I’m off to Georgia (St. Simon’s Island) to present at the Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry next week, so I’ll be a little out of pocket for a while. I thought, therefore, that I’d go ahead and have a try, as promised, at the problems young people face in the candidacy and ordination process in The United Methodist Church and what I think we can do to make it better.
For reference: In the mid-1980s, when I was in (a UM) seminary, the median age for incoming students was 37. Thus, half of the incoming students were older than 37. Most of my closest seminary buddies were in their 40s and a couple in their 50s.
Truth is, not much has changed. Lovett Weems and the Lewis Center for Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary have been telling us that this trend (aging members and aging clergy) would catch up and bite us. We’re feeling the nibbles now, but the worst is still ahead of us. Hence we have time to turn things around.
I’ve served in various capacities: candidacy guide, mentor, stints on both district committees and conference boards of ordained ministry. I’m tempted to say, “I’ve seen it all.” It’s why I think we’re failing still at inviting a sufficient number of young candidates, in spite of the fact that numerous annual conferences have taken up this challenge with appropriate seriousness.
Part of the problem, I think, is that we’ve simply gotten used to interviewing older candidates. We are thrilled when a “young one” comes through, but not well-prepared to understand this “young one.”
Just one example of many such I could tell to illustrate my claim: One of my best students, a leader in campus ministry and a good preacher already (because he was given the opportunity), possessed a stellar portfolio going into his first meeting with a district committee. Their job was to discern whether to recommend him for certified candidacy. That’s all. Even though the committee seemed excited about him, they almost did not recommend him. Why? “He’s just really young,” was the reason. A 21 year old, not far from graduating from college, was (nearly) deemed too young.
I’ve also heard many sad stories of churches hiring a young intern – usually a college student – and things going badly. The student acted immaturely, made mistakes, and demonstrated poor judgment. Church leaders got upset and decided “not ever to hire a college student again.” The student flamed out in discouragement and vowed never to go into ministry.
In both cases, the problem is not the young person. It’s our lack of understanding about what we ought to be doing.
How do we fix this problem?
Young people are capable of doing hard, complex, even dangerous things. They are capable. They just need the chance and proper guidance.
Think: an eighteen-year old in the military can get basic and then specialized training, all within a year’s time, and be put into dangerous, chaotic situations with very complicated equipment and they can perform well. (Read Donovan Campbell’s book, Joker One. I’m not glorifying war. The book is about the courage and commitment of a group of young men.) I know this is not an apt analogy for candidacy and training for ministry. My point is that young people can enter into complex and weighty real-life situations and perform very well. We need to risk giving them the chance.
Let’s start with the congregational level. Before a charge conference approves a candidate, they must discern that this person has the character and gifts for ministry. Now hear this! If you’re going to discern someone’s gifts, you must watch that person in action in the ministry.
In the days of John Wesley, when Methodism was still a movement, when someone was presented for membership in the conference (as a probationer!), among Mr. Wesley’s first questions was, “Are persons converted to God under your preaching?” Ministerial fruit demonstrated ministerial gifts. Local congregations must start at this starting point far more intentionally, systematically and consistently than far too many of them do now.
Pastors, you have a serious responsibility here (I dare say it’s one of your primary responsibilities): to know your young people well enough to help discern which of them possess and demonstrate the character and gifts for pastoral ministry. Help your congregation develop means to give such young people real-life experience to show those gifts! (And I don’t mean Youth Sunday.) They need experience over time. Get them involved and let them try. And talk to them after-the-fact about how the experience went. If you, Pastor, can’t or won’t do this, make sure someone in your church can and does, and does it well. Let us mentor our young at the congregational level. Then candidates will go into committee interviews ready and able to demonstrate, character, gifts and fruit. And we can start to shorten our formal procedures toward ordination.
In like manner, college students need real, sustained ministry experience. Congregational leaders: if you hire a college student to do some church work, you are not hiring a trained professional. You are hiring a student. Understand what you are getting and relish the holy privilege of mentoring that young person while they are trying the ministry.
(By the way, many seminaries require an internship – practical experience coupled with theological reflection – for graduation. The problem? Far too many students arrive at this point with virtually no prior ministry experience. We must help them start much, much earlier.)
I believe that if we took the early stages of the candidacy/ordination process more seriously, we could shorten the time to orders and full conference membership. And we must do so. Young people called to ministry and with a passion for making a difference have scads of choices in great ministry organizations to do significant things. They do not need us to engage in significant ministry. Often, our process feels alternatively burdensome and trivial. We must have a process, of course. Discernment is absolutely necessary. The process is not entirely wrong, it’s just too long and too ponderous.
More discernment earlier. More real-life ministry earlier, with proper mentoring, guidance and evaluation. If we will step in this direction, we will see more, and more ready, young candidates in our pipelines.