Praying MinisterThose darn Texans!

I arrived home yesterday evening to find my copy of the latest United Methodist Reporter and read of the Texas Annual Conference’s consideration to discourage ordination by potential clergy candidates over the age of 45.  As you might imagine, this proposal has struck a nerve.  I may be weighing in too late, but, hey, I’m trying to be a blogger, so here goes.

According to the UM Reporter, the proposal does not ban older candidates.  In other words, they’re not trying to get rid of older people serving in ministry.  It just discourages them from going through the full ordination process.  These are a few of the details they appear to be considering:

  1. Encouraging a person considering elders orders who is older than 45 to seek licensed local pastor ministry rather than going through the full candidacy and ordination process; or to pursue other forms of ministry like certified lay speaker.
  2. Likewise, encouraging deacon candidates over the age of 45 to pursue other expressions of ministry, rather than deacons orders.
  3. Making similar suggestions for people over 60 or 70, to choose avenues of ministry other than, presumably, Course of Study and licensed local pastor status.

Various conference officials stress that they are by no means denying someone’s call, but rather are attempting to deal appropriately with the annual conference’s long-term needs, in view of the time and monetary investments necessary (by both conference and candidates) to complete the process.  On the other side of the debate are people saying what a bad idea this is and that it is tantamount to age discrimination, against the law and the Book of Discipline.

A few of my own scattered observations:

As Kevin Watson has recently pointed out (vitalpiety.com), ordination is not a right, but a rite of the church, a calling and something that the church discerns with the one called.  As a matter of general principle, then, annual conferences not only have the authority, but also the responsibility to make strategic decisions about candidates’ suitability.  None of us likes being told “no,” but sometimes “no” is the right answer.

On the other hand, who will serve the many UM congregations that it seems only these older clergy will serve?  Generally (and I emphasize that word), younger people are not as willing to go to low income, lonely (for young people), often rural, appointments.  Our younger generations have been schooled in group forms of collaborative education.  They are more comfortable with team efforts.  Young people also think of and engage their social lives differently than us older folk.  They’re much more likely to do social things in groups (yes, like Friends or Big Bang Theory).  While statistics show that young people hunger for and appreciate interaction with older generations, they still need age peers.  To put a young seminary graduate in a place where there are no other young people around for miles can feel to them like being consigned to the outer darkness.

Again, who’s going to serve the under-served and under-resourced and aging parishes?  Often older candidates.  Out of sheer love for God and the call, they’ll go to that low income isolated parish.  I can imagine someone from the Texas Conference saying to me, “That’s exactly what the licensed local pastor track is for.”  And that person would be right.  But I wonder about the increasing appointment stratification that would seem to happen inevitably.  Yes, it happens already in other ways, but I think the move the Texas Conference is considering will add levels.

Which brings me to the (at least) two-tier ministry we have going right now.  For a very long time – partly because my Dad was a Course of Study graduate who served small rural parishes and partly because I have taught some really gifted people in the Course of Study – I have been troubled by the clerical class system in United Methodism.  I won’t chase this rabbit now, but the sometimes open disdain by elders for licensed local pastors is shocking and disheartening.  As long as we have the delivery systems in place for theological education that we have now, we will continue to endure this problem.  And it is a problem.

Even though the proposal does not intend to deny anyone’s calling, it surely will have a dampening effect on older folk going into the ministry.  It is almost impossible for people in this age group not to hear, “We don’t really want you.”

Worse, this proposal – driven as it is by a version of supply-and-demand – also seems to predict the future.  First the economic model.  As I noted above, conferences rightly must think carefully about the investment of resources.  If we think just in essentially economic terms, we’re looking at cycling older folk through the system at a much more rapid rate than younger clergy, which means that the church is investing significantly more resources in a person compared to the return relative to length of service.  The church also constantly has to “reload.”  Younger clergy, all other things being equal, have longer to serve.  It makes sense to invest in them.  There’s simply more bang for the buck, most likely.

And here is the problem.  Isn’t this the kind of economic model that we tend to decry in other quarters?

Now my point about predicting the future – and this thought looms very large in my own mind as deeply important – I can tell you about a friend who, after a long and distinguished career as a high school teacher, entered seminary in his 50s.  He has had a very significant ministry, including (take note!) nurturing the call of a number of people who entered the ranks of clergy themselves.  John  and I knew each other in seminary.  I was young and green.  I learned a lot just from talking to him in our dorm rooms after classes and over the years as clergy colleagues.

This real-life example illustrates both the metrics and the intangibles of the problem of making age an issue.  An older clergy  person may help many young people (as did John) hear a call and enter ministry.  The church, by putting a damper on the possibilities of that person serving as an elder in the church, maybe effect the supply of pastors in unintended, but no less tragic, ways.  Furthermore, had the Texas Conference policy been in place, it is exceedingly unlikely that John would have gone to the United Methodist seminary that we both attended, and my life would have been poorer by a magnitude.

