|Study highlights lack of young clergy|
Little more than 5 percent of United Methodist clergy are younger than 35.
Source: Lewis Center for Church Leadership.
By Susan Hogan*
Oct. 30, 2009 | CHICAGO (UMNS)
Kerry Bart's faith blossomed in his mid-20s. Two years into a career as a college chemistry teacher in Iowa
, he grew curious about being a pastor.
Young people came forward to pray with clergy during EXPLORATION 2006 in Jacksonville, Fla.
UMNS file photos by Vicki Brown, Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
A friend invited him to tour a Pennsylvania seminary. The visit
affirmed his sense of calling. His ordination came four years ago.
"You don't do much faith sharing in a science department," said Bart,
37, an elder at Spring City United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania.
"The invitation to visit a seminary was a catalyst for me to becoming a
If The United Methodist Church wants younger clergy, more invitations need to be extended to young people, he said.
The need for young clergy – and the wide age gap that exists among
pastoral leaders in the denomination – is made clear in a recently
released study. It shows the number of "young elders" -- clergy under
age 35 -- isn't keeping pace with clergy entering retirement age.
The fastest growing segment of United Methodist clergy is over age 55,
according to the study by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of
Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
"The decline in young clergy has been far more dramatic than the
decline in church membership," said project director Lovett H. Weems,
Jr. "There's no quick fix to turning around the trend."
The study's key findings include:
- The number of young elders dropped slightly from 910 in 2008 to 906 in 2009.
- The percentage of young elders made up 5.25 percent of active elders in 2009, a slight increase from 5.21 percent in 2008.
percent of young clergy are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. In
contrast, the Northeastern and Western jurisdictions together have only
20 percent of young clergy.
"The good news is that the dramatic decline in elders over several years seems to have leveled off," Weems said.
The low point hit in 2005 when the number of young elders dipped to 850, the study showed.
Bart said young people today are more wary of organized religion than in previous generations.
Young people pray together during commitment service.
"They see clergy sex scandals and other messes and think, 'I don't want to be part of that,'" he said.
United Methodists are trying various approaches to stem the tide.
One of the most successful is the Holston Annual (regional) Conference,
which serves churches in north Georgia, Tennessee and southwest
No major urban area or seminary is located in the conference. Even so,
the number of young people entering ministry from there remains among
the highest year after year.
So what's the conference doing to foster vocations?
Weems points to weekend events held twice yearly that draw roughly
2,000 youth. The events always include a vocational discernment
"A common characteristic of young clergy is that they were involved in
church as children," said Weems, co-author of “The Crisis of Younger
Clergy” from Abingdon Press.
"Youth ministry, camping ministry and campus ministry all need more
attention," he added. "But there's no one solution to fit every
The Rev. Sami Wilson, a campus minister at Western Kentucky
University, said many of the students she encounters did not grow up
with a religious affiliation.
"There's been efforts to turn it around here and there, but nothing
major," he said. "A lot of people are longing for the good old days
instead of doing something about our problem now."
"For a minister trying to reach this generation, it's a complete
mission field," said Wilson, 37, a deacon. "You can't assume the
students have any concept of Christianity. Many don't have a religious
affiliation. They simply go where they are fed."
That may mean a United Methodist church one day and a Unitarian church the next, she said.
"It's tenuous because it's all about relationships to them and not brand loyalty."
Wilson has worked in campus ministry for eight years. She says her age
sometimes works against her when meeting with older United Methodist
"It's disconcerting to for me to go into a meeting of clergy and see a
sea of bald, white heads," she said. "Sometimes I've felt my point of
view is discounted because of my youth."
Jack Marcum, coordinator of research services for the Presbyterian
Church (U.S.A.), said his denomination's figure for young clergy has
remained steady for several years, with about 8 percent of clergy of
under age 35.
Bart said if he could do it all over again, he would prefer a church
without a building. Instead, he'd meet people in their hangouts.
"In the present model of church, all the resources get tied to the
building --the bricks, pavement and maintenance," he said. "If you're
going to reach young people, you need to be where they interact.”
*Hogan is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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