Lovett Weems of the Lewis Leadership Center has helped draw attention to the critical shortage of younger adult pastors throughout our connection. When I first entered ministry, more than 15% of clergy were under the age of 35. Now the number of commissioned or ordained clergy under thirty-five in our conferences ranges from 2% to 5%. (Maybe this is partly because it takes 30 years to get through the ordination process! Sorry.) These trends have caused many bishops to declare young clergy an “endangered species.”
A few weeks ago (through the generosity of the gifts of several laypersons comprising Pathways Partners), we gathered together twenty-five of our clergy from the Missouri Conference who are mid-thirties and younger. From noon one day until noon the next, we talked about all kinds of topics. We probed our hopes and fears for the future of the church and talked about opportunities and frustrations for younger persons entering ministry. Instead of putting a couple of young adult clergy in a room full of older people, we put me and two other older clergy (sorry Kendall and Sue!) into a room full of young adult clergy. I loved the time together and look forward to further conversations. I asked a whole host of questions, and answered some, too. Basically, I wanted to know how they would lead us to reach the next generation if we completely turned over the keys to them. I wanted to know their suggestions for bringing down the average age of our entering pastors by ten years over the next five years. I wanted to know how they would plan our Annual Conference sessions to involve more young people. I wanted to know how they would like to serve, what they are reading, and from whom they are learning. Needless to say, this was an invigorating conversation.
There’s no way to capture in this blog entry all the responses and topics that we covered, but here are few things to get you thinking:
First, the clergy love to learn from more their experienced clergy colleagues and they covet mentoring relationships with them. However, they also wish older clergy colleagues were more open and willing to learn from younger clergy. While all of them deeply respect most of their older colleagues, there are two characteristics in some older clergy which they deeply resent: 1. the constant display of deep cynicism and negativity among some clergy, and 2. the feeling they have that some older clergy have just given up and are marking their time until retirement. These attitudes and behaviors are hurting the church, the ministry, and our witness together.
Second, these clergy want others to know that just because they themselves are young adults does not mean that they are somehow experts at reaching young adults. There are many older clergy and laity who do an excellent job of reaching young adults, and many young clergy who struggle like most of us. In fact, we spent considerable time discussing how these young clergy, precisely because they have remained committed to the church, were formed by our systems, and have made it through our processes, are really no longer representative of many of the values, attitudes, and lifestyles that comprise many of the young adult cultures in our communities. (Wow! By our processes, are we training the cultural relevance out of them and cutting the threads that bind them authentically to the generation we’re trying to serve? Just a thought.)
Third, these clergy really want to serve, and serve now. They like to be entrusted with leadership and given a chance, especially in settings and circumstances that really value the gifts and perspectives they bring. When they serve in areas mostly comprised of older adults, they do not want to be asked simply to replicate what young adult pastors might have done fifty years ago. And they want to offer conference leadership now, helping shape conversations and plans for the future of our ministries together.
Fourth, we spent time talking about contrasting value systems between older clergy and younger clergy, and how they are perceived. For instance, these clergy feel that they are less likely to find their principal identity in their role as pastors than their predecessors, and more likely to find it in their family relationships. As a result, they are more likely to protect family time, stepping away from a single-focused, driven, every-night-at-the-church style of ministry. They resent accusations of laziness or “lack of commitment” when they try to develop work habits that balance family commitments.
Fifth, they long for a day when the structure and systems and processes become more flexible, adaptive, and conducive to ministry. As one said, “We were born on the Titanic, but we’ve nevertheless stayed to do our best.” But they realize that to keep this ship moving toward its purpose, many things have to change. They would like to see churches where the people are, a shorter and more sensible ordination process, an active recruitment process for younger clergy led by younger clergy, and a greater ability to place young adults in settings where they can start fresh and build new systems and faith communities without the encumbrances of maintaining old systems. They’d like support and encouragement and resources to try alternative ways of networking young adult pastors into groups of churches working together. They’d like to start new churches, and focus the resources of our conference on places vibrant with young adults, but woefully underserved by our traditional aging churches.
Well, I could go on and on and on. And I will return to some other topics in the future. Surprises for me? First, when I walked into the room I was struck immediately by who comprised the group. Before the meeting, I would have guessed (without thinking) that forty percent of the group would be female (since more than forty percent of the people we commission are female). In fact, only fifteen percent were female! That’s because the majority of our female clergy enter our processes as second career, and we actually have very few young female clergy. Second, (please, I intend no offense by this) I was surprised by how much of our conversation remained internally focused–on our ordination processes, internal structures, appointment processes, etc–rather than focused on creative and new ways of reaching others, forming faith communities, etc. Some of this probably results from the questions I asked, and some is because this was our first such conversation and we were simply covering immediate and familiar territory to all of us. But I hope that future conversations stretch us further into new terrain, and are not so restrained by current systems.
I loved the time together, and we are already planning another more extensive time of engagement and learning. My thanks to all the clergy who participated. I so deeply appreciate the work they are doing, and the passion, spirit, strength, and creativity with which they do it.
Yours in Christ,