Episode 68: “Finding Solutions to the Young Clergy Crisis” featuring Bishop Janice Huie

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 68: “Finding Solutions to the Young Clergy Crisis” featuring Bishop Janice Huie

What strategies support and encourage young people entering ministry? In this episode Bishop Janice Huie shares the importance of listening deeply to young people, embracing a holistic approach, and sustaining our commitment to younger clergy in face of new challenges.

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Leading Ideas Talks is also brought to you by The Crisis of Younger Clergy. This book explores the reasons why having a proportionate number of young persons entering ordained ministry is so vital to the future of the church. It also exposes the many challenges younger clergy face while lifting up the unique gifts they have to offer. Learn more at churchleadership.com/books.

What strategies support and encourage young people entering ministry? In this episode Bishop Janice Huie shares the importance of listening deeply to young people, embracing a holistic approach, and sustaining our commitment to younger clergy in face of new challenges.

Ann Michel: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks. I’m Ann Michel the associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and your host for this episode. I’m honored today to be talking with Janice Huie, a bishop of the United Methodist Church, who served as episcopal leader first of the Arkansas conference and then of the Texas Annual Conference. And since retiring from that role she has worked with the Texas Methodist foundation on issues of leadership development. So welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, Bishop.

Bishop Huie. Thank you. Good to be here.

Ann Michel. I am particularly interested in talking with you today because the question of the presence of young clergy in the church has really bubbled to the surface again, really just in the last several weeks since we issued our annual Clergy Age Trends Report this year. And it showed that the number of young elders in the United Methodist Church had decreased rather precipitously in the past four years to near record lows. And I know that during your time leading the Texas Annual Conference your conference really led the pack in terms of implementing strategies that were successful in reversing the decline in young clergy. And I want to get to that in just a minute. But before we get into those specifics, I wondered if to begin you would mind sharing your perspective on why it’s important for us to focus on the presence of younger clergy in the church?

Bishop Huie. Well, thank you. From my perspective there really is very little more important than bringing next generation children, youth, and adults into the body of Christ, into the presence of God, the love of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit. So, for me it’s a very deep understanding of who we are as people of faith. And that begins with our children, our youth, and young adults as we move forward. One of the things we know for sure is that with our pastors, we are as pastors most able to relate — at least the majority of our pastors — to folks who are about 10 years older than we are and about 10 years younger than we are. In terms of maximum reach, that’s about 20 years. When we have the vast majority of our clergy who are 50 and older, what happens is that it becomes increasingly more challenging to reach a new generation.

And that’s part of what happened 15 years ago when we began this process. What we saw and I saw as a bishop is that the majority of our pastors were older. And furthermore, older pastors will retire. So, it didn’t take a lot to look at the ages of our pastors (thank you, Lewis Center!) and then to look at our churches and to see that over the next 10-15 years there was going to be a tremendous pastoral transition and we would badly need a new generation of pastors to come in and provide that leadership. As well as, those pastors, especially millennials, coming forward, they’ve got an ability to hear, to listen, to understand a generation that is shaped by different realities than say my generation was, or even someone as young as early 50s. The new generations now are part of a virtual age. That’s just one example of ways that there’s a different reality there. So, I believe that it was my job as a bishop, for both deep theological reasons as well as for practical reasons about who will serve our congregations, to really focus on next generation clergy, or “emerging leaders” as we called them in the Texas Annual Conference.

Ann Michel: Well, thank you for articulating that so clearly. I’ve been surprised over the years by some of the pushback, frankly, that we get. You know, “Well, why does age matter?” And you know “Aren’t older clergy important, too?” And of course, they’re important too. But when we’re missing an entire generation, or when we’re allowing an entire generation of people to ignore God’s call, it’s a sign that something isn’t right. And so I appreciate you articulating that so clearly. So, going back to some of the strategies that you put in place in the Texas Annual Conference, would you mind outlining the approach that you used to help increase the number of younger elders in your conference?

