A recent report, “Clergy Age Trends in The United Methodist Church,” from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership names the Florida Conference as one of five trending conferences in the U.S. for strong increases in the number of elders younger than 35 over the past three years.
For 2015, the Florida Conference reports 6.9 percent of its elders are age 35 or younger, an increase from 4.4 percent in 2014 and from 3.81 percent in 2013.
“We’re beginning to see fruit from a lot of investment and commitments that we made a decade ago,” says Rev. David Fuquay, director of Higher Education and Campus Ministry at the Florida Conference.
Those investments include supporting campus ministries and youth camps, where young people often receive their spiritual callings to pursue careers in the ministry. Fuquay describes Wesley Foundation campus ministries as “incubators” for students hearing God’s call.
The other four conferences making the Lewis Center trending list were California-Nevada, Detroit, North Texas and West Ohio. The Texas Conference, with nearly 12 percent, heads the list of top 10 conferences with the highest percentage of young clergy.
The Florida Conference supports 10 Wesley Foundation ministries that serve public and private universities and colleges across the state. Students are engaged through worship, missions, small groups, leadership development and a community of support.
“Students who are involved often can see themselves as ministers,” Fuquay says.
The Florida State University Wesley Foundation (FSU Wesley) in Tallahassee and Methodist-affiliated Florida Southern College in Lakeland, in particular, have exemplified the kind of programs that nurture students in their call to ministry, Fuquay says. FSU Wesley and Gator Wesley, which serves the University of Florida and Santa Fe College in Gainesville, have been recognized for successful programs with $100,000 grants from the Lilly Foundation to be used over five years to specifically target vocational discernment.
“More and more of our seminary students are experiencing their call to ordained ministry through our campus ministries,” says Dr. Wayne Wiatt, director of the Office of Clergy Excellence at the Florida Conference. “We also have a growing number of seminary students experiencing a call to ministry through serving in our summer camping ministry at Warren W. Willis United Methodist Camp.”
About 110 college students go through a rigorous process to become part of the summer leadership team at the camp.
“We have team members come to us from campus ministries,” says Mike Standifer, director at Warren Willis, as well as the full-scale Florida Conference camps and retreats program. “Our program is a collaborative effort with the Wesley Foundation.”
For many high school and college students, summer camp is the first place where they engage with people who have full-time careers in ministries.
“They begin to see camp as more than just a summer job,” says Heather Pancoast, assistant director at Warren Willis. “They recognize it can be a career.”
In addition, a seminary student is hired as a team pastor each summer to be a pastoral presence for the camp staff.
“The team is interacting and influenced by this young person who is in the process of ordination,” Pancoast says. “This past summer, we had a seminary student from Duke who talked to them about their futures and callings.”
Church and conference partnerships
In January, the fifth “College Connection” weekend retreat will be held at the camp for high school juniors and seniors to introduce them to Wesley Foundation representatives from across the state. The retreat’s original mission was to connect soon-to-be high school graduates with campus ministries where they will attend college. However, that focus has expanded to help the students discern and identify their calling, even as high school seniors.
“We recently received a $14,000 grant from the [United Methodist] Young Clergy Initiative in Nashville to begin the process of sharing the message that you might be called into the ministry,” Standifer says. “We realized that we needed to make this happen.”
Standifer adds that many churches do a good job reaching students before they leave high school. “Faith formation can come from a young age,” he says. “Coming to summer camp and retreats is part of that.”
Campus ministry director Fuquay agrees that church youth programs also play a role in nurturing young people who decide to go into the ministry.
“All these things work together,” he explains. “If you take out any one of those – church programs, camps or campus ministries – it can diminish the growth.”
Fuquay believes a lot of students stay or return to Florida because the connection with the Office of Clergy Excellence is strong. He also believes the office’s commitment to add a staff clergy member to connect with young people helped the Florida Conference achieve growth in the number of younger clergy.
“The office makes sure that young people have the support they need,” he says.
Both Fuquay and Standifer believe the Florida Conference will reach the top 10 for numbers and percentages of young clergy.
“I certainly hope that happens,” Standifer says. “Our annual conference realizes that camping and college ministries are vital to the future of the church. We’ve been talking about this collaboration for years.”
Fuquay adds: “I do see us reaching that top 10 tier. It’s not like we just had a flurry of work. My expectation is to continue to see this three-year spike last a lot longer.”
The Lewis Center report also discusses gains in the number of United Methodist clergywomen. To download the full Lewis Center report or see a video summary, visit www.churchleadership.com/clergyage/.
Registration is set to open in October for College Connection 2016 at Warren Wills. The retreat targets high school juniors and seniors. Click here for details.
– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.