Young leaders in an aging church

January 13th, 2021

A crisis revisited 

Fifteen years ago, Lovett Weems, the senior consultant for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, looked at the numbers of young elders in The United Methodist Church and said we have a “crisis of younger clergy.” In that year, 2005, there were only 850 elders under the age of 35 serving in the United States as part of the UM connection. 

In response to that warning, annual conferences and the general church structures of the denomination began a range of initiatives to reach out to young people. Boards of Ordained Ministry adjusted the candidacy process and created teams to develop a culture of call. The General Conference approved a Young Clergy Initiative in 2012 and renewed funding for it in 2016. The number of young elders grew, especially young female elders. 

By 2017, the number of young elders had increased to 950, still down from the 3,000+ young elders of the mid-1980s, but a significant increase. However, a crash was coming. The Lewis Center’s most recent Clergy Age Trends report puts the number of young elders in 2020 at 852, or as Weems puts it, “shockingly close to the previous low of 850 in 2005.” What led to this decline? What are the consequences of these trends? How can the church recover a culture that recognizes and utilizes the gifts of young people for ministry?

Roots of the sharp decline 

The United Methodists are not alone in noticing a decline in younger clergy. A 2018 United Church of Christ (UCC) statistical profile revealed that only 7.8% of their clergy were under 40, roughly the same percentage as The UMC. A more general 2017 study of American pastors by Barna Research found that “only one in seven pastors is under 40 [approximately 14%], and half are over 55.” 

Clearly, there is a larger trend present where younger people are not finding their way into pastoral roles. It is less clear, however, why the last three years in particular have seen such a sharp drop-off. This period, from 2018 to 2020, corresponds with a great deal of anxiety and speculation about a possible separation plan within The UMC. Some young people may see the denomination’s wrangling with questions of human sexuality as a deterrent to pursuing ordination at this time. 

The more general decline outside The UMC points to other issues as well. A 2019 article in UCC Resources notes some factors from the Barna report that may be affecting numbers. First and foremost, there are simply fewer Christians in younger generations and the numbers are declining, thus making the traditional pool for new clergy much smaller. “Potential young leaders [may be] attracted to entrepreneurial vocations other than church ministry.” They may also be “turned off by ‘institutional baggage of the church.’” 

The gifts of youth

Whatever the cause, the value of younger clergy to the church is undeniable, and the loss of younger leadership is felt in noticeable ways. A report on the connections between the age of a pastor and the health of a church, published in UCC Resources, indicates that clergy under 50 “are driving the largest share of church growth in the U.S.” These clergy tend to have more young adults, youth, and children in their congregations than older clergy do and they “are oriented more to goals.” 

Another report by Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi on the same site notes that adaptable, “high change” congregations “also had primary leaders/pastors who were younger, less likely to have conflict, and more optimistic about the future of their congregations than no/slow change congregations.” 

Carey Nieuwhof, a church trends blogger, says that one of the great gifts younger people can bring to ministry is a willingness to innovate that can be a gift to older leaders who sometimes struggle to see their current situation with fresh eyes. “The next generation inherently understands the generation they’re trying to reach better than previous generations. . . . It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s going to take the leadership of the next generation to reach the next generation.” 

“Do we really believe God is still calling?” 

“Do we really believe that God is still calling young men and young women into ordained ministry?” That was one of the first questions retired Bishop Janice Huie asked as she helped the Texas Conference wrestle with the question of clergy recruitment. On a recent Lewis Center podcast, Huie talked about creating an ecosystem “to encourage, support and sustain [young people] in their journey of responding positively to God’s call to ministry.” 

The Texas Conference has been among the most successful annual conferences in ordaining young clergy, and they began by studying churches that produced new young leaders. Huie notes that “strong, healthy churches are really the greatest pool in this day and age for birthing young clergy.” This attention to the formation of youth led to a leadership development program for high school students and a college pastoral intern program that allowed students to shadow pastors in their work. Many of the interns went on to enter some kind of ministry. The conference also paid attention to building relationships with seminarians and developing a program to repay seminary debt. A new pastoral leadership formation process for newly-appointed young clergy was also developed. “It becomes . . . an ecological system or a virtuous cycle,” Huie says. “It feeds on itself over time. And we’ve felt much blessed by that.” 

A church that cuts itself off from the gifts of the young limits the possibilities for growth and renewal. Creating healthy church environments that can nurture all persons in their call and develop their leadership gifts will produce unexpected blessings.

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