If I were in charge of the Call to Action, which I clearly am not, the number one priority would be aggressively recruiting younger clergy. Unfortunately, The United Methodist Church’s approach to ordination in many ways is almost the exact opposite of recruitment.
For too many people I hear from, the ordination process feel like a burden of endless obstacles in their path and hoops to jump through. To make things worse, prospective clergy are sometimes ignored or treated with indifference. I have heard many people from many different annual conferences say that they were told that it was their responsibility to keep track of their paperwork, not the DCoM or BOM.
As I have interacted with gifted younger people who feel called to local church ministry, I have had the thought that it feels like the church is almost daring them to go and do something else with their life. Sometimes, it feels like we are doing all that we can to be inhospitable and make them feel like their calling is an imposition on the church.
The irony is that the exact opposite is true. The church is desperate not just for younger clergy, but for gifted clergy who are passionate about being ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If there is one thing that I think the church could do that would be the most likely to have a positive impact on the church, it would be pouring time, money, and resources into recruiting the most gifted spirit-filled younger clergy we can find.
Here’s one possibility: What if every Annual Conference made it a priority in the next quadrennium to find 10 women and men, who were 25 and younger and displayed unmistakable passion and giftedness for ministry, and then did everything that they could to make sure that these people progressed through the candidacy process as efficiently as possible (with integrity). And then they were put in positions where they were most likely to thrive. What if we treated them like they had something of urgent importance to offer to the church not in a few decades, but NOW? If a group of young leaders were encouraged, nurtured, supported, and empowered to fulfill their callings, I would be shocked if they didn’t have a huge impact on the church.
There might be a better way to do this, and there might be something that would be even more important. But if there were one thing that I could do that I would be most confident would pay dividends, I would search far and wide for the next generation of leaders that God is raising up and I would put them in positions to thrive today.
If you are a pastor and you are reading this, let me ask you: What are you doing to raise up, encourage, and support the next generation of leaders? Maybe the best way to ask this question is to ask you what you wish someone had done for you when you were preparing for full-time local church ministry?
I often hear seminary students talk about being disappointed by the feeling that they are abandoned by their annual conference while they are in seminary – that they feel invisible. How can you communicate to someone who is ready to make a difference for the kingdom of God that you believe in them and are willing to invest in them?
How are you investing in the future leadership of the church?
I can only speak for myself, but I do try to keep in touch with students I know who are in seminary to be a kind of support system for them. Too many of our seminaries seem unconcerned with shaping ministers and too much concerned with reshaping the theology of the people who enter them. And since we continue to shovel money at them, they have little or no reason to change their behavior.
Finding some way — any way — of streamlining our labrynthine, academic-centered, spiritually-skimpy and Pavlovian ordination process would, I imagine, encourage a significant portion of young folks who want to minister within the denomination that has nurtured them to remain within it. I know young people who now minister with other denominations or parachurch organizations because they were given opportunities to serve and develop as ministers while they were also training — and those opportunities were not “get paid as a part-time youth director while seminary’s costing you as much as the house we boast you won’t have to pay for.”
Kevin Watson said:
Brett – Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience, and thank you for keeping in touch with students that you know who are in seminary. I am sure you are a real blessing to them!
John Meunier said:
What if we went to a system of minister training that was based more on apprenticeship and less on academic graduate school?
I know this is not your point. But it does seem like it might solve a few problems.
Steve Rankin said:
I recently visited a seminary in another denomination. The classroom was filled with young people. In talking with them, they are generally theologically more astute – and able to connect their theological thinking with real life – than the vast majority of UM students I’ve dealt with over the years. (This is not the fault of our students! They are as smart as anyone.) I have had this experience often: young, gifted, passionate Christians with gifts for ministry who can think theologically and strategically. They are evident, but few are United Methodist. This is very painful to me. I love the UM Church.
I lay the blame on primarily (not solely) on bureaucratic and institutional protectionism. I’ve served on Boards of Ordained Ministry for a long time. These entitites are filled with people who love the UM Church and are trying to make strategic decisions. But the institution’s needs for survival (and our UM penchant for identifying ourselves as Wesleyan mostly by being not Baptist, Presbyterian, evangelical, inerrantist, or whatever other label UM folk are worried about) overwhelms. That means that the boards of ordained ministry view potential ordinands for how they will fit within the system and bishops have to figure out where to put them. The system as it is dictates and shoehorns people into well-established positions.
Hence the dilemma: you have to be in the system to fix it.
Ed Trimmer said:
There is absolutely no evidence that younger clergy are more effective than older clergy in reaching people for Christ or in building churches. AND since there are and will continue to be less and less jobs for seminary educated, minimum salary, elders, perhaps what is really needed are to recruit younger BIVOCATIONAL pastors who have the “energy” to work full-time drawing a salary AND pastor one of the over 20,000 UM Churches that worship under 75 on Sunday
Sophia Kristina said:
Thank you so much for this post. Yes, it would be awesome if in the next quadrennium our ACs made it their priority to identify and support young people who were passionate about serving God and neighbor. What would be even cooler is if the church decided to fully support those with passions for ordained ministry AND lay ministry! We have something like Exploration that provides a space for young people to explore ordination in the UMC. But what if their gifts and graces aren’t necessarily as ordained clergy? Who tells them about those options?
