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Rethinking UMC young clergy trends

This past week, United Methodist News published a commentary from Rev. Dr. Lovett H. Weems Jr. of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.

The point?

Well, pretty much following the title, Dr. Weems, Jr. was highlighting the results of the latest reporting, which is that the numbers of young elders are quite low.

In fact, here’s the key quote:

“The 2021 number of young elders of 742 is not only a record-low number but more than 100 below the previous low in 2005.”

Getting to the why

In exploration as to the reasons for these numbers, the commentary references a piece from March 16, 2021 by Ann Michel of the Lewis Center.

The point was to share the results of some informal research of those who were “young but not clergy,” or those who decided not to pursue ordination.  Part of the results were, of course, that such persons had, “the church’s stance on homosexuality,” and, “uncertainty about the future of the denomination,” top of mind.

All of these things, including the reporting of the numbers of young clergy, are quite important.  And, we should give the Lewis Center their due credit for bringing these to the attention of the Church.

Going forward, what might be more pertinent to denominational decision-makers in projecting the future of ordained ministry is the opposite:

The reasons why young people actually do pursue ordination and also why they are approved.

I have never run such a study.  But, I am fairly confident that we would see somewhat of a pattern that goes a little like this – that they:

  • Want to join the fight in the church’s stance on homosexuality (whichever way their perspective might be)
  • Find special interest / caucus groups to be where they belong more than the Conference officially
  • Seek to incarnate their own ecclesiology in the local church through their ordained ministry
  • Have a sense that they can make it to a broader or an elected position
  • Believe that they have a responsibility for the well-being of the denomination as the “present and the future” of it

Coming full circle

Given this, it is somewhat easy for the denomination to then optimize on these parameters.  Just communicate directly to, and develop programs for, people along those same lines.

What you would see, then, in the majority of the approvals are those who are perceived to be able to do well in environments that are:

  • Suburban-ite (maybe rural, but not really urban)
  • Middle-class
  • Well-educated
  • Anglo-centric
  • Hetero-normative
  • Growth-resistant (they have never needed to grow – they have always had people and money)

Why?

Because, typically:

  • that is what United Methodism looks like >
  • that is where most clergy on the Boards of Ordained Ministry are appointed >
  • that is the test of whether or not a candidate can hang >
  • that is the present and the past >
  • that is where people who enter candidacy come from >
  • that is what United Methodism looks like >

And, so on… and, so forth.

But, should that be the future?  If not, should we approve those for our current environment or, instead, those for different and future environments?

Pausing the hamster wheel

We have to take a step back for a second, take a deep breath, and then look courageously into the mirror.  As a denomination that is over 90% Anglo in membership in the United States and with 62% of ordained elders under 35 years old in 2021 being male, we are not moving in the right direction.

If we are to be true to our Social Principles as well as all of those resolutions that we love, we need a more deliberate approach to ordination and Appointive Cabinet strategy.

This could include some things like the following:

  • Publishing, annually, the Bishop and Cabinet’s intent to supply pastors for ministry among specific communities
  • Boards of Ordained Ministry committing to ordaining for the future, while accepting the past
  • Rethinking calling as transfigurational throughout time, not necessarily based on one event in the past
  • Diversifying the places of commissioning or appointing beyond geography or charge, into the ministry of all Christians

Sincerely,

James J. Kang
The Last Seminary