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.
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.