Young clergy battle frustrations within system


By Benjamin Yosua-Davis
UMNS Commentary

Young adults, especially young clergy, are the “in” demographic in church circles. Bishops, seminary professors, church growth gurus and even The New York Times are asking the perplexing question: Why aren’t young people going into local parish ministry?

The answers are numerous, ranging from the arduous candidacy process, to the content of seminary education, to the grueling and often isolating work in the local parish.

While it’s trendy to talk about young adult leaders, or the lack thereof, oftentimes the voice of young adults seems curiously lost in the discussion. The church therefore should pay close attention to the Generation X/Y Conference, a gathering of about 50 young adults that was generated, organized and led by a group of motivated young church leaders. If ever there was an event “of the people,” this was certainly it. It was in this place — an environment of youthful collegiality with two non-United Methodist presenters and hardly a conference or denominational hierarch on site — that the voice of the “young adult” emerged.

Divided loyalties
Tim Keel and Doug Pagitt facilitated the May event at Mount Sequoyah Conference and Retreat Center in Fayetteville, Ark., bringing their perspective as highly connectional, non-denominational pastors at the leading edge of postmodern ministries in the United States. They contextualized the concerns of young adult leaders clearly, reminding them that their first priority is to follow God, not an institution - a statement that many attendees found both comforting and disturbing.

Participants voiced both deep love for and deep frustration about the denomination. They expressed a passionate loyalty and appreciation for United Methodism, yet also a conviction that the church they love may end up killing them spiritually. This pain does not come out of disconnected idealism, but rather an intelligent, painful realism that has made many realize that their leadership in traditional parish ministry and traditional churches is bringing them farther away from God’s call for their lives.

A deeper issue ran under the surface of almost all the conversations, namely, “Can I follow Jesus, be faithful to my call and remain United Methodist?”

There was a sense among many (although not all) that the church has not created space for young adults to be faithful disciples as they understand it. Instead, like a round peg in a square hole, they feel jammed into ministries that do not fit their gifts, into churches where they feel sucked dry and futile, into ministries that others define for them, without any room to explore what it means to be both Christian and postmodern at the same time. There was a sense that for many, The United Methodist Church is not looking for gifted Christian ministers; rather they are looking for by-the-book, work-within-the-system professionals who would pay their dues, innovate only within the system and not rock the boat.

Issues of process and education
It’s important to note that not everyone felt disconnected, frustrated and isolated. One group of participants shared that they are quite content where they are and feel that the church is providing them with a way to authentically live out their call. Others had found ways to create space within their ministries so that they could be themselves and serve their congregations. 

Still, two concerns emerged as universal themes among those at the conference.

First, no one approves of the candidacy process for ministry in The United Methodist Church. Nearly everyone can tell stories about horrendous difficulties moving through a system that doesn’t really seem to want them and makes their lives unnecessarily difficult — from lost paperwork, to contradictory information from different church agencies, to one conference requiring that all forms be completed on a typewriter and refusing to make them available in an electronic format. People spoke about how discouraging it is to go through a process that seems more concerned about bureaucracy and less concerned about discernment and preparation.

The second major concern, especially among young clergy, is seminary education. While many appreciate individual professors and individual courses, there is a general sense that seminary education is critically disconnected from ministry on the ground, especially ministry in the 21st century. Many question whether their schools have a clear idea about  what it takes to be an effective church leader and, almost universally, young clergy leaders do not feel equipped to be leaders when appointed to their first parish. This seems to be true regardless of which United Methodist seminary they attended.

Affirmation in sharing
The conference provided moments of hope as well. Many left feeling refreshed and affirmed to know other people are having the same concerns while experiencing the same calling. There was a strong determination not to give up on United Methodism. Many felt called to be agents of change - prophetic voices within the institution, calling it to renewed faithfulness for a new generation.

In the end, gatherings such as this should both delight and frighten those in power who enjoy talking about young Methodist clergy. This “young clergy” demographic has a voice, but it’s not one that will fit previous molds. Hope and fear, people of The United Methodist Church. Great renewal and great change are coming with this new generation.

Yosua-Davis is a third-year student at United Methodist-related Drew University Theological School, Madison, N.J. and a certified candidate for ministry in the New England Annual Conference.