By Jay Voorhees, Special Contributor…
NASHVILLE, Tenn.—In the year 2032, if trends continue, the United Methodist Church will face a shortage of trained ordained elders for appointment to local congregations. This was just one of the factors which led the 2012 General Conference to create a $7 million Young Clergy Initiative Fund designed to “increase the number of young clergy among the jurisdictional conferences,” to be administered by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM).
As the first step in this initiative, GBHEM staff hosted a special summit of church leaders from across the denomination Aug. 20-21 to listen and dream about how to best recruit younger clergy, helping them discern their calling to ministry, nurturing them through the ordination candidacy process, educating them for excellence and supporting them once in their ministry.
The event, held in Nashville at the GBHEM offices, brought together representatives from the denominational boards and agencies, the Council of Bishops, United Methodist seminaries and annual conference boards of ordained ministry with young adults (under age 30) who are at various places in the candidacy process or are currently serving under appointment.
The goal was to provide a space for these young clergy to talk about the roadblocks and difficulties they have, or continue to face, as they move toward ordained ministry in the UMC, and to use this information as a basis for further action.
“I am excited that there are people who are dreaming about the future of our church,” said the Rev. Jasmine Smothers, herself a young clergywoman and associate director of connectional ministries for the North Georgia Conference.
Young clergy shared a number of challenges they face in “navigating” the candidacy process, including poorly trained and unresponsive mentors, the high cost of the candidacy process and seminary education, and a mismatch between one’s calling and the needs of the annual conference, which left many feeling like their concerns go unheard.
“The fishbowl conversations we heard today sound pretty similar to the fishbowl conversations when I came through the process 25 years ago,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., and a participant in the summit. “When I was going through the process I was the youngest person going through in years. Nobody else had young children and was thinking about childcare. Many of the feelings we heard today—feelings of isolation, loneliness and concern about debt—have been with us for many years.”
Perhaps the most energy and conversation at the meeting was focused on inadequate mentoring through the candidacy process. The 2012 General Conference attempted to address some of these concerns with legislation to provide for a group mentoring process, something which participants at the summit affirmed.
“We knew that mentoring was a problem due to feedback during the ministry study,” said Bishop Grant Hagiya, who leads the UMC’s newly formed Greater Northwest Area in the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Conferences. “Group mentoring was put in place to try and address those issues. We believed that if we could get well-trained, passionate people for this we could solve some of the issues.”
Bishop Hagiya also noted that the 2012 General Conference approved the creation of a Vocational Discernment Director position for annual conference boards of ordained ministry—someone who will track candidates for ordained ministry and be a consistent presence throughout the process.
Another issue of concern for young clergy is the low number of ethnic minorities under the age of 30 currently seeking ordained ministry. Currently, 18 percent of the candidates for ministry in the United Methodist Church are under age 30—and of those 1,226 candidates, less than 14 percent are non-white.
While the percentage of ethnic candidates exceeds the ethnic membership of the UMC (8.6 percent as of 2010), participants at the summit worried that the current process for ordination may be “Anglo-focused” and fail to adequately consider the needs and concerns of ethnic minorities and their congregations. Participants affirmed the need to pay special attention to the needs of ethnic communities as they look at recruiting and supporting young clergy so that (as one participant noted) in 20 or 30 years the United Methodist Church will not be 90 percent white.
After a time of listening and reflection, participants divided into subgroups focused around the language in the General Conference legislation on recruitment, discernment, education, nurture and support. Each group examined both internal and external threats which hindered the work in their areas, and developed a set of future goals for further conversation.
One of most pointed of these goals was the call from the summit’s recruitment subcommittee to establish a special “Answer the Call” Sunday in every local church, theological school and campus ministry—modeled on a similar Sunday held each year at Mr. Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection.
“Part of what we have to do is be intentional about talking with people about their calling, and asking them if they are sensing a call to ordained ministry,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Yes, all of us are called to ministry in some way, but some are called to ordained ministry and we need to be sure to offer that option to our members.”
Throughout the summit participants voiced concern that, as insiders to the United Methodist Church, they were not hearing from persons who might feel called to ministry but have limited ability in accessing church resources or other support in considering ordination in the UMC. “At some point,” said Bishop Hagiya, “. . . we will need to expand this conversation to reach secularized young adults to better understand the constituency we are trying to reach.”
The Rev. Mike Baughman, a church planter in the North Texas Conference, weighed in on this point. “It’s very likely that those who are currently outside the church will be the ones to best reach the unchurched,” he said.
Bishop James Dorff (San Antonio Area) was pleased with the conversation and felt that it was a good first step in better thinking about enhancing the church’s recruitment and support of young clergy.
“It is encouraging to think that the whole church is beginning to understand the real need the Kingdom has for young clergy, which will in turn reinvigorate the church,” Bishop Dorff said.
The Rev. Meg Lassiat, director of candidacy, mentoring and conference relations for the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said the summit was part of an expanding, ongoing conversation as the board develops a strategy for the Young Clergy Initiative. “This meeting allowed us to identify some big issues,” Ms. Lassiat said. “. . . We’ve identified some strengths that we can build upon, and we’ve identified some areas that we need to pay more attention to, which was really our purpose when we scheduled this summit.”
Mr. Hamilton, who was part of the Interim Operations Team (IOT) that proposed the Initiative Fund at General Conference, said that he hoped this project would lead to an additional 2,000 young clergy being ordained for ministry in the church.
“I think of all the things that the IOT and the Call to Action did, the one thing that will have the greatest opportunity to have an impact on the church is the recruiting of excellent, passionate followers of Jesus Christ to be leaders of the church,” he said.
The Rev. Voorhees is the co-founder of www.methoblog.com and pastor of Old Hickory UMC in Old Hickory, Tenn.