Caveat Lector: This is pretty insider-church stuff. If you’re a part of the 2/3 of Americans who do not regularly participate in the life of a congregation then you’re not likely to be interested in the following. We’ve already failed to interest you.
I remember going to my first Annual Conference, the yearly gathering of all United Methodist clergy in Virginia. Not having grown up in the church and being a far cry from a church nerd and just generally being a non-conformist, I’d never attended a denominational gathering before.
I’d just graduated from Princeton Seminary.
I sat up in the cheap seats of the Roanoke Coliseum and gazed the thousands of clergy and lay delegates on the floor below me.
And I was shocked by what I saw:
A sea of white hair.
I said I was shocked, and I was, truly so. Sitting up there in the nosebleeds, having spent 3 years and thousands of dollars in seminary, I realized that this was a harbinger of things to come.
The Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is entertaining a measure that would strongly encourage individuals over 45 not to seek ordained ministry.
The Texas Annual Conference is one of the denomination’s largest, and- it should be said- it’s one of the few conferences with churches still demonstrating the ability to make new Christians.
The reasons for not admitting 45 and overs into the ordination process?
It pivots, as all things do, on an investment and return strategy (some clergy will take issue with such a bald, capitalist analogy but, whatever, not all wisdom belongs to the Church).
The larger Church invests a large amount of funds into ordinands and eventual clergy. This investment comes in the form of financial support for seminary education and, later, pension and health benefits- and even with such investment most graduating seminarians are sinfully saddled with a student loan debt their paltry pastor’s salary will not be able to remit. Such investment is premised on the return the Church will receive from the clergy’s service, growing churches and making new disciples.
The UMC’s ordination process is long and laborious, excessively so but that’s another post.
I was admitted into the ordination process in 2003 the year I graduated from seminary.
Without a hitch, I successfully jumped through all the hoops (you’re not supposed to refer to them as ‘hoops’ but that’s what they are) and I still wasn’t ordained an Elder (full clergyman) until 2006 or 2007- crap, I can’t remember now. So someone entering the ordination process at 45 might not be ordained until they’re nearing their golden anniversary, giving them, on average, a quarter’s worth of time to return to the larger Church.
In addition, if it’s conceivable, given our bureaucratic blight, for ‘institutional knowledge’ to be a good thing then it should be noted that older ordinands will have less time to acquire it.
When it comes to older ordinands, in all but exceptional cases, the juice- as the pimp says in the Girl Next Door– isn’t worth the squeeze.
As I said, the measure is premised on an investment and return strategy. The measure reflects a strategic decision to name reality (always a leader’s first calling) and posture the Church to best survive the immediate incoming trends and position it to meet the missional need of the future.
In case you haven’t been to church since JFK was alive, the UMC is old.
In fact, most of our constituents are older than our denomination, which only dates to 1964.
The death rate among UMC members was 35% higher in 2009 than it was in the 1968.
Meaning: the percentage of older members (65 and older) has steadily been on the rise. What’s more, 53% of all UMC clergy are 55 or older.
The UMC has been serving a constituency older than the general population since before I was born (1977).
Think about that stat for a while: we’ve been serving congregants who are older than their peers in the general population LONGER THAN I’VE BEEN ALIVE.
According to Lovett Weems, a leading denominational consultant, the next 3 decades will see a ‘Death Tsunami’ visited upon the UMC, with 50% more deaths in 2050 than in 2010.
Any systems analyst will tell you, an organization gets the results- good or bad- that it’s designed to get.
In other words, it’s not that we’re bad at reaching younger people and turning them into Christians; it’s that we’re REALLY GOOD at taking care of ourselves.
Whether by intention or institutional inertia, for half a century the UMC has been at servicing the needs of its older members.
Even with all my congregation’s children’s and youth ministries the great bulk of my time is spent by ministering to a demographic who won’t be here in 20 years. It’s not that that’s not a valuable ministry; it’s just that provision for the future needs to be taken too.
The Texas Conference’s measure reflects how the UMC in a bad way needs to reach out to younger and more diverse people.
And just as you wouldn’t send a missionary into a country where they didn’t speak the language, the best way for the larger Church to reach younger and more diverse people is by investing in younger and more diverse clergy candidates.
Charles Handy said: “It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and ways which got you there are seldom those things that will keep you there” and that’s exactly the crossroads the UMC stand upon today.
Except, the UMC hasn’t really been successful since before Let It Bleed came out, which is why, as I like to point out to congregants from time to time, ‘doing it like we’ve always done it’ is a stupid strategy.
It’s not about discriminating against older clergy candidates. The measure doesn’t say it won’t admit any candidates over 45 into the process. It is instead a matter of discerning where and in whom to invest the Church’s increasingly limited resources for the benefit of the larger Church. Of course, there are exceptional exceptions.
Many have reacted against the measure, pointing out that God calls whom God chooses to call regardless of policy. After all, goes the ad naseum biblical citation, God called elderly old Abram and Sarai. To my mind, this isn’t a very compelling argument for two reasons:
God’s call is never a solitary endeavor. The call must always be affirmed by representatives of the larger Church. Not every one who thinks they’re called actually is. The Church with a big C already vets and discerns people’s calls.
God didn’t call Abram and Sarai to serve him in the form of the professional guild that is ordained ministry.
#2 for me is where it’s at. As experts like Phyllis Tickle point out the time is quickly coming when bivocational ministry (not full-time) will be a necessity for churches and denominations.
The changing missional context of our culture requires that we rediscover that God’s call doesn’t need to equal ordained ministry.
In fact, what the Texas measure doesn’t even begin to address is the fact the greater need in the UMC is a rediscovery of the ‘priesthood of all believers.’
There are many ways- equally valid, authoritative and effective ways- for people to respond to God’s call that doesn’t require the larger Church’s investment of finite funds.
Now, I’m sure I’ll be accused of discriminating against older people, but I recently turned 35 so I no longer even count in the ‘younger clergy’ category.
Not to mention, I work alongside Dennis Wayne Perry.
I can tell you firsthand, Dennis Perry doesn’t let his worn-out body, rapidly fading mind, and prehistoric job skills stop him from showing up to work at least a couple of hours a week to take credit for my work.
So I don’t think it’s about the abundant gifts older clergy can offer, it’s about the limited gifts the larger Church can afford to give.