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United Methodists challenged to seek young clergy

The Rev. Okitakoyi Lundula attends the 2009 School of Congregational Development. Photo by Cassandra M. Zampini.

By Elliott Wright*
August 3, 2009 | EVANSTON, Ill. (UMNS)

The United Methodist School of Congregational Development began with a rousing appeal to the denomination to increase the number of ordained clergy under the age of 35.

"Young people got talent," declared Bishop James Swanson.

Swanson is the leader of the church's Holston Area, which has one of the highest percentages of clergy under 35 of any of the 62 United Methodist annual (regional) conferences in the United States. While 12 percent to 13 percent of Holston's clergy are under 35, most conferences have 5 percent or fewer, he said.

Bishop James Swanson says that
"young people got talent."
Photo by Cassandra M. Zampini.

The United Methodist Church currently has some 8 million members in the U.S., a number that has steadily declined over the last 40 years. The number of younger pastors also has declined.

According to “Clergy Age Trends in The United Methodist Church from 1985-2008,” the number of young elders increased from 876 to 910, and the percentage grew from 4.92 percent to 5.21 percent in 2008. The study from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership notes that clergy under 35 fell from 3,219 in 1985 to 876 in 2007, but it increased in 2008. 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.

Welcoming youth

The bishop spoke at the opening of the five-day School of Congregational Development, which brings together pastors, bishops, district superintendents, and lay leaders committed to new church starts and congregational revitalization. The United Methodist Boards of Discipleship and Global Ministries sponsor the annual event. "Effective Ministry" was the theme of the July 29-Aug. 2 leadership conference.

The 2009 school drew more than 600 participants, speakers, and seminar leaders.

The bishop's emphasis on the recruitment and equipping of youthful pastors was in keeping with a denominational focus on leadership development.

Swanson said some of the ways his episcopal area covering more than 900 churches in eastern Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and north Georgia is appealing to young people include annual weekend music and praise rallies attended by 12,000 to 15,000 junior and senior high school students and an appeal to college students called Divine Rhythm.

Biblical precedent

To illustrate the strength and reliability of the youthful perspective, he quoted the first chapter in Daniel, which was set in a time of exile in Babylon for Jews from Jerusalem.

The king of Babylon decides to train four young Hebrews in Babylonian ways and, so the king thinks, use them to pacify the unhappy, disruptive exiles who want to go home, unsure whether they can follow their faith in a strange land. However, the plan backfires. Given the opportunity to assert themselves, Daniel and his friends cling to their faith, discovering that one could be faithful to God even far from Jerusalem.

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"The king should have picked some older people," said the bishop, "because the older you get, the more willing you become to compromise."

The story of Daniel, he stated, underscores the need for a "new vision for a new day." He urged The United Methodist Church to recruit young clergy and trust them, even if they differ in outlook and practice from their parents and grandparents.

Individuals wishing to support ministry leaders may do so at the Ministerial Education Fund.

*Wright is the information officer for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

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

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Clergy Age Trends

Lewis Center for Church Leadership

Holston Annual Conference

School of Congregational Development

United Methodist Board of Global Ministries

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