The Young Clergy Question


I just finished reading Kevin Watson’s post on his desire for the Call to Action committee to make recruiting young clergy the first priority for the next quadrennium. I agree with Kevin on many points, for I think in the zeal to improve the process of credentialing from that of the 1992 Book of Discipline, we have created an exclusionary vetting system rather than something that discerns and affirms the call to ministry. There are a variety of reasons for this, but that is the subject of a different post.

I’ve heard the call from many recently for the need to recruit and empower young clergy, especially given the current deplorable state of our church overloaded with baby boomers heading toward retirement. What Kevin and others seem to suggest is that somehow young clergy are inherently more effective in their practice of ministry, either through their abundance of energy and passion, their willingness to challenge the status quo, their technological prowess, or simply because they are likely more attractive to their peers who aren’t currently attending our churches. In this we would do well to take the advice of St. Benedict, who wrote in his rule that the voices of the younger members of the community were desirable, believing that God often reveals God’s self through the witnesses of the younger members.

And yet, I find myself troubled at simply thinking that age is the most important factor in driving clergy recruitment, as Kevin suggests. I have no doubt that is partially driven by the fact that I am far from being a “young clergy,” even though my mind hasn’t been willing to let go of that status. While I still have kids in school, it’s due to Kay and I marrying later, and both of us would be considered on the downhill slide toward retirement (although, given our financial situation, the state of Social Security, and the age of our kids, I doubt that either of us will be able to retire until they kick us out). I’m 50, and while I’m friends with a bunch of younger clergy, I surely ain’t one.

Yes, there may be jealousy involved, but I also know that I was frankly not ready to take the role I have now at age 25, even though I probably would have thought so then. I didn’t have the maturity to deal with the relational realities found in most congregations. I didn’t have the patience, nor the ability and willingness to honor the folks who have come before . . . those aging saints that fill the pews of most of our congregations. That may say more about the delay in my own maturation, for there are no doubt brilliant young clergy who are able to have wisdom far beyond their age. However, I’m not certain that these gifts to the church aren’t more an exception than the rule. Attempting adaptive change in the dysfunctional systems found in the majority of our congregations today requires the wisdom of Solomon at times (something that I still don’t have at age 50) and having a little life experience certainly helps.

I am one who thinks that going to seminary straight out of college and then to a local church straight out of seminary may not be the best thing. Being a local church pastor requires the juggling of multiple skills — public speaking, organizational leadership, financial management, HVAC repair, and graphic design — most of which isn’t taught in seminary. Getting a few years walking in the context of where most of our parishioners live provides a variety of skills and understandings that can serve one well in the church.

The danger with focusing on young clergy is that we confuse chronological age with passion, energy, commitment, and even technological know how. The problem is not one of age — it’s a system that values conformity to institutional norms above that of leading congregations to a vibrant and living faith that is relevant to people of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. We have a process that lifts up those who say the right answers or who calm the boat in the storm, and does what it can to stamp out those with an entrepreneurial spirit. The issue isn’t age — it’s values.

Don’t get me wrong, for I’m not saying recruiting young clergy isn’t important. But the definition of who is “young” may be as much a state of mind as a chronological age. Our focus in thinking about effective clergy should not be chronos but kairos.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

4 thoughts on “The Young Clergy Question

  1. Jay,
    I think you’re correct in seeing “young clergy” as some kind of sexy, magic fix-all that will inevitably disappoint us when the ridiculous expectations are met. However, I’m not sure a few years of “seasoning” before seminary or one’s first appointment would be that kind of fix-all, either. I know that I’m a lot more mature at 30 than I was at 25, and some of that is due to “life experience” outside the church context, but much of my maturity as a pastor has been the result of doing the work of ministry and learning from my mistakes. No matter what age somebody is, they’re going to make rookie mistakes their first time out. If someone is younger when they start, then they have more career years to be an experienced, seasoned pastor (however one defines that).

  2. I, of course, am compromised on this question being 43, but I do think your points needs to be included in our conversation.

    On the other hand, Kevin’s basic point about the ordination process seems to have some truth to it as well.

  3. Jay and John,
    I guess that I will be “old” guy in the conversation as I will turn 61 in the fall.
    Of course, it all depends on where you are in the process whether one is young or old. I remember an article written back in 1979 where a 24-year old bowler was characterized as a veteran bowler. As I was 29 at that time, I wondered what I would be considered.
    I go with Jay on the point about the age of the mind because I have seen in various settings, younger clergy who have died mentally. They are still doing good work but there is no flair, no creativity. On the other hand, I have seen many who would definitely fall in the elderly category who would run circles around many of their contemporaries.

    While we need younger clergy, we also have to make sure that they are able to become older clergy and have the same youthful enthusasim when they get to that status. If we work on that now, then we will be able to recruit young ones who will stay in the ministry because they see that it is worth it.

    In peace,
    Dr. Tony

  4. Hi Jay,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and charitable critique of my post.
    One of your points echoes a criticism someone else made in the comments on my blog: younger clergy are not necessarily more effective than “older” clergy.

    The fact that two different people raised this concern means I either wrote what I did not intend to, or my communication was unclear. I actually do not want to argue that younger clergy as a demographic group are more effective than any other clergy. In fact, in the short term they may well be less effective. I think they would make mistakes.

    Instead, I was trying to point to the inconsistency in the desperate cries for the need for more young clergy on the one hand and the way in which they often feel treated like a nuisance or as if they had nothing to contribute now.

    The deeper part of my argument, which is the reason I would make this the number one priority, I am afraid was even less clear in my post. The point was not the younger clergy are superior pastors and are immediately better able to minister to people. I actually do not think that is the case. I’m not sure I think they would be worse either. I don’t think you can make claims about effective ministry at the level of demographic groups (i.e. people this age are better pastors than people this age). My point was trying to address the strategic needs of the church in the future. I.e., the church does not have many younger clergy (because we do a great job of deterring younger people from entering the seemingly never ending process towards ordination) but in twenty five years, the church will need pastors who have twenty-five years experience and are not immediately approaching the mandatory retirement age. With this, I was trying to politely suggest that not all people who are young and feel called to ministry will be great pastors. I may have been too subtle, but I really would focus on identifying the women and men on whom God’s calling is most evident. This is probably where I am being most naive as people of faith and good will will disagree on who these people are.

    So, I think the most effective thing we could do to make it likely that the future of the church is bright is to train and empower the best, brightest, most passionate younger people we can find who are committed above all else to preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. But I could be wrong!

    Thank you for stimulating me to clarifying my thinking and writing, even if it is still not as clear (or concise!) as it should be.

    Blessings on your ministry!

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