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Young clergy numbers rise, bucking leadership trend

The Rev. Annie Arnoldy, 29, helps give the first-ever Young People's Address at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. The number of ordained ministers under age 35 increased last year. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*

Jan. 6, 2009

For the first time this century, the number of United Methodist clergy under age 35 has surpassed 5 percent, a sign of the emergence of new ways of engaging young adults in church leadership.

In 2008, the number of young elders increased from 876 to 910, and the percentage grew from 4.92 to 5.21 percent.

The Rev. Lovett Weems


The increase is “modest good news” for the church, said the Rev. Lovett Weems, coauthor of an updated study, “Clergy Age Trends in The United Methodist Church from 1985-2008.” Weems and the Lewis Center for Church Leadership released the original study in 2006. Weems is executive director of the center at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

The number of clergy under 35 fell from 3,219 in 1985 to 876 in 2007, but it increased in 2008, according to the study. The consistent decline in under-35 elders as a percentage of all elders seemed to hit its low point in 2005, when it sank to 4.69 percent, the study noted. In 2006 and 2007, the percentage increased to 4.89 percent and 4.92 percent, respectively.

“It is encouraging to see an increase over the last few years and to know that many people -- including young adults -- are working to keep this trend going,” said the Rev. Meg Lassiat, who works with young adult pastors and those exploring ministry vocations at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville, Tenn.

The increase in young adult clergy is one indication that many groups are focusing on this issue and finding new ways to engage young adults in leadership for the denomination, she said. Additionally, “we are seeing a growing interest with young people in answering a call to Christian vocation,” she said.

The need for The United Methodist Church to invite, train and retain young adult clergy leaders is one of the most important issues today, Lassiat said. Low percentages of young adults clergy are problematic in “all of the mainline denominations,” she said.

‘It’s not enough’

Shalom R. Agtarap


Shalom R. Agtarap, 25, who is working toward ordained ministry and serving as the local pastor of Rainer Beach United Methodist Church in Seattle, is thrilled that the number of her peers entering the ministry is increasing. “But it’s not enough,” she said. “Sadly, the few tenths of a percent increase pales in comparison to the percentage of clergy either retiring or leaving our church.”

There are not more clergy under 35 in the church “because it is not attractive to us,” said Teresa Cook. At 27, she rarely sees “anyone my age in my 600-member church.” Cook is associate pastor of Pine Valley United Methodist Church in Wilmington, N.C.

Agtarap said the denomination’s ordination process has been disingenuous to those under 35. “The United Methodist Church needs to recognize the fact that so many young people do feel called and many more want to serve! Traditional understandings of what it means to be ordained clergy, however, have restricted many of these ways of serving,” she said.

The denomination as a whole is looking for the balance between credentialing strong leaders and creating new avenues for candidates to enter and move through the candidacy process, Lassiat said. While the length of the process is one factor that can be cumbersome to new candidates, what's more critical is how annual conferences implement the candidacy process.

Teresa Cook


Ignoring God’s call?

The Rev. Justin Halbersma said the increase in young adult clergy “who are responding to God’s call on their lives in something to celebrate.” However, he said it is hard to respond fully without taking into consideration all the other factors, such as the total decrease in the number of clergy, along with any demographic shifts in other age groups.

While young elders have represented 15 percent of elders in the church, the overall number of elders continues to decline each year. In 1985, the number of elders in the church was 21,378, and the number decreased to 17,480 in 2008. During that time, the average age of clergy increased from 46.8 to 52.1. The greatest growth continues to occur in the 55-70 age group.

Although middle-aged and older pastors are vital to ministry, “it is troubling that the church allows so many younger persons to ignore God’s call,” commented Weems and study co-author Ann A. Michel.

Halbersma, 28, who is serving the Chatfield (Minn.) United Methodist Church, agrees. “I believe there aren't more clergy under the age of 35 in the church because we have a church that (has) let them ignore the call God has placed on their lives.” For too long, the church “has failed to live up to (its) communal responsibility in helping raise up those who would lead the church in the present and future.”

The Rev. Justin Halbersma


The declining number of young clergy deprives the ministry at both ends of the age spectrum, according to the report. “The new ideas, creativity, energy and cultural awareness often exhibited by the young are lost. And with more persons entering ministry with fewer years to serve, the wisdom and experience that can come with long tenures in ministry are also in jeopardy.”

