There seems to be a wave moving across the United Methodist Church to push for the recruitment of more young clergy. As I listened to Bishop Lowry speak last night at the Iowa Annual Conference clergy session I was struck by his words that the church needs to be salted with more young lay and clergy persons because we need their dynamic ideas. As a young clergy who started in ministry at the age of 23 and is now 32 I have spent the better part of the last decade being a “young clergy” in this church.
Maybe things are different for young clergy in Bishop Lowry’s conference. I sincerely hope it is so. Having been a part of two conferences now, I can say that my experience is that we are a church that wants youth to save the church BUT we want young clergy and lay who do ministry like the older clergy and lay only with more energy. We are not a church who values the ideals, new ideas and outside of the box thinking that will transform the UMC and by extension the world.
There are some reasons I think this is the case:
1. We require every ordained clergy to go through Clinical Pastoral Education. In essence we are proclaiming that ministry in the United Methodist Church involves a large component of chaplaincy. As long as we expect our ministers to be more fully trained as chaplains then they are to be leaders, visionaries, or prophets we will have a church that expects to be served by a chaplain and not led to deeper discipleship.
2. The process of ordination is one that rewards young clergy for showing that they are part of the institution and punishes them for thinking outside of the box, unless that outside of the box thinking is translated into more local church members.
3. Young clergy are sent to churches that truly are chaplaincy appointments. They are churches that are not healthy, that have had leadership that has not led, that have been largely ignored by the denomination as long as their financial obligations are met.
4. Young clergy have enormous student debt and then are asked “are you so in debt as to embarrass yourself or your ministry?” In my heart when I was asked I thought I should say yes. But I also wanted to be ordained. Instead of encouraging ordinands not to giggle when the question is asked, why are we not recognizing that many of our young clergy are coming into ministry with enormous debt and including in the process the opportunity to develop a plan to successfully handle the debt in their lives in a healthy way? The shame of this debt is made harder when we are asked to serve in churches that do not adequately compensate for the work or are in places where spouses cannot find work or are underpaid for their skills.
5. There is a huge culture of young clergy needing to “pay their dues”. As young clergy go through the process, there is a sense that they have to act in certain ways, hide certain beliefs or actions, and not make waves lest they risk their ordination. They are encouraged to “walk the line” until they are ordained. The trouble is that by the time they get there they are tired, burnt out or have lost their voice.
I believe we need more young leaders, both lay and clergy. But young clergy are not going to save the church. Within ten years of ministry, those celebrated young leaders will no longer be young. We need more pastors and lay leaders of all ages that are bold to push our churches beyond maintenance and mediocrity. We need to believe that the Holy Spirit is still moving and that most of our church leaders really do want to make a difference in the lives of those in their community for Jesus Christ.