Are They Ready?

I was in a group of clergy yesterday discussing current seminary training and preparation of the next generation of church leaders.  Be advised: this is not about all current seminarians, but only about the young(est) of them.

One of us, having noticed some generational differences that brought up questions about readiness, shared some lament about connecting and effectively communicating with these younger folk.  Many of them are very interested in ministry but not in the traditional pastoral setting.  Some, it seems, go to seminary for “what they feel like they missed out on in Sunday School” or for spiritual formation more than for preparation for a career.

As we questioned their (the generation of potential clergy currently in their mid to late 20s and early 30s), we wondered whether or not they were ready to move toward leadership in our denomination.

To this concern, I asked: “Were we ‘ready’ 20 or 30 or 40 years ago?”  However ready we were, the church that we have today is the church that we were (obviously) ready to lead, because the church we have today is what it is because of current leadership.

As the health of The United Methodist Church is very much up in the air right now, I wonder if it really behooves us to question the preparedness of the next generation, unless we do so from our knees as we repent for leading it to its current state.

15 thoughts on “Are They Ready?

  1. Very interesting topic. Though I am not UMC affiliated, I often hear and tend to agree with those who say that today’s Christian church is all in all Bible illiterate. (see: What do you think?

    Do you think that the fact these well meaning young people -as many others in other denomination I observe, want to go to seminary, not to train to the pastoral ministry -which is the ideal I would assume, but to learn even basics -to eat some milk and meat, because of spiritual and biblical starvation as they grow up?

    Do you think that if we (the church) did a better job in teaching the Bible to everyone from Sunday to small groups, Christians would grow better spiritually and, those with a call to full time paid ministry, would then be ready for such specific training?

    • I have no doubt that if we did a better job of teaching the Bible the church would be a very different place. I am not sure, however, that this would necessarily lead younger people toward full time paid ministry. It might lead toward “tent making” – bi-vocational pastors, less (or no) emphasis on bricks and mortar, properties, pensions, etc., which consume so many resources now.

      • And I’m thinking that might not be such a bad thing … the difficulty I see is that I believe there is great value in an educated, prepared, theologically trained clergy (not that all seminaries or seminarians guarantee this, but it’s our best shot as the “successful” pastors I see foregoing seminaries or some equivalent [i.e., in non-denoms or other arenas that don’t require it] aren’t theologians so much as they are adept pastor-preneurs [which is another discussion altogether. Lord, forgive us for treating your people like a marketing demographic].) Yet, as Lilly alludes to below, it is hard to conceive of forking over the resources for a seminary education to become a tent-maker. God bless us with independently wealthy pastors and those with pre-existing alternative income streams.

      • Would this perhaps be a better alternative considering the potential results? By that I mean, let’s say a few young guys/girls devote themselves to the study of God’s word (not to seminary and its related expenses and potential debt burdens) but to individual and perhaps small groups studies of systematic Bible study AS they live a secular life (side job, college or what not). After, say 3 years, they may not have the degree but they will for sure have a good grounding level ok knowledge of The Word of God that, if coupled with ‘living it out’ will make them excellent ‘fishers of men’; evangelists and pastors (in the ‘shepherding of other Christians’ way as opposed to the ‘title’ way. At this point, we have good fruitful productive Christians working for the kingdom cause -successful in God’s eyes I would suggest. …. and at this them they could find out they dont have the gifts and call to be a pastor but still are productive Christians OR find out that they DO have a call and gifting to pastor and either find a job pastoring a congregation that can afford them OR live lay lives as they are not obligated or forced or dependent on finding a job as “clergy”; they have been living lay lives and can survive in the market place doing something else. Wouldn’t this be a win-win situation?
        Unless, [and I ignore the particular UMC way] it is absolutely required in their particular system or denomination to have a degree to be a tittle ‘pastor’.

  2. “Many of them are very interested in ministry but not in the traditional pastoral setting.”

    And with that I think you may have hit on one of the real rubs for the UMC. We have many feeling called to ministry in settings other than the traditional pastorate, which I believe corresponds to a generation interested in Christian community in something other than the traditional church. Yet our system allows for very little in the way of alternative expressions of church, whether it’s organic, house church, networks, virtual, new monastic, missional, or what have you, because we have yet to see how such expressions can do things like underwrite a pastor’s salary and benefits, generate apportionments, or buy a piece of property and build a building (and of course, if you can’t do those kinds of things, you’re not really a “church”).

