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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2009 Archives > September-October 2009 > God's Call: Opening Young Hearts and Minds

The Rev. Eric Helms serves communion during beach worship in Somers Point, N.J. Photo by Skip Armistead
God's Call: Opening
Young Hearts and Minds

By Tom Gillem

The call to ordained ministry for young people can come just about any time, any place and in so many ways. Some people discern it for themselves right away. For others, their potential for the ministry is recognized first by people around them. Still others take years to discover just where the Holy Spirit is leading them.

The problem facing The United Methodist Church is that too few young people are hearing and heeding the call at the same time the number of ordained ministers under 35 years old hovers just above 5 percent of the denomination's total aging clergy.

The Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr., a researcher and executive director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, says a primary issue creating the dearth of under-35 ordained elders and deacons is the decline of youth ministry and youth participation in the church.

"Our research, which included a survey of all the under-35 clergy in The United Methodist Church, shows that most of these young clergy made their decision before going to college, that what they had most in common was they were active in church as children and as youth," Weems says. "Their local congregation was the most important shaping factor for them, and their pastor was their key mentor."

"So ... when you see the consistent decline of children and youth participation in the church, it's easy to see why there might be fewer young people entering ordained ministry."

Youth church participation is a concern for United Methodists. Many annual conferences and churches are working to help clergy and laity better understand their formative roles in the lives of children and youth.

"For youth and young adults, it is so important they get feedback from people they respect," says the Rev. Meg Lassiat, director of Student Ministries, Vocation and Enlistment for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. "When someone who is farther along in ministry, or even an adult church leader or someone besides their parents, can identify gifts and grace for ministry in that person and encourage them that is so important."

The Rev. Nicole Conard, who was ordained as an elder earlier this year and is pastor of caring ministries at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., was barely a teenager when she told her parents she was going to be a minister. She was always active as a youth at her home church, Clemmons (N.C.) United Methodist Church.

"If it weren't for the people who were part of the congregation and their receptivity and their love and care, I think I would be a very different person," says Conard, 28, who believes nurturing is "just a part of the congregation's DNA" at Clemmons.

"I think people saw the gifts within me that God has given me, and they wanted me to be able to use them however that might be," she says. Pastors, youth counselors and special people in the church she calls her "mentors" were always supporting her.

Not all young people are so fortunate.

The Rev. Eric Helms' call developed slowly and methodically over the years of his youth. He credits two college professors -- one a United Methodist elder -- with helping him follow that call. There had been signs of his calling since his confirmation, but Helms says he received little nurturing from pastors at his childhood churches in Indiana.

"It seems like somebody who knew me growing up -- a pastor, who would have known at least some of the things I was involved in and maybe more -- that I would have had a conversation with a pastor about this at a younger age," Helms says. "That did not happen until I decided I was going to pursue the ordination route. I feel like that was something that I totally missed out on."

Helms, 30, a provisional elder, serves as pastor of Somers Point (N.J.) United Methodist Church. He will apply for ordination in 2010.

The Rev. Lara Byrd. Courtesy photo
The Rev. Lara Byrd, associate pastor at Carteret Street United Methodist Church  in Beaufort, S.C., says summer work with other youth at a church-sponsored service to improve the homes of people with limited resources made her first consider her call.

"When I first told the minister who became my mentor, he said that he had seen evidence of the Spirit working in me to call me into ministry," says Byrd, 30, who was ordained as an elder in 2008.

The Rev. Rebekah Jordan Gienapp's deep concerns about justice for the poor guided her into a life not as an elder in a church pulpit, but as a deacon on the streets in her hometown of Memphis, Tenn.

The Rev. Rebekah Jordan Gienapp (right), Jonathan Cole and Tanya Brown pray during a vigil in Memphis, Tenn., for workers facing potential job losses. Courtesy photo
"When I learned that deacons were supposed to help connect the church and the world and help people in congregations meet the needs of the world through ministries of love, justice and service, I thought, 'That's exactly what I want to do,'" says Gienapp, 32, a community organizer and executive director of Workers Interfaith Network  in Memphis.