Bishop Huie: I’d be glad to. One of the first questions we asked ourselves is again the theological question. Do we really believe that God is still calling young men and young women into ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church? Now that sounds like a simple question. And it is. I mean of course I believe that. If that’s the case, then why don’t we see them at our altars in an ordination service? And so one of the first questions we had to ask ourselves is what are the points of resistance? I mean what’s happening here that we’re not able to help them respond to God’s call? And then the positive question. So first the negative question. What are the obstacles that are in their place that need to be dealt with? And then secondly, what can we do to encourage, support, and sustain them in their journey of responding positively to God’s call to ministry? Both ordained and in the role of a deacon, which is also ordained but for a different purpose.

So those were questions we begin to ask ourselves. And they informed the conversations that we had particularly with younger people, and then talking to pastors who whose churches birthed young clergy. Because some do and some don’t. So, in the churches where we do see young clergy or young adults emerging and wanting to go to seminary. So, in seeing that and in listening, we talk to them, we talk to those pastors to see the correlations. I mean strong, healthy churches are really the greatest pool in this day and age for birthing young clergy. So, there were multiple conversations, many, many conversations that help us develop these strategies. And I will do them not in the order in which we implemented them, but rather in the order of lifespan. Again, let’s think about this as a natural organic process that somehow has gotten interrupted by some things, some realities we don’t know clearly or even understand. But where does it start?

So, there is no doubt that as we listen to their stories that some young adults first feel a call to ministry when they’re in high school. So, we started and developed a program for high school students to allow them, invite them into a deeper study of Scripture, of calling. It really was a leadership development program for some of our strongest high school-aged young people. We looked at people who had gone on mission trips, who had gone to summer camp. These are young people deeply steeped in the faith. They tended to be leaders. And we wanted to give them an opportunity to go much more deeply into theology, art, and mission. And so, we developed a high school piece.

Then one of the things we discovered in moving on to college is that in many, many places in the United States there are college intern programs for everything from technology, to law, to medicine, to science. But not in the United Methodist Church. So, we developed a college pastoral intern program. That’s what we called it. And so, for 10 weeks each summer someone — and these persons would be nominated by their pastor, by their youth director, and sometimes they just figured it out by looking at our website — young people who weren’t sure whether they might be called to ministry. They may be felt a nudging, but they didn’t want to invest three years in seminary when they didn’t really know what pastoral ministry was like. So, we had developed the college pastoral intern program to give them the opportunity for 10 weeks with strong senior pastors to just experience shadowing a pastor. They got to be there for pastoral care, for preaching, for small groups, go to the Finance Committee. I mean it was the best and the worst. And out of all of those, probably we had between 30 and 50 percent of those young people who participated in the college pastoral intern program over time moved in to some kind of ministry. Even the ones who didn’t go into ordained ministry became active laity in other ways.

Ann Michel. How fabulous that is! That’s great.

Bishop Huie. Then the third level is folks who are actually in seminary. Two things there we did. One is we started visiting seminaries. So, we put together a list. And we made sure that our young pastors that we already had, we sent those plus an experienced pastor out to do seminary visits so that the relationship building at that level could begin. The call to ministry is about relationship, relationship, relationship. That’s both with God and some human beings who take an interest and say you know “how are you doing?” I mean friendships are built. So, we began to do a good bit of that in the visitation with seminaries. We also learned while we were doing that— and this is well known — that to finish seminary, our young pastors, virtually all of them were coming out with these big, I would use the word “crushing,” seminary debts. So, if we think about what are the obstacles that would prevent a called person from becoming a pastor, these seminary debts were a big chunk of that. And those same persons almost always had a college debt, as well.

So, we developed a program over five years to help them repay their seminary debt. And so, as they came into the Texas Conference and served a church, then over five years we helped them repay their debt. In some cases, we couldn’t help them repay all their debt. But we could help them make a big dent, if not pay all of their debt. So then they came into the conference. So you see, if you think about this is a big ecological system, you see we’re picking people up there. This is dynamic. It’s changing. People talk to people. There’s a lot of networking going on. So then they come in and they hopefully are commissioned. And then following the commissioning and they begin the process toward ordination. And then what we sometimes called our “crown jewel.” These young people want to learn. They want to be leaders. And that was particularly true of this millennial group that were in that generation.

