The looming issue is not the number of young elders. The emerging trend is pastors retiring RIGHT NOW due to stress (GC2019, COVID, politics).

David Oliver Kueker
For me, it’s a “Yes, but …”
Quote: Interestingly, due to the overall decline in the total number of active elders in The United Methodist Church, the percentage of young elders in the pool of all active elders remains around 7%, up from the record low of 5% in 2005.

The looming issue is not the number of young elders. The emerging trend is pastors retiring RIGHT NOW due to stress (GC2019, COVID, politics). My liberal friends are serving UCC churches in retirement, and my conservative friends will also have many part-time opportunities. Grab a list of elders now serving 65 and older, and assume they are retiring this year. Then assume that those 60 and over who are left will retire in the next 3 years. Who is left? The future is an appalling lack of elders and pastors ready to serve full time and part-time churches.

The second issue involves viable smaller churches that will suffer without good pastoral leadership. We need to double the number of local pastors NOW … we can’t wait for them to graduate from seminary 3-4 years from now. They are also afflicted with our cultural stress (GC2019, COVID, politics).

If nothing is done, we will see the UMC gain the natural consequence of mandating seminary training for pastors back in the 1950s – it will shrink to a fraction of itself and become a denomination of churches located in suburbs of large cities and perhaps county seat towns … the unintended but predictable consequence of this decision and many others since the mandate that saw this as the typical and preferred UMC. And suddenly there will be sufficient young elders for the fraction of remaining congregations … the sort of congregations that many imagined they would be serving, I assume.

Part two – seminaries will soon do training online and at much less expense. Some MDiv degrees are now entirely online – Fuller, for example, due to their preponderance of 3rd world students. Expect the Course of Study to end with an MDiv within ten years, and modeled on a DMin pedagogical paradigm: read extensively, meet for 40 hours on campus, then write a long application paper (not a theory paper prior to meeting).

I have 11 years of seminary education – MDiv and DMin – but its main benefit was how the discipline grew me as a person, not the content of knowledge that was supposed to prepare me to be an excellent pastor. The model pastor in those days … literally … was to be a “theologian in residence” pontificating on deep thoughts (just like it is on a seminary campus only for the rest of their lives) that would require an audience with a college education at least to understand. (For years we created adult curriculum aimed at that market and abandoned blue collar folk). Or a firebrand social activist.

Part three, quote: However, what occurred since 2018 is of a different order. Not only was there a decline of 97 young elders; the decline was closer to proportional (between men and women) than in the past: There was a net loss of 68 men and 29 women. Men represented 70% of the losses while representing 62% of the young elder pool. Women accounted for 30% of the losses while representing 38% of young elders overall.

The same cultural stress that is hitting retiring pastors is hammering young elders. And ministry that isn’t rewarding or interesting can lead to shifting to new careers. For many, it’s no long meaningful or fun to be a pastor. While times are hard, we are reaping what we’ve sown.

Young elder numbers near historic low
By the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr.
Sept. 24, 2020 | WASHINGTON (UM News)

https://www.umnews.org/en/news/young-elder-numbers-near-historic-low?fbclid=IwAR37nHzy685TytjsWBueJ028niAp2elMoxJcgqPl5sZLoZ1Pnm8wGL8zDvI


The Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr. Photo courtesy of Wesley Theological Seminary.
The Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr.
Photo courtesy of Wesley Theological Seminary.
Fifteen years ago, the newly established Lewis Center for Church Leadership issued its first report on clergy age trends among United Methodist clergy. The research emerged from an uneasiness about a perceived absence of young clergy compared to previous eras.

Few reliable statistics were easily available. Working in partnership with the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits (now Wespath Benefits), the center opened a window on an alarming trend that illustrated the very low percentage of young clergy. The national news coverage of the initial report, well beyond denominational or even church media, showed how shocking the figures were then.

There followed a range of local initiatives from bishops, conferences and boards of ordained ministry. The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Division of Ordained Ministry brought together those wanting to make a difference from across the denomination to share ideas.

Legislative changes were also made to help both with the framing and the process of entry into ordained ministry. In 2012, the General Conference approved the Young Clergy Initiative and budgeted $7 million for the quadrennium. It was reapproved for approximately the same amount in 2016.

Get more details
For more details on age trends among elders, including the conferences that have larger numbers of young elders, as well as the latest figures and trends for deacons and local pastors, read “Clergy Age Trends in the United Methodist Church, 1985-2020.”
The initial report and subsequent reports have detailed the changing trends among elders, deacons and local pastors. However, questions and concerns about the trends have most often centered on the dramatic changes in young elders (provisional or ordained and under the age of 35). For this reason and because of the original context for initiating these reports, this essay concentrates on the age changes in elders.

After reviewing the statistics over the years since the first report, which by coincidence marked the low point for the number and percentage of young elders (2005), we can identify distinct chapters in the changing presence of young elders.

2006 – 2016: Growth

The number of young elders grew gradually but steadily through this period. While the number of male young elders decreased, the number of young female elders provided the gains.

2016 – 2018: Modest Decline

The number of young elders declined modestly. There actually was a net gain of men by three with dramatic declines in women (51).

2018 – 2020: Major Decline

Even in the period of growth, there were ups and downs between one year and the next. However, what occurred since 2018 is of a different order.

Commentaries
UM News publishes various commentaries about issues in the denomination. The opinion pieces reflect a variety of viewpoints and are the opinions of the writers, not the UM News staff.
Not only was there a decline of 97 young elders; the decline was closer to proportional (between men and women) than in the past: There was a net loss of 68 men and 29 women. Men represented 70% of the losses while representing 62% of the young elder pool. Women accounted for 30% of the losses while representing 38% of young elders overall.

In 2020, the number of young elders came within 2 of reaching the previous low of 850 in 2005.

Interestingly, due to the overall decline in the total number of active elders in The United Methodist Church, the percentage of young elders in the pool of all active elders remains around 7%, up from the record low of 5% in 2005.

While many in the denomination are understandably discouraged about the overall decline in elders, it may be a positive sign that younger elders continue to be a significant though small cohort. It should also be noted that the percentage of young elders is lower than that of both young deacons and young licensed local pastors.

Weems was founding director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, and remains a senior consultant for the center.

News media contact: Vicki Brown, Nashville, Tennessee, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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