She was ordained as a deacon in 2005, three years after she and several other clergy founded the organization that helps workers improve wages and working conditions.

Lassiat says workshops about other ways to be in ministry besides serving in a local church are a regular part of events like Exploration, a semi-annual gathering for young people, high-school seniors through age 24, who are considering ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church.

"One reason why we see such a high percentage of young adults in the deacon ministries is that young adults today are looking for new and creative ways to make faith real for people," Lassiat says. "So you can be a deacon, and you can be a community organizer where you have a relationship with a local church, and you can reach out to people in that community in a much different way than we've seen in the past."

The Wesley Foundation and other campus ministries also have a profound effect on many college students who are deciding whether to answer the call to ordained ministry, Lassiat says.

"One of the unique things about campus ministries is you have the opportunity to practice your leadership skills there and to get some good feedback, both from your peers and from your campus minister in ways that don't happen until you're in that developmental stage of your life," she says.

Josh Kouri, 27, a master of divinity student at Perkins School of Theology and youth director at Axe Memorial United Methodist Church in Garland, Texas, says his Wesley Foundation director at New Mexico State University was one of the two people who nurtured him the most. The other person was his church youth director.

"Before I recognized any sort of leadership potential in myself, or certainly any church ministry potential, I think both of them recognized it in me and really nurtured me toward that," says the recipient of a fellowship from the Fund for Theological Education  (FTE). "Every time there was an Exploration event, they were always making sure I went."

The Rev. Jay Williams addresses 1,200 annual conference leaders at the "Living the United Methodist Way: Turning Worlds Upside Down" quadrennial training event in January. UMNS photo by Erik Alsgaard
The Rev. Jay Williams, another FTE fellow, began preparing for a medical career when he entered Harvard University. The two-time General Conference delegate then found himself in a financially seductive career on Wall Street by the time he graduated magna cum laude.

But the spiritual seeds planted in his heart as a 4-year-old boy who asked to attend church with his great-grandmother now rule Williams' life.

"All the members of the church would just tell me, 'Well, you're going to be a pastor,'" he says. "They were kind of shepherding me in a particular direction. So in a way, I withdrew from it -- or didn't embrace it -- even though it was kind of written all over me."

During his freshman year at Harvard, Williams became active in an off-campus antislavery group concerned with the plight of millions of people who were living as slaves in the world. Before starting his sophomore year, he traveled to the Sudan to learn about its civil war and modern day slavery. While there, his group helped to liberate Sudanese slaves.

After graduation, Williams worked for three years in New York City at Merrill-Lynch, where he was an assistant vice president in the private banking division. However, he felt unfulfilled and decided to enter Union Theological Seminary.

"I don't think I was running from a call because I honestly just had not fully discerned it yet," he says. "... It took some time to discern and to hear the still, small voice of God that had been speaking over the years to me through all these people who had been around me."

Williams, 28, was commissioned as a provisional elder in June and started his first appointment on July 1 as pastor at Glendale United Methodist Church  in Everett, Mass. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in the study of religion at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

--Tom Gillem is a freelance writer and photographer in Franklin, Tenn.


To help young people discern God's call...

"Hear-Discern-Respond-Go" will be the theme of Exploration 2009, Nov. 13-15 in Dallas. The gathering is for young people considering ordained ministry. Learn more at Other opportunities The United Methodist Church provides to help young people discern their call include:

Student Forum of the United Methodist Student Movement: Annual spiritual development and leadership training conference for college students

Young Adult Seminarians Network: United Methodist seminarians ages 35 and under and those concerned with their issues Information about ordained ministry, United Methodist-related seminaries and loans and scholarships

Printed resources: Including Beyond the Burning Bush: Hearing and Answering God's Call (GBHEM), which will be published this fall

Media resources: Including "Ordained Ministry in The United Methodist Church" [Cokesbury, (800) 672-1789, not available online], a new DVD featuring elders, deacons, chaplains and pastoral counselors saying what it means to be called to ordained ministry

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