And so, we developed, thanks to the Lilly Endowment, Inc., (Thank you, Lilly) The college advancing pastoral leadership ministry, a five-year process of leadership formation. And we contracted with Rev. Janice Virtue to lead that and to help these young pastors mature quickly. And we pair that, as they generally started out as associates, so they could see what strong leadership looks like and participate in that. And then move quickly into pastor in their own church. And in the meantime, they’re part of a leadership formation group where when the mistakes get made, they can learn from them. When courage is called for, they can step forward and do step forward. And we have got a feedback loop. We’re learning from them all the time. And of course they’re excited about ministry. They want to do more. And they are the ones that often connect with the next younger group coming in. So it becomes, you can talk about it is an ecological system or a virtuous cycle. But it feeds on itself over time. And we’ve felt much blessed by that.

Ann Michel: And it’s an ongoing program of leadership, peer leadership development that begins as they first enter commissioned ministry and continues for five years.

Bishop Huie. It begins after ordination and continues for five years. So it’s more than one appointment. So, I mean generally speaking that it would almost always be at more than one appointment because people need to grow and mature. They make mistakes. They have successes. So, you kind of figure out how you work with all of that. And then take another step forward, which is really at a time when retirements are at an all-time high, then to be able to have folks with some confidence and some training to be in those positions is a real gift to the annual conference.

Ann Michel. Yes. So, thank you for sharing that. I’m so impressed with how systematic and thorough your approach was. I’m not surprised that you got the results that you did. Could you speak also to the issue of appointment of young clergy?

Bishop Huie. Well, yes. So out of my own experience both in Arkansas and the Texas Annual Conference, you know I think it’s really critical that we use the young clergy we have to have the greatest effect on other young people in general. And so, we were very careful in the appointment of young clergy. Contrary to the way it was done when I was a young pastor, we appointed our young clergy first. So, we might do two or three large churches and then the next group we did was all our young clergy. We had all their data. And before we did anybody else we placed those young clergy. Now frequently they were in associate positions. We had them connect with the person who would be their senior pastor so that they could do what we call “coffee cup conversations.” We wanted to know if there’s a good match, if there’s a good here. Because it’s really critical that those young people and the young clergy that we want their first two, three, four, five years to be a really positive experience. And one that’s a learning experience for them. And frankly for us as well. We also want them in places where they can connect with other young people. Because they can do ministry there that somebody of my generation just can’t.

Ann Michel: Well, thank you for sharing that. Because I know that’s exactly the opposite of what happens in a lot of places, where the new, young people are at the bottom of the list in terms of the kinds of appointments that they’re going to get. And you hear from so many young clergy the frustration that they feel in being appointed to older, declining, often rural churches where they feel they really can’t exercise their gifts for reaching out to other young people. So, I think what you’ve described is so very, very important. I appreciate the way you’ve described this in the context of it being a holistic approach. I’ve heard you describe it as a “complex ecology” from which younger leaders emerge.

Something that we know from our research on “the crisis of younger clergy” many years ago is that all of these particulars related to leadership development and clergy development are in some ways secondary to some broader issues that have to do with the overall vitality of the church, and the presence of young people in congregations to begin with, and the receptivity of the culture of churches to younger leaders and new ideas. So, I wondered if you can speak to how this connects to some of the broader challenges that the church faces today in terms of just connecting with and ministering to young people in general.

Bishop Huie: We are in such a time of dynamic change and uncertainty. As part of that we’re also in a generational change, as well. So, our millennial crowd is maturing and moving on. And we’ve got this Gen Z group coming in. And while there’s a good deal of overlap between the two, there are also some distinct differences. The millennial crowd had a good deal of appreciation I think for the church as institution because many of them came out of strong churches where the role of the pastor was appreciated and participating in ordained ministry was a gift.

My sense about this Gen Z and what I read as we’ve kind of move along in this is that they’re much less interested in the institution because many of them haven’t known the institution all that well, or when they have known it, their participation hasn’t been nearly as positive as we might have hoped for. The struggles in the church over these issues around separation and LGBTQ issues, I mean that’s not been appealing to a Gen Z generation. They’re interested in changing the world. They’re interested in making a difference for good. And so, we see them in all kinds of mass movements.