Though I’m still exploring my own call to lay/ordained ministry, I’m plugging away through the candidacy process with the help of an excellent mentor who asks the questions that I’m most concerned with about who and how the church is called to be. I’m connected with our district and our annual conference because I choose to be. What about those who don’t know how to be connected. It’s not like learning to schmooze and stay connectional is taught in seminary. It’s left to individuals to have that drive to be ‘successful’ in the candidacy process/seminary or to those leaders in our conferences who see the potential and extend opportunities to these young people [as you suggest].
And don’t even get me started on funding being available [almost exclusively] to UMC seminaries. Gah!
Lastly: putting young people in places where they could thrive would require us to have places that they/we could thrive. Some churches can barely get the welcoming thing down–much less exploring partnerships with individuals and agencies with whom we could form great partnerships to create these places and spaces where young[er] people could see the kingdom of God realized and experience who the church could really be if we took our call seriously?
I’m still torn about the polarity of young clergy/older clergy. Maybe we shouldn’t focus so much on the age thing as much as we should the need to invest in passionate, gifted individuals who have a prophetic voice for the church, regardless of age.
Thanks again, everyone for these thoughts!
Kevin Watson said:
John – An interesting proposal that would look more like what happened in early Methodism!
Steve – Thanks for including your perspective. I love the UMC too and the sadness that many prospective clergy have about the ordination process and their place in the church was a prompt for this post.
Ed – Thanks for pushing back. My initial comment is that I don’t think I said that younger clergy are more effective. In certainly know I made mistakes in my first appointment. I think there is value in your proposal, which seems to me to be parallel to John’s. I don’t think what you are advocating for needs to be in conflict with what I am suggesting. Part of my sadness comes from the number of times I have heard second career folks lament the years they ignored or ran from their calling. I can’t help but wonder if the process towards ordination was a factor in encouraging their flight, rather than a support and affirmation of God’s calling.
Sophia – Thanks for your thoughts! I 100% agree with the need for more focus on lay ministry and leadership. Thank for your reminding me to keep this in mind. I also appreciate your testimony to the value of a strong and supportive mentor. There could be a whole other post here!
Unfortunately, you may be right about the need for places where younger leaders could thrive. I would guess that this would be one of the areas where Bishops and DSs would push back. I think they would say something like: We would be thrilled to have awesome younger clergy. We want to encourage them, not discourage them! For us the question is where to put them, because it isn’t that there are just 10 people who need an appointment, everyone needs an appointment. And every appointment isn’t ideal.
And this is where I admit that my “proposal” calls for tough decisions. The experiment I would like to see would be prioritizing putting passionate and obviously gifted younger clergy in the places where they are most likely to thrive, spiritually and vocationally, with no other constraints. And then do the best you can with everything else. This is probably naive and it is easy for me to suggest, because I have no authority to actually enact this.
I also understand your concern about the polarity between younger vs. older clergy. I in no way mean to demean the gifts and grace of all of the people God has called. In my teaching experience thus far, my most gifted students have been both straight out of college and second career students and I have no doubt God wants to use both of these groups in the church. I guess what I am trying to say is at a practical level when the denomination seems to be trying to set clear priorities, and given that everything that is good can’t be a top priority, I think investing time, energy, and resources in spirit-filled younger clergy should be the top priority.
I have said to much! Thanks to anyone who has read this far!
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I just completed my first year of seminary at Duke Divinity and I agree with your assessment of the life of a UMC seminary student. I came into school (and still am) discerning between pursuing a ph.D and being ordained as an elder in my conference. Aside from keeping in decent contact with my candidacy mentor, I have felt largely isolated from my conference. And I feel like there is no organization to help us, as candidates, to move through the system (especially if you’re attending seminary outside of your conference). Case in point, I was supposed to have a meeting over Christmas break and when I got back home none of my calls were returned and the person I was supposed to meet with later suggested we meet at a time when I was already back at school. It would be nice to feel more connected to my conference. I know that this vocation is totally centered on God’s call and not me, but it would be nice to feel a little more wanted by the UMC. I’m sure you’ve heard all this before, but just thoughts from someone on the journey. Glad I discovered your blog.
see-through faith said:
Kevin, you make it sound like ordination is the only option …
I put another challenge to you
What if every Annual Conference made it a priority in the next quadrennium to find 10 women and men, who were 25 and younger and displayed unmistakable passion and giftedness for ministry, and then did everything that they could to make sure that these people progressed through the journey of life as authentic disciples of Christ with a calling to lead others to do to same
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