South Carolina fosters culture of ‘call’ as median age reaches all-time high
By Jessica Brodie and the Rev. Ken Nelson
South Carolina clergy are getting older—so much so that church leaders are starting to worry that if trends keep up, there might not be enough younger clergy to fill their shoes.
According to a report on clergy age trends by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, the median age of elders increased to 56 in 2014, an all-time high. In South Carolina, the median age is even higher, at 57. Recent figures show 372 South Carolina clergy who are ages 56-72, which is 55 percent of the active elders pool. Many of these pastors are on the cusp of retirement. And if they all retired tomorrow, leaders say, the pool of active middle-aged elders isn’t enough to take their place: there are just 74 who are 51-55, 52 who are 46-50, 30 who are 41-45, 25 who are 36-40 and 23 who are 31-35. Of the under-30 set, there are just 22 active elders.
“We’re getting older, and it’s a big concern,” summed up the Rev. David Anderson, conference pensions and health benefits officer. “We need to find ways to recruit and maintain younger clergy.”
That’s exactly what the Board of Ordained Ministry’s Young Clergy Initiative, campus ministers and other leaders are hoping to do: foster what many deem a “culture of call” among young people so they can understand early in life that ministry is a viable career path and not a lofty ideal.
“We feel like young people are not hearing from their churches and pastors that they could be called into ministry,” said the Rev. Megan Gray, of the Young Clergy Initiative. “They’re told, ‘You could be a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher,’ not being told, ‘You could be a pastor.”
And churches are often not telling their people in the pews that they’re in ministry already, Gray said, which is exacerbating the problem.
By increasing this notion of a “culture of the call” within the church, Gray and others feel more young people will understand that the small voice nudging them to the pulpit is more than just a general wish to know more about God but perhaps a true call to ministry. And perhaps that understanding can counter some of the “graying” of The United Methodist Church.
What do we do about it?
The Rev. Wayne Horne, Board of Ordained Ministry chair, said the graying of the church is something both his board and the conference as a whole are concerned about.
“I think the aging of the clergy is just running along with the aging of the congregations; it’s a reality in the church and in the culture,” Horne said. “A lot of young people today use language like, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’ and a lot of them are opting out of church and finding other ways of expressing their faith.”
And it’s not just the UMC. Across the faith, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other denominations are seeing significantly higher percentages of older clergy than their younger counterparts. It’s a reality that presents both challenges and opportunities, Horne said.
“You can look at the weeds rather than the wildflowers, but I think it’s an exciting time,” Horne said. “Call me old-fashioned, but I think we just have to be faithful to what we’re called to do, to make disciples of Jesus Christ. … The church changes slowly, and we’ve got to understand that. But God’s always going to find a way, and God’s always looking for faithful people.”
Though how God’s way will ultimately be revealed might mean a very different clergy makeup even just 10 years from now, Gray said—one comprising not only ordained elders, but also associates and licensed local pastors, all using their gifts to bring the word of God to local congregations.
Anderson said Dr. Lovett Weems Jr. of the Lewis Center speaks about the “death tsunami” in the church, how from 2019 until 2050 there will be a higher death rate than at any time since the introduction of antibiotics and other medical advances. The majority of these deaths will be older non-Hispanic whites and African Americans—the two largest constituencies of mainline churches.
“That tsunami is going to get here,” Anderson said. “We do not live forever.”
The question, Anderson said, is what do we do about it—and that starts with the face we present to the world.
“We’ve got to look at what it means to be a church. Sometimes our churches consider a ‘committed member’ to be one who attends three or four times a year!” Anderson said. “How do we create a ‘culture of call’ in an environment like that?”
First steps: Retreat and worship series
One way is through a brand-new conference youth retreat, Quest, to help middle and high schoolers discern their call and learn career options.
The Young Clergy Initiative received a grant from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to launch Quest, which will be held Sept. 11-13 at Asbury Hills in the Upstate. Cost is $50; the rest is covered by the grant funds (learn more: scmyp.org/studentleadership/quest).
“Young clergy is one answer to the issue, and we’re focusing on making pathways for them to come into ministry, fostering that earlier than ever before,” said the Rev. Mandy Young, who wrote the grant for the Quest retreat. “We need young people in leadership and in churches.”
Young said Quest can help steer teens more directly into ministry rather than make them wait until they’re done with college and able to enter seminary. Before, Young said, if a 16-year-old stepped up and said she was eager to be in ministry, the best leaders could do was say “great, in five years we’d love to hear from you.”
“For someone who’s on fire and ready to serve and excited and wanting to do ministry, that’s very passive,” Young said, noting that passivity could make them lose interest in seminary. “This retreat is helping people get plugged in and explore that with you so you’re not just on your own.”
Gray said there is already a retreat for college students and young adults to discern their call: Exploration, a national event held every other November. That event is hugely successful, Gray said, with extremely high rates of attendees going into ordained ministry.
Gray, Young, Horne and the rest of the Young Clergy Initiative team think Quest will do something similar for teens.
Beyond Quest, the Young Clergy Initiative is working to help GBHEM launch a national worship series on cultivating a culture of call in church, including worship outlines, Sunday school programs and a retreat model, all free and soon to be available on the GBHEM website (www.gbhem.org).
Horne said these two initiatives are a huge step in the right direction.
Next step: mentoring
Mentoring young people who seem to have a potential for ministry is also a key part of cultivating the call.
“Part of our mission of ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world’ is bringing forth those who will make disciples after you,” Anderson said.
But he thinks a lot of churches have lost their passion for raising up new pastors.
“It used to be a source of pride for a church to be a ‘birthplace’ for pastors, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” Anderson said. “I don’t know if that’s the church or the pastor, but it’s not there.”
