reader that there is a problem; rather, after getting your attention, they take advantage of the opportunity to make some concrete suggestions about what to do about it. And, their suggestions are based on an extensive survey of young UM clergy, where they received responses from almost half of all elders in the UMC who are under 35 (ix).

As a young clergy in the UMC, it is often very frustrating to hear people lamenting the absence of young people in the church (whether pastors or laity) and then refuse to seek guidance from young people themselves. In my own Annual Conference, I have been blessed to get to know several pastors whose gifts and grace are overwhelmingly evident. Unfortunately, I do not see any of those people being given the chance to exercise significant leadership within the Annual Conference. Sometimes it seems that too many people are panicking because they don’t see enough young people in church, but for whatever reason, they are unable or unwilling to ask the few young people who are in the church what they think about how the church (and the ordination process) can become more hospitable to younger folks.

I mention this, because it seems to me that one of the most valuable contributions of The Crisis of Younger Clergy is that it models taking seriously the perspectives and wisdom of young people when trying to figure out how to solve the “problem of young people.” For the most part, the prescriptions that the authors make about what to do in order to address the crisis of younger clergy is based in the actually responses that they got from younger clergy. This is so obvious as to be almost absurd that everyone hasn’t already figured this out. But, when Weems and Michels found that their research showed that there was a serious lack of young clergy and they decided to ask what can be done to address this problem, instead of assembling a team of experienced pastors, or instead of polling every cabinet in the UMC, or asking tenured academics, they asked the people who were in the demographic that they were studying! Nobody knows the strengths and weaknesses of the journey to ordination in the UMC, and life as a younger pastor in the UMC better than the younger pastors who are going through the process.

If you are interested in getting a glimpse at what younger pastors think about things like the appointment process and the road to ordination, this is the book to read — because it is based in what young pastors themselves have said about these very things. Here are some of the things that they found:
  • The emerging generation of United Methodist elders does not think the system of itinerancy works well. Less than 5 percent of young elders responding to the Lewis Center’s survey strongly agreed with the statement, “Itineracy as practiced today is working well” (69).
Here are some more insights related to the itineracy and the appointment process, as it relates to younger clergy:
  • Lyle Schaller argues (and the authors research shows that many younger clergy would agree) that “talented ministers are ‘set up to fail’ by being invited to serve churches where their gifts, skills, experience, personality, and other characteristics do not match the needs and culture of that congregation at this point in its history” (61-2).
  • “More strategic deployment of young clergy is arguably the best way the denomination can use the scarce resource of young leadership to enhance its outreach among younger generations, while at the same time helping young clergy survive and thrive in ministry. In the opinion of those responding to the Lewis Center’s survey, the single most important thing conferences can do to support young clergy is to pay more attention to first and second appointments” (62).
  • “Today most clergy come from large membership or suburban churches. Congregational life in many of the churches to which they are assigned bears no resemblance to what they have previously experienced” (64).
The authors also found that “many of today’s young clergy express disillusionment with the ‘pay your dues’ and ‘wait your turn’ mentality that governs clergy advancement” (78). I would add a few things to this. This is especially frustrating, when younger clergy often observe middle-age second career pastors being “fast-tracked” to leadership positions in the Annual Conference. It makes me wonder, why are younger clergy given the message that they have to pay their dues, while older clergy don’t just because they are closer to retirement? In many ways, we seem to have an appointment process that rewards second career pastors and gives less attention and support to younger clergy who enter seminary immediately after completing college. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that we are getting what the system seems set up to encourage.

The authors also discussed salaries and debt related to going to seminary. 69% of clergy under 35 who responded to the survey have debt from seminary. 52% have more than $10,000 of debt, and 15% have more than $30,000! (86).

Ultimately, this book is worth reading for people who want to understand what younger pastor’s experience of ministry in the United Methodist Church is like. It raises some very important questions that I hope the UMC will take seriously, and I hope we will spend more time and energy not just investing in younger clergy, but in listening to them, and giving them a meaningful voice in our Annual Conferences.