Summit Looks at Young Clergy Issues
Inaccessible mentors who don’t know the process, church folk who want to “fix up” single clergy, sitting in a candidacy meeting where everyone is the age of your parents or grandparents—those were just a few of the stories told by young adults who are seeking ordination or are recently ordained in The United Methodist Church.
The group of under 30 clergy and clergy candidates talked about their frustrations as well as their triumphs—including some phenomenal mentors and supportive local churches that helped them along the way—during the Young Clergy Summit held by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry August 20 - 21 in Nashville.
A tongue-in-cheek video about the UM ordination process warned, among other things, that passionate young clergy will be sent to an aging rural church to pay their dues for 20 years. One young woman who took part in the “Life in a Fishbowl” reflection by the group said that was exactly what she was told when she began hearing God’s call.
Another said that when she met with her candidacy mentor (the clergyperson assigned to assist someone through the candidacy and ordination process), he told her he didn’t really know what he was supposed to do. “I was grateful that I’m a preacher’s kid, and my parents knew what I needed to do,” she said.
Others spoke of fabulous mentors who visited them at college, called constantly to see how they were doing, and of local churches that helped in countless ways—from financial support to homemade soup. And, the group noted that there often isn’t support for candidacy mentors in the annual conferences. Even a clergyman or clergywoman who cares about mentoring does not get time off from other duties because they are willing to mentor a clergy candidate.
The Rev. Kim Cape, GBHEM’s general secretary, said she believed the group had made an excellent start in determining the path for the $7 million Young Clergy Initiative created by the 2012 General Conference to encourage young adults in the U.S. who wish to respond to God’s call to ordained ministry in the UMC.
Cape said in her opening sermon for the meeting that “if we perceive more young clergy as a means of institutional survival we will fail. Institutional health is a by-product of spiritual vigor.”
“Today and every day God’s still small voice nibbles at the imaginations of our children and grandchildren,” she said. “My hope for us here is that we can reconnect our hopes for the UMC and young clergy with God’s dreams.”
Bishop Grant Hagiya, resident bishop of the UMC’s new Greater Northwest Area, said the move to group mentoring aims to address some of the problems of mentoring, and urged the young clergy to be a part of those mentoring groups so their concerns will be addressed.
About one-third of the group was age 30 or under and about half were under age 40. Those at the meeting included two bishops, a seminary president and admissions officers, annual conference staff, and general agency staff as well as the young clergy and young clergy candidates.
The meeting broke up into small groups that looked at setting goals for specific issues related to supporting young clergy in the UMC such as reducing debt from seminary and helping young clergy feel less isolated and more supported.
“We don’t want you to think about tweaking the candidacy process. We want you to think about what we can do in a radical way to recruit and keep the leaders the church needs in 10 years,” said the Rev. Meg Lassiat, GBHEM’s director of Candidacy, Mentoring, and Conference Relations.
The groups came back with these goal statements:
Education—Implement a clear process of collaboration, accountability, and fruitfulness between seminary and church to reduce the overall amount of student indebtedness of young clergy within the first five years of ministry to create the best spiritual leaders to disciple a whole new generation of United Methodists.
Nurture—Identify people who are called to mentoring and provide money and/or support given to effective mentors—possibly bi-vocational or retired clergy in group mentoring where one candidate gets two or three mentors, with only a few mentors per annual conference dedicated to the candidates for ministry and connections made between the mentors in each conference.
Discernment—Empower passionate local leaders (congregational, district, annual conference) to connect young people with discernment opportunities and also to engage with them by building relationships as they navigate the candidacy process; and fund matching grants for the above entities to establish such leadership. Gather these leaders annually to share best practices.
Recruitment—Have an “Answer the Call” Sunday once a year in every church, theological school, and campus ministry.
Support—Develop support systems designed by young clergy in each annual conference that measurably increases their ministry, satisfaction, and effectiveness over a three-year period.
Statistics on the number of young adults currently enrolled in the candidacy process show that 1,226 or 18 percent are under age 30 and another 17 percent or 1,177 are age 30 to 39.
The Rev. Jasmine Smothers, a young African-American clergywomen who is associate director of Connectional Ministries for the North Georgia Annual Conference, noted that while those statistics are encouraging, she was concerned about how few racial-ethnic young adults are in the candidacy process.
“There are 53 African-American candidates under age 30,” she noted. “Are we so Anglo-focused that there is no space for racial-ethnic people?”
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.