Finally, an obvious point, but one I cannot resist making.  Choking the pipeline to ordination for older clergy will not cause a larger influx of younger clergy candidates.  I’m confident that the Texas Conference knows this.  They have some really good things going for young people in their conference, so the likelihood is that they won’t have to worry as much as other conferences about recruiting young candidates.  But for the other reasons I’ve named, I have to admit (now that I’ve thought “out loud” with you) that I’m worried by the implications of the move that those darn Texans seem to be making.

Aiming at the Right Target

All in all, then, I must say, I think the Texas Conference move is a bad idea.  I appreciate the difficult problem they face and that the whole church faces.  This is not an easy thing to solve, so I’m by no means casting aspersions.  Still, I think we need to trust God to call the people whom God wants to call, trust our boards of ordained ministry to oversee the candidacy process to discern gifts and fitness for ministry (and no more) and trust the Spirit to send us the candidates we need.

And for the rest of us, let’s focus on the fundamental problem.  We United Methodists are not doing a very good job at nurturing the faith of our young people.  We are not effectively catechizing them.  Therefore, we have fewer young candidates for ministry than we need.  Older candidates are not the problem.  The lack of younger candidates is the problem.

Choking the Pipeline for Older Clergy Candidates: The Larger Problem

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14 thoughts on “Choking the Pipeline for Older Clergy Candidates: The Larger Problem

  • May 9, 2013 at 10:27 pm
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    Steve,
    I agree with you. I was 39 when I started seminary at Iliff. I was ordained an elder when I was 46. Under the Texas Conference proposal we know what that would have meant for me. My first appointment was Iuka, Byers and Cullison of the KWC. I feel that I was effective in each of the appointments during my 25 years of ministry (better than some others I know in another conference) and would not change it. I think of other clergy who were second career who have made a difference in the lives of parishioners and in churches.
    Thank you for your comments.
    Vernon

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  • May 9, 2013 at 10:50 pm
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    Steve,
    I agree with your conclusion. I think that a deeper look into the metrics will show another factor that has not been talked about much. The problem of an aging Clergy has to do with a very long process of ordination that is expensive and rigorous. Most of the annual classes of ordinands have experienced an enormous attrition rate. This is amazing given the time, expense and hard work invested.
    Something else has to be looked at.Why, after all this hard work, are pastors leaving the ministry or leaving the Methodist Church. many are doing both? I am the only active minister left out of my ordinand class.
    There is an issue or set of issues that must be addressed because we cannot fill a bucket that has a sizable hole in it.

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  • May 10, 2013 at 9:13 am
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    I believe what the TX Annual Conference and the UMC at large is forgetting is that the Church is first and foremost NOT a business – it is a Church. Yes, we must operate some things at a business level (bills have to be paid, maintenance needs to be done, etc.), but our primary task is to BE THE CHURCH! That means we are called to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.” Business models look only at the bottom line in terms of dollars or numbers. A Church looks at discipleship. It is no one’s “fault” when God decides to call them into the ministry. How old was Abraham when God called him to go into a new land? He certainly was no “spring chicken!” Yes, some paths make more sense for people of different ages, but God doesn’t always call us in ways that make sense. I am in my 30’s. Why did God call me from a well paying career that I loved to the ministry (which I love even more) that pays much less and leaves me with Seminary debt? It doesn’t make sense! But, since when did God answer to us? God can call ANYONE to the ministry, old, young, or anything in between! Rather than trying to choreograph the call, after it has been discerned, we should celebrate the call!

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  • May 10, 2013 at 9:30 am
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    Thanks for helping the tenor of the conversation in a helpful direction. That is always needed. And I think it is fully appropriate to break things down in the way that you have. We need to come to terms that we haven’t engaged young people well, and ageist policies won’t reverse this trend. We also need to take seriously the notion that God does not set limits on whom is called by age. Still, I think you have mentioned a couple of iceberg issues here that are the true “larger problems” that nobody seems to have the courage to really chase out. Or the interest.

    One of these larger problems is our pension program and the financial commitments our denomination makes to its clergy that are not sustainable when we continually take on older clergy. At that point we have only three options: A fiscally unsustainable system, an unofficial system whereby older candidates are fazed out without any official policy, or an official system of ageism where we encourage older folks to go another route. At this point, the latter feels like the most honest. The least likely to waste old folks’ time. And I’m eager for new experiments in the denomination.

    Another large problem we’re dealing with is the entitlement that young clergy come out of seminary with. For the first time in Methodism, young clergy are actually feeling entitled to the big, rich, urban churches right out of the gate. We no longer value finding commonality between all sinful humans, rural and urban, poor and rich, hispanic and white. Instead we have sold out to the gods of affinity groups and incentives. When we allow for a situation with such disparity in rank among clergy, which is rewarded by significant differences in income and prestige…we have set ourselves up for the spoiled clergy we have.

    Looking at early American Methodism, by and large the vast majority of circuit riding clergy were very young. And they didn’t last long. It’s a profession where people have vowed to ‘spend and be spent,’ such that very few actually make the cut. We chose to abandon that system for something more comfortable, and now we’re paying the price. I know there’s no interest in going back to the way things used to be. I still think there should at least be an honest conversation about what these ‘larger problems’ are and why we find ourselves where we are today: We like to be comfortable, and it’s killing us.

