Numbers of young clergy increasing in Florida Conference



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

Numbers of young clergy increasing in Florida Conference

Oct. 21, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011 
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0756}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — Despite a denominationwide decline in the number of young adults choosing to enter the ministry, the Florida Conference is experiencing an upward trend in the number of ordained clergy younger than 35.

Clergy participate in the Milestones in Ministry service, which included ordination, at the 2007 Florida Annual Conference Event. Approximately 60 of the 765 active clergy in the Florida Conference are younger than 35. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #07-0690.

The Rev. David Dodge, executive director of the Florida Conference Center for Clergy Excellence, said the number of probationary clergy who are 35 and younger has increased from 28 in 2005 to 32 in 2007.

During the 2007 Florida Annual Conference Event, the Rev. Dr. Lovett Weems said he considers young clergy “an endangered species” because the number of younger commissioned and ordained clergy throughout the denomination is so low.

Weems was a guest speaker at the event. He is also professor of church leadership and executive director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

Weems said a report identifying historical trends for elders found the number of elders under the age of 35 has been steadily declining since 1985. The average age of a United Methodist clergyperson increased from 45.8 in 1982 to 51.4 in 2005, according to a recent United Methodist News Service article reporting on changing demographics and their affect on church funding.

Among the varied reasons for the shift, according to Weems, is the general trend toward people doing things later in life, such as getting married, selecting a career and starting a family.

On a recent visit to Duke Divinity School at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Dodge met with 15 seminary students from Florida. Twelve were were younger than 30. Similarly, four of the five students with whom Dodge met at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., were young adults. 

“The visits do make me more hopeful, but I am not sure if they represent a trend yet or not,” he said.

Each year Dodge visits various seminaries to help the students from Florida stay connected to the conference and offer his assistance with any issues they may have. He also meets with students from other states who might be interested in living and working in Florida.

Dodge will soon visit Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Gammon Theological Seminary, both in Atlanta, Ga., and said he will be interested in seeing if there are similar numbers of younger seminary students at those schools.

Reversing the trend

While the denomination continues to adapt to changes within the church and society, the Florida Conference is utilizing several strategies to attract young people to the ministry.

Dodge attributes the boost the conference has recently experienced to a variety of factors, including the conference’s strong camping program, which emphasizes young people making a concerted effort to hear God’s call for their lives. He said a team has also been assembled to review what the conference and local churches can do to increase the numbers of young clergy.

The Rev. Mason Dorsey, 34, is one of four clergy under the age of 35 ordained an elder in full connection at the 2007 Florida Annual Conference Event. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #07-0691.

Another strategy has been to encourage churches to develop a “culture of call,” where each church member, especially young people, is assessed to determine his or her ministry gifts and graces, according to Dodge. He says several churches are excelling in that area, including Anona United Methodist Church in Largo, Christ Church United Methodist in Fort Lauderdale, First United Methodist Church in Winter Park and Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa.

The Rev. Dr. James Harnish, senior pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church, said Hyde Park doesn’t have “a clearly defined process,” but it does provide opportunities for people to hear God’s call, among them the church’s youth program. Six members of the church are currently attending seminaries.

“A youth ministry in which students are challenged to give their lives to Christ and listen for God’s call is tremendously important,” Harnish said. “That youth ministry, however, needs to be in the context of a healthy, vibrant congregation in which kids who are thinking about a call see just how exciting, demanding and meaningful ministry can be.

“If people experience the local church as a boring, deadly place, there’s probably not much chance that they will want to serve there. If they experience a spiritually-alive, mission-focused congregation, they may take the beginnings of a call more seriously.”

The Rev. Dr. Jack Stephenson, senior pastor at Anona United Methodist Church in Largo, said his church practices intentional discipling of members who feel they may be called to the ministry. Currently, the church has 20 members exploring an interest in ordained ministry.

Stephenson said once a member has expressed an interest, he or she enters a long mentoring process with clergy at the church, which involves shadowing clergy as they make hospital visits and finding a pastoral niche at the church where they can develop their calling.

Stephenson said it’s similar to an apprenticeship, where those interested in the ministry work in area United Methodist churches so they can better determine if a career in the ministry is for them. He said some decide it isn’t, which prompts the clergy mentor to encourage the individual to find a different way to serve the church while entering a career that’s a better fit. 

Stephenson said seven church members are candidates for ministry.

Harnish said he believes how a person enters the field of ministry is related to how they, in turn, shepherd others into the ministry. He said the church’s involvement as a teaching congregation for Duke Divinity School has provided members with direct exposure to divinity school students and demonstrated the importance of listening for God’s call. 

“My guess is that there are lots of young people out there who might be feeling a call, but never have anyone to help them sort it out along the way,” he said. “If we have been blessed by strong mentors in our past, we will want to offer that gift to others coming along the way.”

Stephenson said he would like to see intentional discipling used as a model throughout the church as a whole to increase the numbers of young people in ministry. He said the church has high school- and college-aged students and young adults who have expressed an interest in ministry.

“There is a huge need for something like this in The United Methodist Church,” he said. “This is an excellent way to tap into the fountain of youth.”

The alternative

Dodge said it’s vitally important for the church to reach people of all ages.

“We need to reach everybody; we need clergy representing all age ranges,” he said. “We are examining the numbers of young clergy because we will be less effective in reaching young people if we don’t have young people represented in the clergy.”

Stephenson agrees. Because each generation has its own way of doing things he said the church must reach out and retain young people in ministry.

“We must do everything we can … to reach out to all the children of God,” he said. “If we do not, we limit ourselves. If we limit ourselves, we are not fulfilling God’s mission.”

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This article relates to Ordained Ministry.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.




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