Thursday, March 8, 2012

Young Clergy and Ordination

The United Methodist Church has said that they want to concentrate on bringing young clergy into the church. There are some churches and conferences that are certainly focusing on this and doing a good job, and others not so much.

One of those doing well is the New Mexico conference, where I am now serving. In my numerous contacts with the conference as I was seeking to come back here I was told by different district superintendents that the bishop wanted to build up a "stable of young ponies" to train them so they would be prepared to take over the larger churches when the older clergy retired.

In addition, the bishop was not holding off appointing younger clergy to some of the larger churches in the conference. If they were capable of leading them then they should be able to lead them. This is certainly born out in the number of young clergy who are serving in this conference, which for me was very refreshing to see.

A conference that is not doing as well is New England. Now they say they want to attract and keep young clergy, but that is more rhetoric than reality. I'm guessing that you could probably count the number of clergy under the age of forty on your fingers and toes, and you can definitely could count the number of young clergy who are ordained on your fingers. This is in a conference with more than 700 clergy. My own case serves as an illustration that their rhetoric does not meet their actions.

When I was seeking to transfer conferences not one person from the cabinet or from the Board of Ordination asked me why I was leaving the conference, and if there was anything they could do to keep me there. Not one. This is true even when the bishop attended a meeting of the Board and said that he and the cabinet, and through them the Board, needed to be focused on getting and retaining young clergy. I was sitting in that meeting, with many people knowing I was leaving, and not one person asked me about it.

I think I'm a pretty good clergy person, as did New Mexico which is why they wanted me, but apparently either New England did not hold the same opinion or they simply didn't care. I think the second is much more likely. I think there was a sigh of relief that they were losing someone so that they didn't have to worry about finding an appointment for me as the number of full-time appointments continues to decrease. In addition, I knew that there was no way I was going to be appointed to serve any of the larger churches until I had been there at least twenty years, and that's if they hadn't already been run into the ground before then.

But, I believe the church has a much bigger problem on their hands in keeping and retaining young clergy and that is the ordination process itself. I began this process when I was 26, I entered the seminary when I was 30, and I have now completed the process at the age of 39. That is 3 years of seminary and then 6 years serving in churches.

Now I will grant that I was not as quick in the process as I probably should have been, but most of my colleagues from seminary, who were appearing before district committees long before me, are being ordained this year as well. One was ordained two years ago, but she is by far the outlier, and several others are still seeking ordination. Nine years from the time I entered seminary until ordination seems like too long of a process to me. That means we are taking nearly as long to be ordained as doctors do in specializing in something.

The simple fact is the process no longer matches the reality of what is going on in churches. Not too long ago, most clergy were serving churches while attending seminary, and so they were already further along in the process. Only a very small handful of people I knew in seminary were serving as clergy while attending school, but the process does not really recognize that. In addition, the probationary period required by discipline is a fluke of history not something that was thought out (I'll cover that another time).

There are proposals to change this process before the general conference this year. One of them would change it so that both local pastors and those seeking to be elders would be ordained before going to serve a church, and then the other parts of the process would continue, but with different goals happening. I think there are numerous problems with this plan.

The worst is that I have yet to see anything that effectively explained exactly how it would actually work, and it also shows that we still have lots of problems understanding the purpose and meaning of ordination. (We can thank John Wesley for this as he ordained Thomas Coke to come to America, even though Coke was already ordained, and we've been struggling with it ever since.)

Now much of what is taking place today in the process is to make sure that the young clergy, or in fact any new clergy, are good and capable in order to correct for problems of the past in having incompetent clergy serving. I don't think the process is actually weeding out incompetence. I've seen plenty of people who I think would be good clergy who have moved on because the process is too arduous, and others who I don't think are very good who make it through simply because they have been willing to stick with it to the end.

To me the process now is about trying to close the barn doors once all the horses are already out. I agree completely with making sure we get the best clergy to be serving churches, but that means we need to come up with a way to fully evaluate clergy in the local church and remove those who aren't good, regardless of age or ordination status. I have yet to see a plan that really does that however.

If the United Methodist Church is serious about attracting and retaining young clergy the process needs to be changed to recognize new realities. Nine years from the beginning of seminary to ordination is simply too long. I know this is longer than some take, but the bare minimum if you become probationary immediately after graduation is six years, and I know others who take much longer.

Again, this is the length of time to become an MD and specialize in a field. But people who undertake to become doctors expect a much higher salary, and more respect, on the other side. Clergy cannot expect that.

Even though for most people I am still a young clergy, by the church's definition, which is those under 35, I am not. I could have been but I "aged out" because of the process, a process which took way too long.

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