General Conference Notebook, April 28
A mix of young adult clergy, seminary students, and older co-conspirators banded together before General Conference to gather the signatures of several hundred United Methodists to petition for a shorter, less complex, more stream-lined, and more effective candidacy/commissioning/probationary/ordination process for entry into United Methodist ministry. They contend (and rightly so, I believe) that the confusing, complex, and lengthy process between experiencing the call, preparing for ministry, and being ordained acts as a strong deterrent to people seeking full-time Christian service, especially young adults. From beginning to end, the process may take ten or more years, including educational work and probationary time of service. Also, some of the language and steps of the process seems off-putting to younger generations. (For instance, what does the word “probation” usually connote to you? A person in good standing? Hardly. The language needs a make-over, too.)
Statistics suggest that the number of commissioned or ordained clergy under the age of 35 in our conferences has fallen from about 15% thirty years ago to about 4% today. This has caused some United Methodist leaders (Dr. Lovett Weems, Bishop Janice Huie, and me, among many others) to declare that our young clergy are our “Endangered Species.” Playing off this theme, those young adults who are petitioning for a shorter process have called themselves “The Spotted Owls,” and they are wearing owl buttons and owl caps and passing out owl literature to draw attention to their cause. It’s a real hoot (excuse the pun!) to see all these gifted and motivated young clergy organizing in this way.
While there are many contributing factors to the declining numbers of young adults offering themselves to ministry, the complexity of the candidacy/ordination process may be significant. Many young people approach a pastor or campus ministry to share their sense of calling and desire for ministry, and then ask, “What do I have to do?” Because of the many small steps involving mentors, local congregations, district committees, workbooks, district superintendents, Boards of Ministry, registrars, etc., often the pastor feels ill-equipped to give a simple and encouraging answer, and so she or he refers the young person to someone else. Many young people receive conflicting answers from their pastor, campus minister, and superintendent, and the confusion grows. I recall seeing a DVD that was produced to help with this, entitled, “Navigating the Candidacy Process for Ministry.” Wow! If the title has to include the word “navigating,” maybe we need a simpler process!
The “Spotted Owls” at General Conference are monitoring the legislative committee that deals with candidacy, commissioning, etc. I’m not sure what specific recommendations they are making. While I totally agree with their motivations and vision, I do worry about thoroughness and consistency in the legislative process. I hope that the outcome is a system of discernment, learning, mentoring, and evaluation that is both elegant in its simplicity and effective in preparing, encouraging, screening, and validating candidates for ministry. Elegance and effectiveness are not bad goals when considering complex processes.
Keep the Conference delegates, and the Spotted Owls, in your prayers so that we may have a system of inviting, encouraging, supporting, and training young adults for ministry that is conducive to our goal of reaching the next generation with the faith.
Yours in Christ,