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    • May 10, 2013 at 11:29 am
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      Thanks, Jeffrey, for these comments. The harsh fiscal realities are really starting to come home. This is the kind of big-picture look that is required.

      One thought about the entitlement mentality of young people: I would argue that it’s actually the teachers and parents (our American educational system) that informally taught them to think this way of themselves. My kids got ribbons for everything in school. Attempting to emphasize uniqueness (a good thing), our culture placed far too much emphasis on global self-esteem, thinking that you have to feel generally positive about yourself in order to achieve. The psychological literature of the past 20 years has been re-thinking that approach, but it has not filtered out to the general public. The entitlement attitude that young people have should prompt us to look at our own educational and cultural assumptions and programs. It doesn’t fix the current problem, but if we look down the road, maybe the next “generation” of young clergy will have a more realistic view of things.

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  • May 10, 2013 at 12:07 pm
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    Are they going to start rejecting the tithes of people over 45? Seems only fair that if you’re a second-class citizen, you shouldn’t be expected to pay as much as the first-class citizens. Maybe they could start sharing space with Abercrombie and Fitch- it’s only for the cool, beautiful people, too.

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  • May 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm
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    There is a clergy “class” system and if you are not an Elder, than you really don’t matter. And that carries to committee and board assignments. It applies to ministry appointments. It even carries over to Conference voting rights and what sessions you are allowed to attend and vote.

    You said “Various conference officials stress that they are by no means denying someone’s call.” That is really a lie of the conference, because once that is said to candidates for ministry, the “officialdom” does everything and sadly anything to make that stick even to the ones sure of their calling. The smart ones leave to follow their calling elsewhere. Pastor Craig Groeschel (of Life Church) is one of the most obvious cases; and not quite the same, but is a failure on UM officials.

    Clergy Elders don’t want local pastors, don’t consider them equals, and most do not support them. Also, the “course of study” was supposed to be an entry for those “older” over 35 who could not attain college and seminary easily. Now it is seen as a lower class way of entering ministry. And I think this is the goal of Texas Conference to have a clear class system with Elders on top.

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    • November 2, 2015 at 2:08 am
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      Totally agree. It is about power and rank. Sad.

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  • May 10, 2013 at 11:42 pm
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    Even though I loathe the business approach to the church, since the issue of economics came up, some questions about the economics of this plan remain: What is the attrition rate among younger as opposed to older clergy? In other words, while a 1:1 comparison between one younger and one older pastor would lean in favor of a greater economic return toward a younger, if the general pool of younger clergy leave on average after a shorter tenure in ministry, have you really gained an economic edge? Following with that, how much in contributions would a younger clergy leave in the pension pool if he/she left after, let’s say 8 years? How many years does an average older pastor serve before retiring and contribute to the pension pool? How long does an average pastor remain on the pension roles after retiring? While money may be an issue, is it ultimately THE issue, or is there something deeper that needs to be addressed?

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    • May 11, 2013 at 6:46 am
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      JD, all the concerns and questions you raise call for answers, if the proposed age restriction is to be thoughtfully implemented. As to your final question, I don’t think money is ever the final problem or answer. Money is really a mystery.

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  • May 11, 2013 at 1:19 pm
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    Is it any wonder why lots of people like me who grew up in the UMC system turned away because we couldn’t stand the hypocrisy. The church I go to is very small and accepting and inclusive of everyone. No exceptions. I have been to churches where I took folks with special needs – that God created, and was asked not to return for no other reason than the fact that the person I was with had a disability. It is absolutely unacceptable. Then, these same people want to talk about how they are Christian and you need to choose them or you are not worthwhile. It turns my stomach. By the way, I quit the UMC church when my married minister kept coming to my apartment uninvited all hours of the day and night, for no special purpose, mind you.

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  • May 12, 2013 at 12:36 am
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    Thanks so much Steve, for your continued recognition of Course of Study, as well as your excellent teaching in COS. Your work helped to change and channel MY life! Your thoughts here are appreciated!

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  • May 13, 2013 at 8:07 pm
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    I think the Texas conference is forgetting most of all that it is those second career pastors that have kept the doors of the Methodist church open since 1995.

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  • May 16, 2013 at 8:01 am
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    I am 68 and became a “second-career” Licensed Local Pastor in the Holston Conference last year. My previous jobs were as a government official and college professor. The Call came late in life after I had sought the Lord’s will about that kind of a move often during my secular career. I have more education than probably the majority of Elders in the Conference (three master’s and a doctorate), but did see the error in seeking ordination at my late point in life — especially if I were to displace a younger and more talented candidate with a longer span of Christian Service before him or her. I must say for the record, though, that as a part-time rural UMC pastor in the mountains of Virginia I feel blessed that the UMC has allowed me to answer my God-given Call rather than changing denominations. (I feel almost like Moses starting to lead the Chosen People in his very old age!) I guess the only real argument that I add to this debate is to suggest we might want to think not just of the quantity of years a person might offer, but the quality of what God wants to do through them. That is so hard for us to measure as at least to suggest extreme caution before making the Texas-type change.

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