Young clergy matter the same as any other clergy, Halbersma said. “God has called people of all ages, genders and ethnicities, and that is key. God has called them, and when we as the church fail to help a certain group of people nurture and respond to that call, then we all lose out.

Young clergy are “part of the generation that is now sitting before us as youth and children,” he said. “Young clergy understand their world, and they know how to speak in relevant ways. If given the chance, they could help the church as a whole become more relevant.”

Observers have said that the lack of clergy under 35 is contributing to a leadership crisis in the church. Over the next four years, the denomination is focusing on developing principled Christian leaders as a priority.

Youth and experience

Youthfulness and experience are both advantageous to ministry, said the study’s authors.

Jenny Smith


“Those who are new to clergy leadership may lack a certain amount of expertise. However, it is our responsibility as a denomination to develop effective ways to train and prepare new clergy for their current and future leadership roles,” Lassiat said. “We have an opportunity in developing young adult leadership to prepare our denomination for the challenges and opportunities it will face over the next 50 years.”

“Young clergy do lack experience,” said Jenny Smith, 26, a second-year seminary student at United Theological Seminary in Trotwood, Ohio. While they need the guidance and wisdom of other clergy, young pastors bring innovation, adaptability, energy and a willingness to try new things, she said. “The possibilities are endless when ‘both sides’ can acknowledge we need each other to move forward.”

“Yes, I do not qualify for the job, but Jesus does!” Cook said. “Jesus is the real pastor, and I depend on him every single day. Yes, I lack expertise physically, but not spiritually. I walk the walk and do less talking. Actions speak louder than words ... and being a Christian example is my strength as young adult clergy.”

“Leadership is a form of expertise that has a long gestation period,” and an expert is one who has trained and worked in a specific field for 10 years, according to the report. If sufficient numbers of young adults do not enter the ministry, the church will have fewer clergy in the pipeline with the experience necessary to handle challenging pastoral appointments and fill denominational leadership roles, the study said.

The Rev. Jennifer Battiest, 33, pastor of Clinton (Okla.) Indian Mission United Methodist Church, said society’s emphasis on “instant gratification is much to blame, and the greater church’s unwillingness to uphold themselves to standards of compassion, understanding and striving towards perfection in love/God” is another reason for a crisis in leadership.

The Rev. Jennifer Battiest


“The greater church seems to want to make so many rules for clergy to live up to but not for themselves,” she said. “The church sometimes seems like a cranky 2-year-old saying, ‘Me! me! me! me!’ Perhaps lack of accountability for the leadership from the church is also at fault.”

Attracting young members

The United Methodist Church wants to begin 650 new churches by 2012 to stop its annual membership decline and reconnect with its past by planting churches that reach more people, younger people and diverse people.

Young clergy have certain advantages in reaching out to their own generation through forms of communication, including language, and cultural realities, Weems and Michel noted. “Just as important, the mere presence of young clergy in a church symbolizes that younger persons are valued as leaders and participants.”

An informal poll of congregational development officials in The United Methodist Church also showed a preference for church planters ages 25-35, the study authors said.

The five conferences where young elders are highest as a percentage of elders in 2008 are Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama-West Florida, North Alabama and Oklahoma. The largest number of young elders is found in Western North Carolina with 60.

Lassiat said there are no easy answers as to why some conferences have a higher percentage of clergy under 35 than others do.

The Rev. Meg Lassiat 


“Increasing the numbers and percentage of young adult clergy for the denomination is a complicated issue,” she said. There is not one way or a program that will work across the denomination to increase the statistics, she said.

The annual conferences that are seeing an increase have dedicated time, resources and people to identifying what young adults need and want in considering the call to ordained ministry.

The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry is helping the church recruit clergy under 35 in a variety of ways. In addition to its annual Exploration events, the agency in 2007 released a report on best practices that highlights programs that are working in the development of young adult clergy.

The board is working on a book, “Hearing God's Call,” a collection of essays from people who are called to ordained ministry as well as a new DVD resource/booklet called “Ordained Ministry” for groups or individuals to use in learning about ministry and the different ways that people can serve. In 2006, the agency launched www.explorecalling.org to provide information and resources for youth and young adults as they consider how God is calling them to serve.

Young clergy are “vital to the vibrancy of the church, as well as its ability to attract younger congregants and form new congregations,” Weems and Michel wrote. “And it is essential for developing the long-term experience in ministry necessary for the most challenging assignments. Young clergy do, indeed, matter.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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