Ann Michel of the Lewis Center staff shares the results of an informal survey among younger adults who have sensed a call to ministry in the United Methodist Church but have opted against ordination. While concerns about current denominational struggles are top of mind, a myriad of other factors are also at play. The good news is most could be addressed if we have the will and the wherewithal.
Last year, the Lewis Center’s annual report Clergy Age Trends in the United Methodist Church revealed that the number of elders under the age of 35 had returned to near historic lows. (See Young Elder Numbers Return to Near Historic Lows in UMC.) Previous Lewis Center research has identified a myriad of systemic factors that have contributed to the declining presence of younger clergy over the past several decades. But the major decline since 2018, which followed a decade of relatively modest but sustained growth, is widely attributed to the current struggles over homosexuality in the UMC and uncertainty about the future of the denomination.
What those who are ‘young but not clergy’ told us.
Late last year, the Lewis Center conducted an informal survey among younger adults (age 40 or under) who self-identified as having sensed a call to ministry, but opted against pursuing ordination in the UMC or dropped out of the ordination process. While not a scientific study, the input of the 239 respondents offers some valuable clues.
Survey participants were asked to indicate the degree to which different factors influenced their decision not to pursue ordination. The various factors can be ranked as follows:
- The church’s stance on homosexuality
- Uncertainty about the future of the denomination
- Nature of the ordination process
- Length of the ordination process
- Nature of the appointment process for UM elders
- Concerns about the future vitality of congregations and the denomination
- Cost of a seminary education
- Concerns about how younger clergy are regarded by older clergy colleagues
- Family or personal considerations
- Concerns about how younger clergy are regarded within congregations
- Less interested in serving a congregation than in other types of ministry
- Amount of time required to obtain a seminary degree
- Concerns about the adequacy of clergy compensation
- Uncertainty about whether there will be a church pension when one retires
A myriad of factors are still at play.
Not surprisingly, current denomination struggles emerged as the most significant factors. But clearly a myriad of other factors related to the “crisis of younger clergy” are still at play, particularly issues related to the ordination and appointment processes and the perception that younger clergy are not well-regarded within local congregations or among their clergy colleagues. These underlying concerns cannot be ignored simply because the ongoing denominational debates are currently top of mind.
Any good news?
These survey results seem to indicate that the problem is less related to a lack interest in congregational ministry or compensation concerns. In fact, the number of respondents who were still serving the church in some capacity was notable. Additionally, the length of seminary education did not rank high among concerns, although the cost was more of an issue. This is perhaps a modicum of good news — that neither the calling of ministry itself nor the challenge of seminary education is primarily to blame.
A call to action
Could it also be good news that most of the more significant factors reported to be keeping these individuals from ordained ministry could be addressed in meaningful ways? The denomination has the ability to remedy not only the major concerns, but also issues related to the ordination and appointment processes, educational costs, and the treatment of younger clergy — if it has the will and wherewithal to do so.
At the broadest level, the declining presence of youth and young adults in the church will continue to be a major factor shaping the church’s ability to increase the numbers of younger people entering ordained ministry. But this informal survey suggests there are issues the church can and must address if it is truly interested in encouraging those younger adults who are inclined toward ministry to serve as elders.
- Clergy Age Trends in the United Methodist Church 1985‒2020
- Young Elder Numbers Return to Near Historic Low in UMC by Lovett H. Weems Jr.
- Addressing the Root Causes of the Crisis of Younger Clergy by Ann A. Michel
- A Call to Overinvest in the Young by Janice Huie