NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - Rocio Del Carmen Ramirez sported green hair and a punk look when she played piano at her inner-city Chicago church - a style that rubbed many older church members the wrong way.
"The pastor always said God wanted her to give me time. I'm grateful for the compassion of that pastor," says the 26-year-old student at Pfeiffer University, Misenheimer, N.C. Her pastor's support gave her time to hear and accept her own call to ministry.
That makes her unusual in a different way. At a time when just 13 percent of United Methodist clergy in the United States are under age 40, Ramirez is studying for a bachelor of arts degree in youth ministry, with plans to attend seminary and seek ordination as an elder.
With half of all ordained United Methodist clergy older than 50, church leaders are looking for more candidates like Ramirez.
The Rev. Meg Lassiat, director of Student Ministries, Vocation, and Enlistment at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, believes the church has an opportune moment for developing young clergy.
"As more and more conferences look at the statistics, it's becoming an issue of more importance across the general church," Lassiat says. "I think (the board), just by creating this position, is working actively to increase the number of young people entering ministry.
"I'm trying to look at annual conferences and local churches that produce a lot of ministers and see what they are doing right," Lassiat says. And national events like EXPLORATION, set for Nov. 17-19 in Jacksonville, Fla., will let those interested in ministry explore their options with others of like mind.
Accepting God's call
North Broadway United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio, has sent a number of young people off to seminary. The Rev. Ed Lewis, senior pastor, believes the church inspires by showing inclusive ministry. North Broadway has on staff or in the congregation people who represent a broad range of ministry roles - elder, deacon, deaconess, student pastor and diaconal minister.
While he agrees young pastors are needed, Lewis says it is important to remember that ministry and vocation come with God's call.
"It's important that we don't get to a place where recruiting people becomes a job search," Lewis says. But he believes many second-career candidates for ministry heard God's call when they were younger, then ignored it in favor of secular work.
"We need to create a culture and atmosphere where it's OK to accept the call," Lewis says.
Other factors creating opportunity are generational, adds the Rev. Jack Terrell-Wilkes, coordinator of Ministerial Recruitment & Nurture for the Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference. Terrell-Wilkes, who is also minister of youth for the Nichols Hill United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, says the Gen X-ers - those born between 1965 and 1981 - do not want to join institutions.
"The upcoming Millennials, however, do want to belong to something," says the 29-year-old.
And, Lassiat points out, Generation X was much smaller than either the 80 million-strong Baby Boom generation or the Millennials - 76 million born between 1982 and 2002.
"With just 46 million in Gen-X, you have a smaller pool to draw from in the first place, and they are children of the Baby Boomers, who had rejected church," she says. "What gives me hope for the future of the church is that this generation of youth and young adults wants to make a difference in the world. They are making life choices based on a variety of factors, not just money."
Herbert Coleman, director of recruitment at United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, agrees. "In light of Sept. 11, they are asking, 'How can I contribute to a better world?'" he says.
Seminaries reach out
Seminaries are working to attract younger students, Coleman says. Wesley sends administrators and faculty to preach at local churches, where they tell the story of their own call and ask ministers and lay people to tell them about young people who have the gifts and graces for ministry. The seminary faculty then tries to stay in touch with those young people to cultivate their call, Coleman says.
Other seminaries have summer programs for young adults interested in ministry, he says.
In May, the Board of Higher Education and Ministry and PLSE (Pastoral Leadership Search Effort) are sponsoring a summit on the recruitment and development of young clergy. Lassiat hopes the event will result in the development of a national advisory team committed to looking at issues of clergy leadership development. The summit is May 1-3 in Atlanta.
"We have to make all this finally come together on the same wavelength," Lassiat says.
"We need people who are trained theologically," she explains. "If you walk into a 1,000-member church, you've got doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Do we want our church leadership to be less well-educated than the people in the pews?"
Support from pastors
Ramirez says it is important for pastors, youth ministers or campus ministers to point out gifts for ministry when they see a likely candidate.
She was living a double life, doing drugs and partying during the week, then playing the piano in church on Sunday, she says. She credits her pastor, Diana Wingeier-Rayo, with helping her accept her own call to ministry. "She became a strong pillar in my life," Ramirez says.
Terrell-Wilkes does not believe church leaders put ministry out as an option as strongly as they should. "A lot of young people want to go into the helping professions, and they need to know one of those is ministry," he says.
In Oklahoma, ministry as a choice is being included in the summer camp curriculum. He also believes conferences with strong youth councils produce more candidates for ministry.
Ramirez, a Mexican-American, says recruiting Hispanic clergy is likely to be even tougher.
"Many people assume subconsciously that they couldn't afford university or seminary," she says. "There needs to be more financial support and more information getting out about it. Not everyone in the Latino community has access to a computer, so Latinos must be contacted personally, very one-on-one."