Report: In church, as in school, seniors rule

9/26/2011

A UMNS Report
By Joey Butler*

Sept. 26, 2011 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

There's long been talk of the "graying" of United Methodist congregations, but the same can now be said of its pastors.

The annual report on clergy age trends in The United Methodist Church reveals a widening age gap. The report was released this week by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

Even though there are more young elders, deacons and local pastors than 10 years ago, their numbers are dwarfed by elders in the 55-72 age range - 951 compared with 8,790. Reflecting a trend that began in 1995, the number of elders in the 35-54 range continues to decrease.

Above: The Rev. Brian Rossbert (center) is commissioned in 2010 by Bishop Richard Wills (left) and the Rev. John Collett, in Brentwood, Tennessee. The numbers of young adult United Methodist clergy like Rossbert are on the rise. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

From the 1970s to 2005, there was a continuous decline in the percentage of young adults as active elders. The past six years have seen gradual increase.

"After that long of a decline, for it to turn up in terms of numbers and percentage is fairly significant given the past trends," said the Rev. Lovett Weems, project director of the study. "But the numbers are very modest, and they're not enough to counterbalance the large numbers of middle-age clergy that are moving into the older group."

Age gap

The Rev. DJ del Rosario. A UMNS photo by Kathy Gilbert.

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 every other year, is scheduled for Nov. 11 in St. Louis.

The Rev. DJ del Rosario, director of young adult ministry discernment and enlistment at the board, said one explanation for the age gap harkens back to a recurring theme he's heard from pastors.

"When young people come to them and tell them they're interested in pursuing ministry, many pastors tell them to go do something else first, then get ordained later. The abundance of older clergy we have might reflect that," said del Rosario, 34.

Among the 2011 study's findings:

  • For the second year, the total percentage of elders ages 55-72 is the highest in history. In 2010, they represented half of all elders; this year it is 52 percent. As recently as 2000, this age group represented only 30 percent of active elders.
  • The median age of elders remains 55 — the highest in history, first reached in 2010.
  • The number of under-35 elders increased from 946 in 2010 to 951 in 2011, now 5.61 percent of the total number of elders. That's the highest number and percentage of elders under 35 in more than a decade.
  • There are 455 young local pastors, more than any time in recent history. They comprise about 6.2 percent of all local pastors.
  • There was a dramatic increase in the percentage of young clergy who are women. Ten years ago, men outnumbered women by a ratio of 2:1. Today, women comprise almost 40 percent of elders under age 35.

The Rev. Shalom Agtarap. A UMNS photo by Kathy Gilbert.

Though the increase in the number of young elders hit a 10-year high, some might be discouraged because that rise reflects only five more pastors. However, the study shows that young people are pursuing a number of different ministry options.

The Rev. Shalom Agtarap, 27, and pastor at First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg, Wash., said, "It's encouraging to see there are many paths to ministry now. Some may feel called but don't want the burden of so many years of school."

The Rev. April Casperson, director of admissions at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, agrees.

"A seminary education can cost $60,000. A pastor in their first appointment is going to make far less than that," Casperson, 30, said. "Many may decide against pursuing the elder track."

One area of decline for younger clergy is in the number of deacons. After years of increase, there was a slight decline, but Weems pointed out that those numbers could be deceptive. Most of the data was compiled through United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits statistics, and deacons are often in employment settings where they have a pension plan not covered by the denomination.

Casperson is one of those deacons not counted in the study.Since her main job is at a seminary, she is not in the United Methodist pension system.

She takes a more "glass-half-full" approach to the modest increase in young clergy.

"I have another friend in a unique ministry that wouldn't be counted in this survey, so I find even the small gains encouraging because I know there are even more young clergy out there than are in this report," she said.

Top 10 list

The Rev. April Casperson. A UMNS photo by Kathy Gilbert.

The Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference, for the first time, topped the list of conferences at 9.84 percent, the highest percentage of young commissioned and ordained elders. Other conferences in the top 10 included: Holston, Mississippi, North Alabama, Kansas West, Central Texas, Virginia, Texas, North Carolina and Northwest Texas. Half of those conferences are making their first appearance in the top 10.

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. For another conference, it may be the campus ministry program.

"Conferences that do better aren't necessarily those that have demographics working for them; there is some reason or effort there," said Weems. "Holston, for more than 20 years has had a program (Resurrection) that draws thousands of youth and every year, and there is a call to ministry component. Texas is in the top 10 for first time, and they have made concerted efforts for many years prior to showing this gain."

*Butler is editor of young adult content for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.