Also, these kids were born with a phone in their hands. And so, the whole issue around online and virtual, they live and breathe that naturally. And we’re still very early in the institutional church in connecting with that. So, we’ve got to be thinking, as the Gen Z group steps forward, how will we reach them online? How will we actually disciple people online? That’s one of the big trends that we’ve got to think about. How will this happen? And how will we change our neighborhoods? I mean my understanding is that seminaries are seeing more and more young people who want to go deep on theology, but also they’re not interested in coming in as an elder. They would much rather be a deacon and out of a deep faith go out to change a neighborhood, build a community, change the world. These are big trends. And they are God trends. I mean this is what Jesus did. And so rather than saying our goal here is to build a building and bring all these people into our building, now it’s a transition to thinking about how do we leave the building? And do worship and discipleship formation in community.

Ann Michel: Right. So not dragging young people to where we’ve always been but following them to where they see God at work. And that’s a very compelling image, I think, of what it means to engage younger leaders. So, I have heard you speak about the importance of “overinvesting” in the young as a way of creating that ecology from which young leaders are going to emerge. So, I wanted to give you a minute to speak to that and to make the case for that.

Bishop Huie: It’s been my belief for many, many years that one of our most important missions — maybe the most important mission — is for the United Methodist Church to overinvest in the young. And by that I don’t mean to overinvest in just the young people who are in our Sunday School classes or in our youth groups. I mean in the young people, the children, the youth, the young adults that God has made, most of whom are not in our churches, in our youth groups, or in our Sunday school classes. So, it means learning how to connect with those young adults. It means in that congregations I would hope would need to be thinking about how they will invest in young people who are not in their church who are a different racial/ethnic makeup than is likely in their church. Then they need to think about this in terms of building relationships with people in the community who often are different than many of our congregations.

And so rather than all of our resources going just to care for “our kids” defined as our biological children, I’m suggesting that we need to push out into the community and not only invest in kids who actually are the ones living here, but overinvest in them so that they might know the love of Christ and be blessed by the grace of God. I mean for me, this is what my generation is called to do. It’s not about us. It’s about them.

Ann Michel: Right. And it’s another example of the church getting out of its own building, moving out into the world in the way you just described a few minutes ago. So, to draw this to a close, I know you’ve been giving thought to this issue for many years, as have I. And here it is still before us. And so, I wanted to end with this question. What’s different today about this question of needing to lift up more young clergy than when we first started paying attention to it 15 or so years ago? And in light of us being in a different day, what do we need to be doing new or differently than the things we’ve tried up to this point?

Bishop Huie: Well, as I was mentioning a little earlier, certainly we’ve got a generational change that’s happening right now. So, we need to be paying attention to that and leaning into it. So, I think that’s one of the pieces here. I think we need another round of really deep listening to see what it is that this next generation is telling us about where God is calling them. You know we can ask ourselves do we believe that God has is calling these other young adults and young people who are not in our churches? I believe God is. Now whether or not they hear it, we need to listen to them and build the relationships with them to help that happen. And I would say also, part of what is needed even more now than 15 years ago is I think the courage to make some of these shifts.

It’s really hard for a congregation that has gotten smaller and smaller, has fewer and fewer Sunday school classes, or maybe no Sunday school classes at all for children, to get excited about doing something for children in the community or paying for a youth pastor to work with kids that are kin biologically to no single person in that church. It takes real courage for a church to step out in faith to make a difference. In taking those kinds of actions and making those kinds of steps you do not win a popularity contest for making that proposal. And so, my hope in this is we look at where we are coming around again. That we listen first to this next generation. What are they telling us? And then thinking about what we know about faith and what we have to offer and then finding the courage to step in to the future that God’s calling us.

Ann Michel: Well Bishop, I want to thank you for sharing with us today. I want to thank you for your dedicated commitment to this issue over a number of years. And really appreciate you taking the time to spend some time talking with me about it and educating some people maybe who haven’t paid as much attention to this issue about what we need to be doing going forward. So thank you so much.

Bishop Huie: Well, thank you. Thank you very much.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with digital ministry expert Keith Anderson about lessons learned from the shift to online church during the pandemic. He also reflects on how these developments might reshape the future narrative of the church.

Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

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About Author

Janice Riggle Huie

Janice Riggle Huie serves in ministry with the Texas Methodist Foundation in the area of Leadership Formation, following twenty years as a bishop of the United Methodist Church. Previously, she served as bishop of the Texas Annual Conference and the Arkansas Conference and is former president of the Council of Bishops.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.