Monday, July 5, 2010

Younger Clergy Obsession

My denomination (the United Methodist Church) is fascinated by finding, attracting, and keeping younger clergy. It seems that is all I hear about these days. I went to a meeting at the District office the other day and heard my District Superintendent praise someone for being a coveted young clergy person. No disrespect to my DS, but it made my stomach church. That is mostly because I am just tired of hearing about it. Since I still am a "young clergy" (at least until December 31st when I turn 36 and will become, I guess, "middle aged clergy"), I feel that I can speak to this issue from the "inside".

There are a lot of reasons this "young" thing bothers me. First and foremost is that Jesus did not seemed so focused on a person's age. I can't remember one instance where he even referenced age. Jesus seemed more concerned that His followers were 100 percent sold out and committed to Him. Passion, surrender, and commitment were the trademarks Jesus looked for in followers (and leaders). I feel like our denomination should be calling out for passionate clergy, for people who are desperately in love with Jesus and want to lead others to Him, whether they are 18 or 98 really doesn't matter.

This whole obsession with younger clergy seems to be a grasping effort to stop our decline as a denomination and bring in new life--a tourniquet to stop our slow bleed. It is not that I am opposed to younger clergy (since I am one!), or to reaching younger generations for Jesus Christ. I fully support that and think those are good and necessary things, but they are not the only things. People matter to God. People of all ages. And God can use accomplish His purposes.

I first heard my call to ministry at age 16 during a sermon in my home church on a typical Sunday morning. My senior pastor, Rev. Dick Teller, was preaching about Noah and God's promises, and I felt God speak to me that day about my calling as a pastor. Rev. Teller was in his 60s at the time. By our current rhetoric, only a 30 year old should have been able to reach me as a teenager. But for me, it was a wise, faithful, godly, dedicated pastor in his 60s who spoke to my heart.

My husband, Joe, likes to listen to sermons by Bishop Will Willimon. I did not hear this myself, but I trust Joe implicitly. Apparently, in one recent sermon, Willimon said that he told his District Superintendents that if someone 40 or over calls their offices expressing an interest in the ministry, get to them when you can. If they are under 40, clear your schedule and meet them immediately. Somehow, I'm not surprised by that, but it makes me sad. Why wouldn't you drop your busy administrative schedule to run out and meet anyone who feels God is calling them to ministry, regardless of age? I just don't believe that the less wrinkles you have, the more effective you will be in ministry.

I am a much better, wiser pastor than I was when I first started out. I have fallen flat on my face and learned from mistakes. Ten years from now, I will probably be able to say the same thing. With age often comes wisdom. The more you experience of life and of God, the more you have to offer the world, not less. For me, as a person in my 30s, I tend to seek out counselors and advisers who are older than me, who have already walked where I am headed. In spiritual matters, I lean toward people who have learned more than I have. Age is a virtue, at least in terms of wisdom and guidance.

I guess I can't speak for everyone in my age bracket, but I think most people want a pastor who truly loves God and knows what he/she is talking about...whether they are 30 or 70. I have found, as a younger clergy, that most people need to get past my age (as well as my gender) before they are willing to trust me...even younger people. It may be cool to be young, but I am not sure that most people really want a pastor who is cool. They want a pastor who is authentic and has something to teach them that they haven't been able to find on their own. Teach pastors how to do that and the church will grow.

I went to a "young clergy" event at Ginghamsburg UMC a few months ago. It was wonderful. We had a chance to hear from great preachers who have been pastors for a long time. They shared wisdom with us to help develop us. My only problem with the event was that I know a lot of pastors who are older than 35 who would have gained much from attending. It also struck me as odd the idea that just because you are under a certain age, you are all in the same place of ministry. I sat next to a woman who was 2 years younger than me and had been a local pastor for 2 years and had not been to seminary yet. I am going on my 10th year of pastoral ministry and have gone to seminary. We were in different places, asking different questions, needing different things. I think it would be great to have events based on years of ministry experience, regardless of age, because then you might be asking the same questions and struggling with the same concepts.

