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.