When Rev. Will Wold arrived at Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville two years ago, he discovered young people in his congregation with spiritual gifts but nowhere to talk about how to use them. He developed a year-long program in which they not only can talk about their gifts, but they can try them out in ministry.
|A summit for young adults under age 35 was held in Lakeland in Nov. 2016. Referred to as a "next generations think tank," one of the goals that came out of the meeting was to double the number of young clergy in the Florida Conference.|
The Rev. Erwin Lopez still remembers the talk his pastor had with him as a teenager, telling him that he had a spiritual gift. That’s what he tries to do as director and pastor of Wesley at the University of Central Florida. And it’s working. At least seven students are headed for seminary in the next two to three years.
Their efforts are creating a conversation and helping young people answer the question: What are you called to do? Everyone is called to do something, but the Florida Conference is particularly interested in assisting young people to discern a call to ministry.
The conference goal is to double the number of clergy under age 35, said the Rev. Sara McKinley, director of the Office of Clergy Excellence. That’s about 30 new appointments or 7 percent of the clergy the conference has now.
The challenge is to not only create doors for young people to enter, but also to make them feel welcome when they walk through. The church’s time-honored ways of recruiting clergy aren’t always as effective on millennials, whose world views, means of communication and understanding of ministry are unlike previous generations.
“Young people are feeling called to ministry, but not as it exists,” said the Rev. Esther Rodriguez-Perez, pastor of Tice United Methodist Church in Fort Myers. “There’s a tension. We’re in an in-between space where we are trying to figure out what the future is. We need the freedom to create the ministry we’re feeling called to because it doesn’t exist yet.”
Wold is trying to give young people at Mandarin the opportunity to create ministry. Once a month, about a dozen young people—from elementary through high school—meet to talk about things like how to hear God’s voice, what it means to be a Methodist and the different ways to pray.
In one exercise, they are told to create a church from the ground up. They come up with mission statements, a budget, the congregation’s demographics, the style of services and the facilities. They are told to think outside the box.
“Then we give them a scenario,” Wold said. “There’s a tsunami and the building is gone. What do you do? It’s amazing what they come up with.”
During the summer, the children attend staff and committee meetings, hear the prayer requests, go on visitation and plan services. They also can talk one-on-one with staff members about what they do.
“We give them the chance to see what it looks like to work in a church,” Wold said. “It’s very experiential. It helps them clarify their call, whatever that is.”
At UCF, Lopez sees himself on the forefront in the clergy recruitment effort.
“It’s the season of their life,” he said. “They’re thinking about their careers, what they’re going to do with their life. They’re in that mindset, and it’s an opportunity to discern ministry.”
Lopez is convinced that more young clergy come out of campus ministries than local churches. “One reason is that our sole focus is on college students,” Lopez said. “I couldn’t do that when I was a pastor.
“In my campus ministry, we have seven to 10 students going to seminary in the next two to three years. And that’s just us,” Lopez said. “There are about a dozen campus ministries, but they need resources.”
Both Lopez and Rodriguez-Perez said more than once that they have seen people who felt called to ministry leave the Church because they didn’t see a place for themselves. For some, it was an ethnic issue; others thought they didn’t fit the mold. Many found resistance to their new ideas.
|The annual College Connection retreat, held at Warren Willis in January, was attended by 93 high school students. Representatives from eight Wesley Foundations provided students entering college with information and fellowship.|
“The experience they have at the Wesley Foundation is very different than the local church,” Lopez said. “Here they have free rein to try things, to start ministries. They are excited to go to seminary, but they don’t want to be a pastor because the worship is dull, the message irrelevant and they don’t see themselves in the pew.”
Rodriguez-Perez said she knows several who felt defeated by the candidacy process.
“My process went smoothly, but I’ve seen others who have been frustrated and hurt and even left the denomination because of it,” she said.
The conference is changing the recruiting process, McKinley said. The application itself has been simplified and the residency period reduced from three years to two.
“It’s a cultural shift,” she said. “We want to make it more conversational than confrontational while still maintaining our standards.”
Her goal is to improve lateral communication among campus ministries—Warren Willis summer camp, seminaries and churches who can identify clergy prospects but don’t always connect them to resources within the denomination—and to give greater focus to things like candidacy retreats in January and July and 10-week summer pastoral internships.
“We’re hoping that as we change the culture, it (the recruiting process) will appear more user-friendly to younger people and more accessible,” McKinley said.
--Lilla Ross is a freelance journalist based in Jacksonville.
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