Ministry is hard and there is so much to learn, continually. The minute you are ordained it seems you are expected to know everything there is to know. What if, instead of obsessing about younger clergy, we focused on training and equipping more effective clergy of all ages? What if we had events based on years of ministry experience or situational need? What if we made pastors feel supported and valued, instead of indicating they are past their prime the minute they say goodbye to their 30s.

In all this diatribe, I am not saying we shouldn't recruit and train younger clergy. I am saying that our obsession with youth is not going to solve the problems in the United Methodist Church. Younger Clergy are not the elusive holy grail that will save our dying denomination. Things like vision, accountability, encouragement, Scripture study, prayer, passion, renewal, revival are what we need...and those things have nothing to do with age. Let's fall more in love with Jesus and desperately depend on His Spirit. That's where our focus needs to be. Just my two cents...from a frustrated pastor who is going to throw up the next time she hears "younger clergy".


~ Anna G ~ said...

I really appreciated this post. I (as a fellow young clergy person) get frustrated when older clergy people sit back and think that they don't have to do anything because all the young clergy will.

I think it is unfair to place these expectations of saving the dying denomination on younger clergy people. What happens when the decline is still happening in 15 years? Do we then realize that age doesn't matter in ministry?

I <3 you.

Tina Dietsch Fox said...

Amen, Anna!

I love you!!!

now that we are moved, we have to plan our couples get together!!

paul said...

Um... Tina and Anna --I'm not going to let either of you off the hook that easy.

As an old pastor... pretty much a has-been... I expect all you young pastors to change the world and raise all the apportionments dollars so I can sit on my butt and collect my retirement.

Okay, really.

I think the point behind this push for younger clergy is good -- even if it may sometimes seem misguided. Fact: our pastors are getting older. Much older. Fact: so our most of our congregations. Fact: we have built an ordination system that is producing what it is designed to produce... so we need a new system. Fact: Yes, second-career folks bring a lot to the table. Extra experiences, new perspectives etc. (I'm not anti-second career at all -- my assoicate is a former engineer and is FANTASTIC). But there is also a richness that comes from a "lifer" in full-time church leadership. At 43 I have been In church leadership for almost 20 years. There are fewer and fewer of us with that kind of experience.

Studies say that churches grow within plus or minus 7 years the age of the pastor. It's a generality (I have lots of young people in leadership so I hope to throw that off!), but seems to hold over a large sample. In general, if we are ever going to reach a next generation (and the church is always within a generation from extinction), younger pastors ARE really important.

Also, as a dinosaur, I realize that the next great idea probably won't come from me... but the people I mentor and raise up. So I will either be the lifter or the limiter of the next generation of pastors. I choose lifter. I have committed my life and ministry so that those who follow me will do much greater things than me. I wasn't invited to the young clergy network -- too old -- but I am SO glad that opportunity exists because I didn't have it. I didn't have an intern program, but I will give my energy to make sure the next generation does so they are even more equipped than I was when I started ministry.

Your comment about events based on years of ministry experience is valid, but I do think there is a young mindset and even a stage of life that is not always embraced by those chronologically older. As someone not invited to those things, I'm not threatened by that at all. Truth is, I don't need the Conference to motivate me. If I want those experiences I will find them. If I want to hang with those people, I invite them to lunch.

Yes, "youth" won't solve the problems in the UM church.... but I'm not sure they won't be solved without them. And I want to do all I can to be a part of it.

My diatribe is over as well. :)

And I think pretty highly of that Jesus guy too. I want to love him more. I agree 100% on that one. :)

Tina Dietsch Fox said...

Hey Paul!!!

Thanks for your "diatribe"! I don't really disagree with you. The younger clergy thing just makes me feel like a affirmative action for the young methodist crowd!

I do think we should recruit and train and equip younger clergy, just not exclusively; it feels like unless you are young and hip, you don't matter. I happen to be young and hip, so that shouldn't bother me so much, but nonetheless it does ;-)

as for younger clergy recruitment: we also need to re-evaluate the ordination process. We can recruit all we want, but there are many other denominations that make it a whole lot easier to get to the work of pastor-ing than we make it as Methodists. I have a whole list of other things that could change in order to attract younger clergy (or any clergy), but I won't get into that. My ideas are all mostly hot air anyway!!!

I am all for loving Jesus more, too! Let's make that a plan!