A UM Missional Future: Young Clergy as Endangered Species?

Part 6 of 21...

Should we declare young United Methodist clergy as an endangered species?

Dr. Weems asks this in part in response to some of the research he has been involved with in recent years, the results of which show both a dramatic decline (from 15.05% in 1985 to 4.69% in 2005) in the number of younger clergy (ordained elders under the age of 35) in the UMC and that the UMC's younger clergy percentage is higher ONLY than The Episcopal Church's figures (4.1%) among US mainline denominations.

Dr. Weems cites several reasons these figures should alarm United Methodists.
1) Younger leaders may be in a better position to understand how to reach their own generation and potentially multiple generations.
2) Clergy entering the process at an older age have fewer years in the system, and therefore over time have less system-wisdom to contribute.
3) Younger clergy (age 24-35) may be more successful at church planting than older clergy.

Not in the provocative questions document, but in his larger study of clergy age in the UMC in comparison with other denominations, is this quote from Leander Keck:

"The impression is abroad that the church does not welcome strength since it is more a place to find a support group than a channel for energy and talent, more a place where the bruised find solace than where the strong find companions and challenge.”

The importance of this statement should not be missed. It parallels a concern that people like Bill Easum have been raising for many years-- that many of our congregations have decided or lived as if they had decided that their primary mission was to care for each other rather than to be actively involved in bearing witness to the kingdom of God in every way possible. They have in effect substituted a part of the Christian mission (care) for the whole (witness in all possible forms, inclusive of care).

A missing implication is that younger people may be more "into" transformative mission than into care as such, while older persons may be more "into" mission AS care, and that this may account for the substantially lower number of younger people becoming clergy in the last 20 years. That, of course, would need to be demonstrated, not simply asserted or, as in this case, implied.

Likewise, Keck's provocative statement would need to be tested to see if indeed there has been such a shift in understanding mission over the past, say, 30 years, across UM congregations that would account for the substantially lower numbers of younger persons ordained as elders in the UMC. To my knowledge, neither the assertion nor the data to establish it as a fact for the UMC have been forthcoming.

One of the fallacies often spoken about the emerging missional church is that it is primarily intended as a movement of 20 and 30 somethings, or as a way to reach 20 and 30 somethings-- folks who could broadly be understood as "postmodern." That notion is quickly belied by a quick check of facts. A good number of the so-called key leaders of the movement (or at least the theological conversation elements of it-- and the folks who publish a lot on the Internet and in books) are in their 40s and 50s, and it doesn't take long in reading what they say to discern that they are not postmodern themselves, but rather are modernists who are trying to describe some of what they are encountering in the US or other developed English-speaking contexts and often use the term postmodern to capture that. Still, their basic commitment is not to postmodernism, or even to helping the gospel reach postmoderns exclusively. Their basic commitment is to contextual missiology-- what the church and individual Christians can do in their specific missional contexts to be about doing what God's kingdom is doing wherever they are and among the people-- of whatever cultural background or assumption or age-- amidst whom they live.

For that reason, it becomes less clear that younger clergy will necessarily be more successful at church planting in all contexts (depending on how success is defined) than older clergy may be. At issue is not age, but cultural awareness and fluency, including fluency in what it takes to provide leadership in given cultural settings.

The one fact we have, then, is the decline itself-- from 15.05% in 1985 to 4.69% in 2005. What we still have unanswered is what exactly that signals-- either in terms of what the decline means (i.e., what the causes for it actually were) or what the decline implies (i.e., what is likely to happen in a denomination with such a low percentage of younger ordained clergy).

And of the three implications drawn, the one that remains clearly viable is the UMC may be losing wisdom, systemically, in the long run given the very low rate of younger ordained elders. A further implication along the way is that with such a dominance of over-35 leaders in the UMC, the opportunity for those under 35 to have their voice seriously considered at any table where they may sit could be almost zero. The UMC is a church of the Boomers and maybe of some of the Busters, but its capacity to hear, respond, and be formed by those of us who are younger may be seriously limited. It can form younger people in ITS mold, if they will allow it. The reverse would appear to be hardly the case. The short answer to Dr. Weems question may be more than "Yes." It may be "Yes, and in a short bit of time, perhaps a decade or two, young elders may be all but extinct."

That is, at least, if working through the established channels of the institutional church is thought to be the only or primary way to have meaningful influence in the UMC. I would argue that it is not. And certainly it is not the only or even the primary way if we are imagining and helping to build an emerging UM future. If we do take seriously that the basic missional unit of Methodism (or "primitive Christianity" or "experimental Christianity" as Mr Wesley would put it) is neither the congregation nor the conference and certainly not the General Conference or General Agencies, but rather the missional, accountable small group that is networked with other missional accountable small groups, we can have much hope of enlisting leaders (and not just managers or caretakers) of all ages and stages.

In a UM institutional future, including one that involves planting many new congregations, given the current realities, then, yes, young elders are very much an endangered species.

In a UM missional future, however, younger people-- laity and all clergy (elders AND deacons) COULD be more abundant... but that is IF we decide to head in that kind of direction.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards