Supporting Young Clergy

June 6th, 2012

There is one question that every church should be asking on a regular basis: What are we doing to support young clergy?

In general, it is a challenge to be a young adult in the mainline Protestant church, whose typical member is fifty years or older. While the mainline church’s membership continues to age, young adults are becoming rare sights in many congregations. Many who remain in the pews often do so out of commitment or obligation to their families. Others drop out of church altogether or head to nondenominational megachurches with loads of programming. This makes for a unique challenge for young clergy that often makes us feel like we are being left behind.

Recently I attended a retreat intended to support and nurture clergy. As I got on the road, I was excited for this opportunity to get away from the stresses of church work and meet other clergy. When I arrived at the retreat center, I checked into my room and got acquainted with the schedule. The first event was a gathering of all the participants in the chapel for introductions. I made my way to the chapel eager to find other clergy who understood the challenges of parish ministry, especially those facing young clergy. After I sat down in the large circle and looked around, my heart began to sink. I was the youngest person there by twenty years. I was incredibly frustrated and felt despair build up inside. To be clear I place no fault on those who participated or organized the retreat, but as a young clergy person, I left that retreat feeling depressed, not renewed.

A few weeks ago I received a phone call from a committee member within the conference I serve. He asked me if I was willing to be nominated to attend my denomination’s general meeting as a representative for clergy under thirty years of age.

I reminded him, “I am older than 30 now.”

“You are the closest we’ve got, so we are nominating you,” he responded. I didn’t bother to say anything else.

As a young pastor, there are days when I feel that I am lucky to still be in full time ministry. When I consider all that I dealt with in my first five years of ministry, I often wonder what kept me committed to the church. Serving congregations in isolated locations and dealing with unhealthy congregations took a heavy toll on me. I cannot say there was a lot of joy in my first years of ministry; rather, I associate my first five years in ministry with frustration and loneliness. It did not help that I watched others my age enter into professions that paid twice as much and provided more security. At times this caused me to question my decision to be in full-time ministry. Part of me wondered if I was wasting my life away by committing to a life of serving the church. I came to the realization that it is a real challenge to remain in ministry over the long haul considering all the issues clergy face, and that only those who genuinely feel called to this type of work find the strength to stick with it.

No doubt there are complex issues facing all clergy in the 21st century, including the risk of burnout, declining participation in congregational life, and a culture that is very skeptical of organized religion, to name a few. Young clergy face additional challenges of an uncertain future within mainline Protestantism and the pressure of finding new ways to attract the generations who have walked away from the church.

There are many within the church that go so far as to say that mainline Protestantism is facing a “young clergy crisis.” I cannot agree more. Research clearly shows that the number of young ordained clergy under the age of thirty-five has dropped significantly over the last few decades. A study of clergy age trends done by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership revealed a startling decline in the number of young clergy in The United Methodist Church (the largest mainline Protestant denomination). The percentage of UMC elders under the age of thirty-five dropped from 15.06% in 1985 to under 5% in 2007. (Read the study report or the book of recommendations based on it.) This type of data shows up not only in the UMC but also in most mainline denominations.

These figures are devastating for the future of mainline denominations. As if this information isn’t bothersome enough, the most disturbing aspect of our decline is the number of young clergy who exit ministry in their first five years. A large part of this is because of the lack of structure and programs in place to support young clergy, which leaves them in vulnerable situations that can quickly lead them to leave full-time ministry for other work.

The reality is that young clergy are in desperate need of support if they are to succeed in leading the church in the 21st century. I offer these suggestions as ways we can better support young clergy now.

1. Provide Networks of Support

Young clergy need programs that provide them with support. We need to be in the presence of other young clergy experiencing similar things on a regular basis. Ideally, the groups would meet every few weeks or at least once a month to share what is going on in their congregations. My colleagues who managed to survive their first five years in ministry credit support from their peers. The role of an ordained minister is, by its very nature, lonely. People often see us as set apart, which we means we must be intentional about finding relationships that allow us to be our true selves. We desperately need the space to laugh, cry, and rejoice together!

2. Don’t Throw Us to the Wolves

There is no excuse for placing young clergy—especially newly graduated seminarians—into harmful situations. Whether your denomination practices an appointment system or call system, it is the responsibility of the leadership to not let young clergy be thrown to the wolves. There is no good reason to place young clergy in severely dysfunctional congregations or staffs. The reality is that seminary does not equip young ministers with the skills they need to navigate through intense conflict or unhealthy systems. They need veteran clergy to walk alongside them first and teach them how to handle these situations before trying to address them on their own.

3. Give Us a Seat at the Table

If the mainline Protestant church is to thrive in the future it must share power and resources with young leadership. For too long, older generations have intentionally and unintentionally dismissed and ignored the voices of young adults. This is a mistake because we are ready to lead and are able to identify needs within the church that others cannot see at this time. Sure, congregations and denominations often seek out token young adults to serve on their committees and boards, but it is often more of a symbolic gesture than a real sharing of power. It is crucial that the church act now to not only give young adults seats at the table but also take them seriously and listen closely to their thoughts.

4. Do Not Isolate Us

I’m convinced that one of the quickest ways to burn out young clergy and erode their mental health is to place them in geographically isolated congregations. Many experienced pastors believe that serving isolated congregations is a rite of passage. As a young pastor who has been placed in isolated situations, I want to do whatever I can to shatter this harmful mindset. Especially for young, single pastors, this is unacceptable. It is difficult enough for clergy to find an adequate support system outside their congregation; we do not need to make this more complicated for young clergy who are desperate for support, nurture, and friendship in their first years of ministry.

Every denomination and congregation to ask itself the question: What are we doing to support young clergy? The good news is that seminaries are full of young leaders who are eager to share the gospel message with the world, but whether they will choose to serve and stay within congregations will depend on how we treat them now.

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