7:00 A.M. EST Sept. 23, 2010
Nathan Phillips grew up United Methodist, but it was as a participant in campus ministry at Mississippi State University that he first discerned a calling to enter ordained ministry.
“It gave me opportunities to grow not only in relationship to God but also in opportunities to serve,” he said. “It gave me space to hear him calling, ‘This is what I created you for.’ … My own relationship with him taught me that the greatest help I can give is to share Jesus Christ with others.”
Phillips, 26, is now a second-year student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and plans to become an ordained elder.
A study released this week testifies to the ongoing need for more young adults like Phillips becoming clergy — and the widening age gap among U.S. pastoral leaders in The United Methodist Church.
The denomination is moving in the right direction. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of young elders, deacons and local pastors (those under the age of 35) increased.
There are more young clergy than 10 years ago, according to the 2010 study by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
However, for the first time, more than half of the active elders in the United States are now between the ages of 55 and 72. Elders who are 35 to 54 comprise only 45 percent of the nation’s 17,293 elders.
Younger clergy are not necessarily better ministers than their older colleagues, but they often bring a new passion and fresh ideas to their vocation, said the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr., the project director of the study.
Ongoing leadership requires new generations to come in, he added.
“Our assumption is that God continues to call people of all ages, so if there is a particular group not responding to that call, then it’s probably not (because of) God,” Weems said. “There are other reasons why younger persons might not be responding.”
Replenishing the feeder system
What has happened is that the denomination’s “feeder system” for young clergy has broken down, Weems said.
“What under-35 clergy have most in common is that they were active in church as children,” he said. “They were active in church as youth. So if year after year, there are fewer children in church, then it would naturally seem that there would be fewer clergy coming in.”
In recent years, the denomination has increased its efforts to help young United Methodists discern and act on their call.
Since 1990, the denomination’s Board of Higher Education and Ministry has held periodic Exploration events where young people, ages 18 to 26, can consider the possibility of entering professional ministry. The next Exploration event, now held every other year, is scheduled for Nov. 11, 2011, in St. Louis.
“We are very intentional now about following up with annual conferences to let them know which of their students attended those events so they can follow up,” said the Rev. Meg Lassiat, director of student ministries, vocation and enlistment with the Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
The board also holds gatherings where representatives from annual (regional) conferences can discuss best practices in developing young clergy. In addition, an Explore Calling website answers frequently asked questions for youth and young adults considering the candidacy process and offers information on scholarships to seminary.
Such efforts are starting to bear fruit.
Among the 2010 study’s findings:
The conferences that have the highest proportion of young clergy tend to have plans to introduce young people to a life of ministry. That can include developing youth as camp leaders or through mission trips. It can be by offering summer internships.
“What we’re finding is there’s not one magic way to make this happen,” Lassiat said. “But that if you are intentional in your annual conference about finding a plan that works, you’re likely to have success.”
The Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference, for the second year, topped the list of conferences with the highest percentage of young commissioned and ordained elders (11.11 percent). Other conferences in the top 10 included: Louisiana, Central Texas, Holston, Oklahoma, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama-West Florida, Arkansas and North Alabama.
The Western North Carolina Conference has the highest number of young elders: 57.
The Rev. Lisa Garvin, director of ministerial services for the Mississippi conference, attributed the conference’s gains to “cultivating a culture of call” among the local churches.
The conference holds its own discernment event in years when the national Exploration gathering is not held. Mississippi congregations also “adopt” seminarians, sometimes sending care packages or inviting their students to preach.
One of the main things the Mississippi Conference does is support its campus ministries, Garvin said. The conference has 27 such ministries at college and university campuses across the state.
“Most of our young people are coming out of campus ministry programs,” she said.
One of its strongest programs is the Wesley Foundation at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Garvin said.
Phillips said the Wesley Foundation gave him opportunities to be a leader as one of the ministry’s interns and later as its associate director.
“As a college student, you are always discerning and thinking about what I am supposed to do with my life,” he said. “Much of my struggle was feeling unequipped to do ministry.”
Campus ministry helped him learn more about Scripture and ministerial responsibilities. One of the sermons he heard as a college student also eased his mind.
“I heard specifically from the Lord that he doesn’t call the equipped but that he equips the called.”
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 firstname.lastname@example.org.