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Conference looks at ways to recruit, retain young clergy

Conference looks at ways to recruit, retain young clergy

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference looks at ways to recruit, retain young clergy

March 15, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0637}

An e-Review Feature
By Erik J. Alsgaard**

ORLANDO — The average age of a United Methodist clergyperson is 57. The most represented age of an ordained elder in the church is 60. The typical United Methodist clergyperson retires at age 62.

These are the facts and experts agree: The United Methodist Church is heading for a leadership crisis in the near future if the trend continues.

Seeking to identify issues and strategies for turning that trend around, the Florida Conference’s Center for Clergy Excellence held a daylong consultation in early February at Peace United Methodist Church in Orlando on the recruitment and development of young clergy.

At a recent consultation on the recruitment and training of younger clergy sponsored by the Florida Conference Center for Clergy Excellence, Dr. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership in Washington, D.C., said one of the roadblocks to recruiting younger adults to ordained ministry is " ... the life and vitality that is in the church itself,” begging the question, is the church worth serving? Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #07-0542.

“Young clergy are an endangered species in our church,” said Dr. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership in Washington, D.C., one of two keynote speakers at the consultation. “There were 3,129 elders under the age of 35 in 1985. In 2005, that number dropped to 850.”

In that same timeframe, the number of clergy age 55 to 70 has increased from about one in four to four in 10.

“Are younger clergy better than older clergy?” Weems asked. “No, but they are younger.”

An elder in The United Methodist Church is ordained to the ministry of word, sacrament and order. She or he is seminary-educated and has undergone a probationary period of at least three years prior to ordination.

The 2006 Florida Conference Journal reports 900 retired and active elders in the conference. Of that number only 11 are 35 years old or younger. There are also 20 probationary elders 35 and younger.

Weems identified four issues he said impact the recruitment and retention of younger clergy.

“The first thing we think of is enlistment, but if that’s all we do, it’s not enough,” he said. “The entry process is another issue, where we’ve put too much on that process and asked it to solve all the clergy problems of the past 40 years. What we need is a ‘board of already-ordained ministry,’ not just a board of ordained ministry.”

Weems said a third issue centers on the early years of ministry. Often, he said, a clergyperson’s first or second appointment causes isolation due to cultural divides, a lack of support from other clergy and an age bias that says, “Wait your turn.” The issue of remuneration also enters into the debate since young clergy generally serve smaller congregations with lower salaries.

“The church itself is the fourth issue,” Weems said. “It has got to change. Congregations get the leadership they deserve, not what they need. The problem is not our seminary curriculums or the Book of Discipline (church law), but the life and vitality that is in the church itself.”

In other words, Weems said, is it possible to demonstrate to young people that the church is worth serving?

(From left to right) The Revs. Felecia O’Neal, Debbie Allen, Britt Gilmore, Melissa Pisco and Marcus Zillman share their experiences as younger clergy serving Florida Conference churches and ministries. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #07-0543.

In the afternoon, a panel of five clergy, each under the age of 35, addressed the gathering, sharing from their own experiences. On the panel were the Revs. Marcus Zillman, Melissa Pisco, Britt Gilmore, Debbie Allen and Felecia O’Neal.

Isolation was identified as one issue young clergy face, with one panelist sharing that her first appointment was 60 miles from the nearest interstate and she had no one her age in the church she served.

“We also need to develop a culture of hearing,” said Pisco, pastor of a new church start in Miami called “The Studio.” “Are we cultivating disciples in the church who can hear God’s call? If we’re not inviting people to hear and developing a safe place for them to hear it, how are they going to hear? We need Elis who can say to our Samuels, ‘That’s the Lord calling you.’ ”

For O’Neal, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church, Lakeland, young people are not committed to things they feel aren’t important.

“Why go to seminary when it feels more important for you to be immediately in ministry?” she asked. “If it is important (to go to seminary, a four-year or longer process), explain why it is important.”

Zillman, director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Miami, echoed that thought, noting young people today don’t care about saving the institution; they simply want to serve Jesus. He quoted one anonymous freshman at the college who asked, “Why would anyone want to become a United Methodist pastor?”

Following the panel, participants moved into four groups to share strategies on how to recruit and develop young clergy. After reporting back to the entire group, the Rev. David Dodge, director of the Center for Clergy Excellence, enlisted clergy to serve on a task force that will work with the conference Board of Ordained Ministry on an overall, conference-wide strategy.


This article relates to Center for Clergy Excellence.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.