The preferential option for the young

I’m a United Methodist elder under 40. I refuse to believe the numeric part of the previous sentence matters.

As a recent piece by the United Methodist News Service exemplifies once more, the UMC and its pollsters seem obsessed with having young elders. (Why not young deacons? I have no idea.) Few reasons are ever given. It is simply taken as a given that more 20-something elders is a clear gain for the church.

As best as I’ve been able to put together, the institutional logic behind these trends is something like this: it takes time to develop the necessary leadership skills to lead larger churches (think here of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule), and besides which, in a situation of dwindling resources, it makes sense to invest the most in those who will be in the system the longest. Add to this an assumption (unfounded but still widely held) that younger clergy can better reach young people and young families, and you have a recipe for a preferential option for the young. 

Full disclosure: I have benefitted from this bias in our system. I’ve likely gotten preferential treatment in appointments and other considerations. There were trips and other experiences I enjoyed, and I garnered attention from bishops and other leaders I never would have had I been older.

In other words, everything I say here is a bit hypocritical (though I have been critical of this trend for my entire ministry).

Many older clergy, and especially second-career pastors, understandably feel insulted every time another of these anxious reports about the dwindling young clergy pool comes out. I went to a top-shelf seminary, and yet folks who have a decade or two on me can go to the same institution and be almost certain that they will be given sub-par appointments despite the same education, simply because of their age.

There are at least two significant problems with this institutional practice.

First, it assumes second career clergy don’t have prior (unpaid or part-time) ministry or other experience that is valuable to their service as an elder.  Many of those with whom I was ordained had profound skills gained from careers in the corporate world, law enforcement, and education (to name only a few). As a twenty-something “elder,” I had little to commend me when I was ordained except a decent ability to retain quotes from obscure theologians. It is short-sighted to assume that the 25-year-old lifelong student and the 47-year-old former department store manager cannot equally contribute to the church. To invest in one and deny opportunities to the other is nothing short of a theology of scarcity at work.

Or to serve in ordained ministry?

Second, this age anxiety is an ecclesial manifestation of market logic. The under-35 demographic is one coveted by advertisers. Why? Because younger people, especially younger men, disproportionately spend money on frivolous items like $400 coolers, giant TVs, and luxury cars. Many of our churches have bought into this logic, though with a twist. The young are “the future of the church,” they say. We uncritically associate youth with life, with vitality. But this is too simple. Youth graduate and go off to college. Younger adults and young families often have little in the way of resources and time to contribute to a community simply due to their life stage. A great deal of ministry happens in our churches because of older folks who have leadership experience, some ministry passions, and resources to contribute to the Kingdom. Of course, in an ideal world every church would be multi-generational and teach people of all ages to identify and share their gifts. But we too easily buy into the notion that churches with few “young” people have nothing to offer, and this filters into our views of younger versus seasoned clergy. If one can be a faithful disciple at any age, than surely one can be an effective pastoral leader regardless of the candles on their birthday cake.

Following Catholic social teaching, many theologians and preachers today often refer to a “preferential option for the poor.” In brief, this means that, from cover to cover, the Bible uplifts the outcast, the alien, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the vulnerable. This is certainly true in the ministry of Jesus.

But the UMC’s preferential option for the young, especially in terms of clergy recruitment and deployment, is a false gospel. It is an institutional bias that has come from drinking deeply of market logic, along with a heavy chaser of scarcity theology. At the risk of bringing some theology into a conversation dominated by consultants, Scripture would remind us that the Spirit blows where the Spirit will, giving ministry gifts to young and old, single and married, rich and poor. To relegate older clergy to second-class status, therefore, reveals a pathetically shriveled pneumatology.

At a time when Methodist institutions are increasingly choosing non-Christians to serve their students, and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism runs amok in the Mainline, it would be a much wiser to more carefully consider the content being proclaimed in our pulpits, and spend less energy fretting over the age of the proclaimers. Our churches would be in much better shape if our institutional leaders were more attentive to what was happening in seminaries, and focused less on age of those called.

The number of young elders in the UMC is unimportant.

The number of well-formed, gifted, principled, theologically sound and pastorally sensitive, sold-out-for-Jesus elders – of any age – is critically important.

8 comments

  1. Much of the same could have been saed about elders vs local pastors. Many LPs has served as youth leaders, scout leaders, bible group leaders, and quit a numbers has been appreciated lay priechers for years – and some have long time experience of leadership from there occupatience.

  2. I agree with your assessment as to the “why” of the conclusion put forth by institutionlists. Disclosure, I started pastoring at 20, ordained at 23, served until retirement and remain active in ministry in Venezuela. I think the bias is what is n error and you correctly diagnose it. A better approach for our denomination (whatever is left of it) is to equally value gifts and graces for ministry regardless of age. As a related issue, the institutional bias against local pastors is also a sign of death instead of vitality. They are the heroes of the faith in my opinion. A recent ranking of the size of seminaries revealed none of ours in the top tier. Yet institutionalists continue to give great value to their necessity for the denomination. This is even though they continue to shrink in enrollment, effectiveness and importance. As the US church continues to shrink and move rapidly total annihilation we continue to repeat the things that got us here. At the root of the problem is not age or ordination, but rotten theology.

  3. We are in a time of tectonic change, a “gutenberg moment” when major technological invention has (and will) changed everything. But we are still living in the post-WWII “dream church” of bustling suburbs and expanding families.
    To your analysis of the “preference for the young” you can add churches built with children’s wings but no adult education spaces, youth rooms but no adult small group facilities, “fireside rooms” for UMW teas, but no men’s gathering places.
    The phrase: “youth is the future of our church” ignores the contribution of youth today as well as relegating seniors to an immobile seat in an increasingly empty pew. (full disclosure: began UMC ministry at 26, served 46 years, am a champion for Local Pastors.)

  4. The emphasis on the young is nothing new. Look at all the stately churches built in the early 20th century or before. If there are less than a dozen steps, it is an oddity. There is ever a need to focus on the youth, but rotten theology has fueled the UMC far too long. Undermining of the very scriptures and doctrines upon which our faith is based. Assinine! The focus should be on the essentials of faith, and not means of repackaging an empty package. If Christ be not raised, there is no hope. If we do not preach Christ crucified and raised we have no message; no credibility. If we have no faith in the salvific and transforming grace in Christ, we have nothing to offer the mass of sinners in this world.

  5. If this is substantially accurate, and (parenthetically, I am a graduate of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio,) the UMC is lost in the need to follow the world so called for distinction. One of the lines I most remember from seminary is that Dr. King’s Beloved Community, the Church is God Centered and People Oriented. It is not market logic centered and whim oriented. As all living organisms die, it does not occur to me the UMC is on its death bed but this proposition if accurate and systemic will not only require and accurate diagnosis but proper treatment. If it is not to happen soon, hospice may be necessary. When the survival of institutions becomes more important than the people served, the people of good character and God loyalty will act to set things in right order. This article, if accurate, suggests America and the UMC require sincere mega doses of Holy Ghost Prayer and a Spirit of Revival. The alternative is to be qualitatively indistinguishable from the world.

  6. Much of the hierarchy puts too much emphasis on education and ignores life experiences. It costs them a lot of credibility with congregations who aren’t impressed with degrees. They want someone the can relate to who can give them life advice from a biblical prospective. Reminds me of the new MBA graduate who refused to work for me when I admitted to not having a college education. Saw him again about a year later. He was the assistant manager of the Burger King that I was about to buy for 800k.

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