the inevitable emergence of young church leaders

The Lewis Center for Church Leadership, an initiative of United Methodist related Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., recently released study findings (pdf report, article) that indicate a significant decrease in the number and percentage of United Methodist Elders (ordained clergy) under the age of 35. From 1985 to 2005, the number fell from 3219 to 850 and the percentage dropped from 15.05% to 4.69% of all ordained Elders in the denomination. While we might anticipate that clergy retirement classes twenty-five to thirty years down the road will continue to be augmented by those who came into ordained pastoral ministry as a second or third career, the findings are still staggering. Even if future clergy retirement classes continue to see a similar influx of second- and third-career pastors as has been present in the past twenty years, we will still be looking at a decrease in ordained pastoral leadership in the near future.

In ten to twelve years (or sooner), the clergy leadership ranks will be significantly depleted. Elders currently under the age of thirty-five or hovering near it will be moving into large churches and into conference leadership about ten to fifteen years earlier (between the ages of forty and fifty) than those who preceded them. In conferences with a significant number of very large churches (like my own Texas Annual Conference), we (I recently celebrated my 32nd birthday) will potentially move through the medium and smaller large churches much more quickly than we might have otherwise.

This reality issues many challenges to be sure. But additionally, it presents younger clergy an unprecedented opportunity for leadership in the church. Young church leaders will emerge. But questions remain: How many will emerge? What will we be like theologically and methodologically? Asked differently, what will our doctrine and our polity be like, especially vis-à-vis the present state of the UMC? What level of quality in leadership will we offer? How diverse will we be? What difference will we make?

The emergence of young church leaders in the United Methodist Church will be a watershed event over the next five, ten, and fifteen years as current large church pastors and conference leaders retire. Are young church leaders ready? What will we do now in order to prepare for the mantle’s passing?

Each person has gifts and graces for ministry (ordained and otherwise). At the same time, our effectiveness and fruitfulness in ministry leadership grows inasmuch as we cultivate our gifts and develop necessary skills. Henri Nouwen said, “If you do not know what is absolutely essential in ministry, then you will do the merely important” (quoted in Pastor, by Will Willimon). The following are some essential skills that younger leaders simply must develop in order to provide top-notch leadership in the church. Each skill is a mindset to adopt and a discipline to be learned, committed to daily, and continually cultivated over a lifetime. For our generation, the learning curve is steeper because the maturation timeline is shorter.

1. Formation: Leadership is about who we are. Who we are is chiefly about who we are in relationship with. Therefore, we must be formed spiritually for appropriate balance and boundaries, genuine living as a Christian disciple, and faithful leadership in the church with moral, ethical, and theological integrity. We would do well to drink deeply from the well of Scripture and the Christian Tradition in cultivating our life of prayer and informing our intellect. We would also benefit from submission to spiritual guidance and direction, as well as learning how to give guidance and direction. To be leaders we must be learners. To be the best leaders, we must be formed into the sort of people we would want our leadership to play a role in producing.

2. Interpretation: Leadership is about what we say. Leadership may in part be understood as framing conversations and defining terms. The one who shapes the group’s understanding is the leader. We must become faithful interpreters of Scripture, the Tradition, and the present cultural context so that we may lead congregations and the Church into a faithful moral, ethical, and just witness and into faithfulness to our mission to make disciples.

3. Attention: Leadership is about how we focus. Formation and Interpretation demand excellent listening skills. In particular, listening to God, text, history, culture, others, and self. One who can focus on another person well in the act of listening will command attention and will be better informed when they speak and act. But we also include under the category of “Attention” the skill of focusing on how we use our time. As leadership ranks are depleted, we will find ourselves either spending more time or structuring our time differently and setting different priorities. Working smarter will help us rise to the challenge without burning out or neglecting our families. The Church is still waiting for a book that tells the story of growing a flagship church that lacks (a) an admission of guilt in gross family and self-care neglect, and/or (b) idealizing workaholism as a key to becoming a successful pastor. The skill of paying attention in an age of distraction will be vital.

4. Organization: Leadership is about who we develop. Leadership implies a journey and it implies others. If we will be leaders, we will be going somewhere and there will be people going there with us. Mobilizing folks involves recruiting, equipping, empowering, and sending. With shrinking clergy ranks, many of us will find ourselves leading a large number of people, potentially sooner than we may have otherwise expected. Understanding how to organize the people of the congregation for nurture, outreach, and witness will be key. Recruiting, developing, and leading leaders will be necessary for congregations to grow stronger and healthier as well as spiritually and numerically.

The emergence of young church leaders is inevitable. The nature and quality of that leadership will depend on the mindsets and practices we establish now to develop ourselves for both present and future ministry.

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7 thoughts on “the inevitable emergence of young church leaders

  1. Given that an elder usually becomes a DS after only 20 years or more in the pastorate, I wonder what this advancing age will do to the office of DS and Bishop.

  2. posted these thoughts over at wesley daily, but i like your blog guy, so i’ll share the love.

    i’ve often wondered if part of this is because of youth workers not needing to be ordained elders with the church. they are the introduction and the relationship the youth have to the church, especially in an unhealthy youth/church environment. so a youth who feels a call to ministry is not as an ordained minister, but as a youth minister. who, by the way, gets beat up for being lacking in knowledge, poorly paid, subsequently unable to deal with the pressures of the church life.

  3. Hmm. That’s an interesting thought. Three things off the top of my head: (1) Your thoughts remind me of something a seminary roommate said once. He noted his observation that often people who are called to full-time ministry will interpret that call as being back to the kind of ministry in which they received the call. So, if youth ministry was the place, then they interpreted it as a call to youth ministry. If (and this was the main situation he was thinking of) campus ministry was the place, then they interpreted it as a call to campus ministry. While it may work out that way, he saw this as sometimes muddying the waters of discernment. I’m not sure that anecdote addresses precisely your point, but it did come to mind as a related issue in the pot.

    (2) As a young pastor, I’ve considered doing something like this when I get to the point of having staff: Make part of my ministry as pastor intentional discipling of the staff, especially the program staff (youth, CE, music/worship, etc). This seems to me good stewardship of both the seminary education I’ve received and the ministry of Word that I’ve been ordained to. Instead of complaining about the (supposed or true) lack of theological knowledge of the youth ministry director, make that a part of my teaching role. Nurturing some mix of a mentoring and partnering in ministry relationship could be good.

    (3) I was talking about this with a friend the other day and he really challenged my thinking. My stump speech (as chair of division of campus ministries and a product of an excellent one) has been that vital campus ministries are producing lay and clergy leadership, so we need to invest greatly in them. But he pointed to children’s ministry and the picture that kids get early on of the role of the pastor and how they are regarded.

  4. i mentioned this theory of gavin’s to my pastor and he brought out that for the age demographic we researched most of the young people might not have had a youth pastor person. he didn’t have any answers, but he did share some stories of youth who thought of being a pastor and spent one of those ‘shadow’ days with him. they didn’t want to be a pastor after that. to note: my pastor is one of the best people and isn’t a whiner type who’d talk a kid out of the ministry, but he would fully include a kid in hospital visits, office calls, staff meetings, etc.

  5. i’m a big early childhood person, those impressions are critical. so i could easily agree with your friend.

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