The 14 young people gathered around the table last October were bright, articulate, intense, enthusiastic, and passionate about their work. They also represented a disappearing breed—people under 35 who chose ministry in the mainline Protestant church as their first career. As Hillary Wicai’s “Clergy by the Numbers” (page 6) starkly illustrates, fewer young people are choosing the ministry with every passing decade.
Concerned about this trend, the Alban Institute and the Louisville Institute brought together young clergy from around the country for a day-long meeting in Louisville to ask them to talk about their experiences. These young people—nine men and five women—came from the Midwest, the Northeast, and the Southeast, and they represented six mainline denominations. While it was clear from the discussion that many of these young clergy were feeling embattled, it was also clear that they were meeting the challenges they face with wisdom and determination.
The first point of struggle that young clergy often face is the question of whether they are qualified to minister by virtue of their age. Verity Jones, 33, senior minister of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Terre Haute, Indiana, writes about her exchange with a search committee in “Bridging the Age Gap” on page 14. And her experience is not unique. Andrew Warner, 29, pastor at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Milwaukee, told of an older judicatory executive who informed him that people shouldn’t be allowed to be ordained until they are 28—knowing that he was 26 at the time. “I wasn’t sure where that left me,” he said jokingly. “But I think her comments were a part of how they see us. These are the stories the church tells itself to make it seem all right if it doesn’t have young people in its ministry.”
Suffocation in the Church
Once these young pastors find themselves in tradtional roles within the church structure, they often feel suffocated by it. Kathryn Bannister, 32, is senior pastor of the Rush County United Methodist Parish in rural Kansas. She says, “Our structures are defeating us in a big way, in terms of how we are getting people into leadership and administering the church. I feel the tension all the time of ‘This is how we’ve always done it, this is how we’ve always climbed the ladder, this what successful ministry is like in the church. You either conform to that or you go somewhere else.’ I preceive in our generation a real desire to change that.”
William Wagnon, 36, is an ordained Episcopal priest who is now vice president for e-commerce in a manufacturing company. When his wife, Verity Jones, was called to a Disciples of Christ church in Terre Haute, Indiana, Wagnon found that he had a difficult time getting a second call because the churches found him too liberal. “The church was always about making me fit into their identity, their mold of what I should be,” he said. “The business world was much more willing to let me be who I am and asked ‘What can you bring us?’ ‘Where can you take us?’ I’m not complaining about the path I took, but I’d like to think it was a loss to the church that I was not able to continue in parish ministry.”
Another roadblock to these young clergy feeling successful in their ministries is a perceived lack of mentors. Jud Hendrix, 32, is a co-organizing pastor for New Church Development in Louisville. He explained that the problem is finding mentors who can relate to his specific issues as a young pastor: “There are not people who I would choose as mentors who can actually give me guidance on the issues I’m trying to deal with. There are older people I really respect who are doing ministry, but when I begin talking with them about issues I struggle with related to my culture and my peers and how I can see the church changing, there suddenly is a disconnect and they say ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ or ‘I don’t experience that.’”
Kathryn Bannister related that she does have mentors, but they are clergy from other denominations. She said that there is such a sense of competition among clergy within her own denomination that the older clergy women keep the younger women at arm’s length. “It’s less threatening to have a relationship with somebody who is outside the denomination, who never feels threatened by you. And this isn’t just a gender issue; this would also be true with male colleagues.” Jennifer Thomas, 28, pastor of Lake Park Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, also recognized that the young clergy themselves need to take responsibility for their own mentoring: “I think as one another’s colleagues, when we hear someone expressing their imagination or their own vision for what they want to be doing, then we have the responsibility to ask them periodically, ‘Is this still your goal? What have you been doing to work toward it? How can I be of assistance?’”
There is another way that these young ministers are finding inspiration and mentoring—and it’s not in the church at all. Jud Hendrix, William Wagnon, and Darren Elin said that they get their exciting ideas and mentoring from people in the business world who are doing innovative things, people like venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Elin, 30, vicar of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Halifax, Massachusetts, said, “A lot of the mentoring that I found occurred in the business world. Tom Peters showed me how to be a good leader in the church.” He added, “In five years I’m going to be building a new building. Who should I talk to about venture capital? I almost have a feeling of guilt because I have to go outside the church to do it.”
The news isn’t all bad, however. Bill Lamar, a pastor in Tallahassee, Florida, said that he stayed in the church because of a mentor. “When I was having difficulty and thinking about leaving, a denominational leader called me and told me that he needed me, and I appreciated that.” He added, “Not only have they helped me along, but because there are not a lot of young people coming in, the career trach is wide open. I have a lot of opportunities.”
Often, these young clergy have also experienced a profound sense of isolation—from their peer group outside the church, from others in their denominations, and from each other. Liz Trexler, 36, minister-at-large working with New Church Development in Louisville, poignantly described a neighborhood party she attended with her husband. All of the people at the party were in her age group, but she felt completely set apart: “They seemed so cool. They had the right things on, their hair was different, and they were different. They were excited about life and they were inventing things and writing things, and I felt like ‘Where have I been?’” Verity Jones added that her peers outside the church can’t relate to her: “It’s as if I had chosen something they just don’t understand.”
The sense of isolation from peers can also be felt within the church. Chip Andrus, 33, director of alternative worship for 2nd Presbyterian Church in Louisville, said he is doubly discouraged by peers within the church who “are very comfortable with the old church and, when you try to be visionary, when you try to express new ideas, they fade off just like people who are older.”
When the discussion moved to whether the dearth of young clergy—and the experiences they had been describing—should be considered a crisis, several members of the group suggested that this was part of a larger contextual issue of the church’s place in our culture. Darren Elin noted, “The main crisis of the church is that we’re in excile . . . We just assume a context for our faith and our church that isn’t there anymore. We’re no longer the main cultural center.”
William Wagnon tackled a related problem when he said, “Part of the reason that we see ourselves in crisis may be attributable to the fact that, as much as we are uncomfortable with the old structures of the church, we have inherited the previous generations’ definition of what it means to be a successful church—growing numbers, sufficient pledges, things like that.” There is a need, he said, to imagine new definitions of success that move beyond these structures to embrace new concepts of church. Jud Hendrix added, “Our institutions need to find ways to open up to creativity and freedom. The theological concepts on which our institutional structures have been based are being questioned, but the structures have not changed as a result.”
As the day’s discussion concluded, it was evident that although their experiences have often been painful, these young clergy carry with them an energy and passion that will enable them to find new pathways toward making a difference in the church. And their location in this time of ferment and in this generation give them a common identity that may enable them—together—to strengthen their voice in the larger church. Perhaps this is, after all, a good time to be a young pastor.