The Rev. Connie Barnes, campus minister of the Orangeburg Wesley Foundation, thinks mentoring and its sister, servant modeling, are key.
“It’s critical for adults to model good servanthood, good servant leadership,” Barnes said. “We do a lot more complaining in the church about what cannot be done, but (one thing we can do is) bring young people alongside you as you are serving. Train them how to be good servants, good leaders.”
Barnes also feels strongly that churches should have mandatory confirmation classes and also invest in opportunities for their young people outside church doors where they can engage with other young Christians. The bottom line is to be intentional with relationships, she said.
“One of the reasons I felt God was calling me to campus ministry is the local church does not take as much stock in preparing young people,” Barnes said. “The church is so inundated with maintenance, ‘Let’s do what we’ve always done,’ that they’re not taking the initiative to invest in younger people. As much as we say we want younger people in the church, our actions do not reflect that.”
The Rev. Roy Mitchell, director of church relations at Columbia College, agreed that churches should be more obvious about showing youth their available paths. And ironically, it’s the largest churches that often miss the boat.
“Small churches do a better job of mentoring their young people into ministry than large churches,” Mitchell said. “More clergy come out of a small church where there’s been intergenerational stuff. When you have youth out of worship and a separate youth ministry, then the numbers decline.”
The message is key
But many church leaders also say the UMC needs to go beyond direct cultivation of interested youth and cast a wider net, starting with being far bolder in communicating the UMC message.
As Anderson said, “Our message is different from that of bigger nondenominational churches; we’re about grace, and we’ve got to look at how to get that message out.”
If we can do so, leaders said, it will naturally draw people into the pews—and more easily foster a culture of call.
But Mitchell said some churches might need to make a change in how they do youth ministry so children and teens are able to even hear that message.
Often in medium and larger churches, Mitchell said, whether it’s for space reasons or because churches feel students need to have a more specialized kid-focused service, they send children out of the sanctuary—and youth miss the whole point of church entirely.
“The sanctuary is for everybody,” Mitchell said. “Don’t send out the kids and youth and separate them from what is going on! They need to be a part of the community—the whole community, and not just separate factions.”
Increased financial support
Leaders say ramped up support is also important when it comes to cultivating a culture of call.
Mitchell said it’s crucial for the church to realize that most South Carolina young clergy started their path after coming through a UMC college or Wesley Foundation.
“If you look at young folks who have gone into ministry, most all of them have come out of Methodist colleges or Wesley Foundations. I think sometimes the church forgets it needs the college and the college forgets it needs the church, but we both need one another,” Mitchell said. For the sake of cultivating young clergy particularly, he added, “We need to support Methodist colleges and Wesley Foundations.”
Anderson agreed, noting that becoming a pastor is expensive, and there is a lot of economic pressure, not to mention the amount of time it takes to become an elder: four years of high school, four years of college, three years in seminary, two years of provisional membership and finally ordination.
In addition to mentoring and emotional support, “The church could do more to help these young pastors financially,” Anderson said, whether through scholarships, grants or other assistance.
Local pastors stepping up
The South Carolina Conference is also making strides in alternate paths to the pulpit: local and associate pastors.
Across the nation, the Lewis Center study said churches are increasingly dependent on local pastors, who are historically second-career and older as they enter the process for ministry. The number of local pastors has grown by nearly 3,600 across the nation since 1985, and where in 1990 there were more than five elders for each local pastor, today there are two elders for each local pastor. South Carolina numbers reflect the same: there are now 211 local pastors.
Things are changing, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Gray said. While some of the aging and retiring elders will be replaced by younger counterparts, they might be replaced just as easily by a local pastor.
“The thing people aren’t aware of is, if you come to Annual Conference every year, our ordinations are pretty big. They don’t look like they’re dwindling, and they’re not—we’re just getting a lot of second-career folks,” Gray said. “And that’s not a problem. Second-career people bring a lot of other gifts, too. I think we’ll find fewer and fewer people who have 30 or even 20 years of experience in the ministry.”
The Rev. John Cribb, chair of the conference Fellowship of Local Pastors and Associates, said he, too, sees the climate changing.
“South Carolina is a rural state. If you don’t believe it, just check around—we have a lot of smaller churches, and they are beginning to rely on part-time people coming in, a lot of part-time local pastors and supply pastors,” Cribb said.
He said many churches have an increasingly difficult time paying salary and benefits for elders, and rely more and more on non-traditional leadership. As ordained elders continue to age their way into retirement, Cribb said he thinks local pastors will continue to fill the hole, both for practical and financial reasons.
“It’s all about finding the right people,” Cribb said; sometimes, that’s a local pastor, sometimes, that’s a retiree, sometimes that’s an associate or a traditional ordained elder. “We need people who are good preachers, who know how to do the administrative work, and we’ve got to get out there and find some younger people. … This is a hard job—it’s hard at a small church, it’s hard at a big church—but it’s a wonderful profession and God will take care of you. I believe there is a wide-open opportunity for young people to come into the ministry and even go the local pastor track if they want to.”
Indeed, no matter what type of call to ministry a person is receiving—elder, local pastor, associate, deacon, lay servant ministries, etc.—leaders want young people to know that options are there.
And meanwhile, as 37 pastors prepare to retire at this year’s Annual Conference, leadership continues to work on new ways to address the graying of the church—not only how to replace them in the pulpit but how to care for retirees now and in the future.
To read the “Lewis Center 2014 Report on Clergy Age Trends in The United Methodist Church” in full, visit www.churchleadership.com/pdfs/ClergyAgeTrends14.pdf.