It was a little over a year ago that my good friend Martin Copenhaver, a United Church of Christ pastor in Massachusetts, shared with me the remarkably low number of ordained clergy in his denomination under the age of 35: 207 out of a total number of 5,141 ordained clergy. That conversation sparked an inquiry at the Louisville Institute into the facts and figures pertaining to young clergy across the mainline. The results of that initial inquiry, which was shaped in collaboration with Jim Wind and his staff at the Alban Institute, are reported in this publication.
At a minimum, this issue of CONGREGATIONS is intended to lay the groundwork for a much broader and longer-term inquiry into the question of why so few young clergy exist in the mainline and what can be done to address this situation. When confronted with this reality, the institutions of the church (seminaries and denominational offices) are tempted to point in the direction of congregations (“If only they would send us younger candidates!”); the congregations point in the direction of the institutions (“If only they would send us competent pastors!”); and everyone points to the culture as a primary cause for the loss of the younger generation from the ranks of the ordained. I think those of us in congregations (lay and clergy), in theological education, and in denominational offices would do well to assume that the declining numbers of young clergy present us all with an opportunity for response.
If we await recovery of the status of pastoral ministry as a profession within our culture, we are probably in for a very long wait indeed. Recently, a young clergyperson who graduated from a well-regarded liberal arts college was told by his classmates when he mentioned he was going to become a pastor, “That’s social suicide!” The good news is that there is ample evidence to suggest that the young are more than capable of making choices that are determined by rationalities other than those provided by the dominant culture. However, young people will not discern an alternative calling out of the morally thin air of our culture—it requires the thick context of vital ecclesial reality to shape a vocational imagination sufficient to the pastoral life.
Asking the Real Question
All of us have our explanations as to why the young are not joining the ranks of ordained ministry in significant numbers. The real question—and the one that remains largely unanswered at the institutional, congregational, and pastoral levels—is this: “Do we have clear and sufficient reasons as to why they should?” I once heard it said of those in their early twenties that they are not searching for meaning per se, but for participation in a struggle that is meaningful. We are convinced that pastoral ministry is a struggle—what remains undecided by too many of us is, “Is it a meaningful struggle?” As a case in point, in response to an earlier draft of this article, I received the following note from a good friend who is also a pastor—a good pastor, well loved by his congregation. He writes:
The reason that young people do not want to be pastors is that they see all too clearly the limitations of the pastoral life, not its opportunities. Its opportunities may in fact exist for some people who have the personality and desire for it . . . those who are truly called. But why in the world would a talented young person commit to a life of low salary, low prestige, long hours, no weekends, and little room for advancement?
The call to this vocation does not sound forth in a vacuum—it requires the vocal chords of congregational life and culture. Such a calling is mediated through a matrix of ecclesial relationships and experiences—it requires the apprenticeship of faithful lives in the context of faithful communities. This is a calling discerned face to face, life to life. I have often wondered if the significant increase of second- and third-career men and women into ordained ministry (at the same time the ministry as a first career choice is declining) may represent, in part, the failure of the church to provide the context within which such a first call could be discerned. Was the question of pastoral ministry as a first and lifelong vocation being posed to these men and women who are now, later in life, answering that question affirmatively?
Call Them Forth
It is my personal conviction that the dearth of younger clergy sounds a wake-up call to the already called. Pastors have a crucial role to play in stimulating the vocational imagination of the youth in their congregations. A look at the numbers in Hillary Wicai’s article on page 6 will reveal that if even 10 percent of current clergy committed themselves to apprenticing one young person into the ministry, the tide would begin to turn. However, as indicated by my friend’s comments above, I fear that too few clergy experience the pastoral life as a good and rewarding life. It is not uncommon to hear pastors and denominational officials express serious reservations, if not out-right resistance, to the idea of ordained ministry being the vocation of choice for one of their own children. This reality warrants renewed and sustained attention by congregations and judicatories. The question of clergy morale is directly relevant to the question of calling forth a new generation of leaders for the church.
Without for a moment taking away from the benefit the church has received from the influx of older men and women into the ranks of pastoral ministry, we must agree that a profession that fails to capture the imagination of a younger generation is in great danger of losing its capacity to inspire a new generation, period. We live in a time when all cultural institutions engaged in the task of interpretation must possess an expanding capacity for adaptation to rapidly changing cultural forms, meanings, and symbols. The kind of cultural change we are undergoing is by and large mediated by the youngest generations. While this reality does not in and of itself authorize young voices, it ought to cause us to recognize how ill equipped we will be to reach a new generation if we are unable to inspire the young to identify the pastoral ministry as their first and lifelong calling.
Time to Act
One of the discoveries we made in this course of gathering the facts and figures for this issue of CONGREGATIONS was that every denominational official we spoke with was convinced that the low number of young clergy was a critical concern. At the same time, however, these officials could not share with us a developed programmatic agenda designed to address this critical concern. Surely such a programmatic emphasis would not be a hard sell to any denomination’s constituency. A good place to start is to attend, closely and carefully, to those young adults who, against the prevailing winds of the culture, have responded to the call to ordained ministry.
Denominations need to attend to these young clergy in a way that demonstrates a real commitment to generating the conditions in which their vocational commitments will be taken seriously. So many of the youngest pastors I talk with observe their peers in other professional contexts receiving appropriate recognition and validation for their new ideas and innovative contributions while they themselves feel a strong sense of marginalization—not only in relation to the culture at large but in relation to their own congregational and institutional cultures as well. For example, providing the funds for young pastors to gather together on a regular basis for disciplined conversation and collaboration with one another about the practice of pastoral leadership might be a good place to start. Networking is a highly prized activity of this generation. This is not something denominations need to do for young clergy. It is something that den
ominations could provide the means for young pastor to do for themselves.
It is my hope that this issue of CONGREGATIONS will contribute to a dynamic and hopeful engagement—at all levels of the church—with the young in relation to the vocation of ordained ministry. They are not the future of the Church—they are the present by which its future will be shaped.