    We in the UMC (and many other tribes of the Church for that matter) need to do more than repent for leading the church to its current state. We need to stop holding her in bondage here. “Still Pharoah’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen …” (Ex. 7:13a)

  3. I know many young people interested in ministry, No we don’t think traditionally because we see the flaws with what exits. So I think it is just as appropriate to ask, Is the traditional UMC system and structure ready for what we are about to do?

    • Wow, Jacob, that’s even more provocative than I expected. ” Is the traditional UMC system and structure ready for what we are about to do?” !!

      What are y’all about to do? Have you been laying plans together?

  4. I love the John Meyer song “Waiting on the World to Change” in that I feel that many of my peers and I are just waiting for our time:

    “Its not that we don’t care we just know that the fight ain’t fair, so we keep waiting.”

    However with my own zeal to step into those roles that have been reserved for other generations, I am hopeful that I would be humble enough and mindful enough to not fall into some of the traps I am so critical of. It is my prayer that the old guard may need the courage to give up some control and trust a new guard. It is also my prayer that the new guard have the humility and awareness that what we are being given is a very special gift built on the blood sweat and tears of the saints before us.

    It is no small task for either generation, however I am unsure if my peers and I understand that just yet.

    • I was blessed to have, during my first appointment out of seminary, the unofficial mentoring of an elder about 5 years ahead of me. He shared that it takes a bit more work each year to remain alert to “being tainted by the System.”

      That would be the same “System” that Bishop Richard Wilke preached (at the service in which I was ordained a Probationary Deacon in 1988) “would kill us and take us to hell” if we did not remain vigilant and faithful.

  5. I am no longer young but prepared for full time ministry many years ago and then didn’t find that the organizational setting was the ministry I thought it would be. After about two years I left the church staff I was serving on and never went back to that kind of work. Even after 14 years of being a full time stay at home mom, I knew I had no intention of going back to it once I was ready to take up a career again. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been in ministry or that I have abandoned my call. It means that I found that “full time ministry” was more of an administrative position than one that fit my gifts. I have spent the past 10 years preparing for a career that fit my gifts … and I think along the way I have been involved in ministry.

    It seems that you are suggesting that the UMC clergy need to repent of “leading the church to this state” (or something like that) … ummm, maybe. Sure you have a “bully pulpit” every Sunday … but the laity has a bigger responsibility … for sitting on our ever-expanding behinds and expecting the clergy to carry the load. There is no logical … or Biblical … reason that we as the laity should regard the clergy as “experts” either on faith or practice. Maybe the current generation of believers want to stay laity but to spend time thinking deeply about the matters that are covered in seminary. Maybe they say they want to be clergy because that’s what expected if you enroll in seminary.

    I don’t agree with the Churches of Christ about much, but after rubbing elbows with them for years at ACU, I have come to respect their model regarding the professional clergy (there’s not much of one). I respect those of you that have dedicated your professional lives to the pastorate … but I also applaud those who may wish to be trained theologically but make their livings elsewhere.

  6. As a 23 year old seminarian, I’m one of the few that walked into seminary saying “I want to preach.” And I’ve been told multiple times, by pretty much every pastor I know (all of whom are dearly endorsing my time here in seminary and affirm that I belong in church leadership) NOT to attempt making a career out of preaching.

    While I grew up Catholic and have been “homeless” among the protestant denominations, close pastoral friends in multiple denominations (Episcopal, UCC, PCUSA, etc) have told me not to try to make my home there, due to internal politics, smaller congregations, lack of family friendly livelihood, etc. Not to mention all of the denominations I can’t preach in because of my gender (SBC, PCA, LCMS, my own RCC, etc). I’ve had to make my way to the congregationalist denominations (Texas Baptist/CBF) in order to find an attitude of “welcome to pastoral ministry; but you’re a woman so don’t really expect much for a job. We like you, other parts of the state might not.”

    I would LOVE to be told work hard, intern/ shadow/ become an associate pastor for these 3 years and be able to earn a (modest) living from preaching in some rural church or some inner-city mission church, wherever the Good Lord calls. And I’ve been told that will probably never happen, by the people who support me and want me to succeed the most. They remind me I need to find a second job of some-sort, or a husband. Not because of me, they keep saying, but because laity so rarely call women, etc.

    I’m also amazingly blessed because I have a scholarship that is covering most of my tuition: if I continue to work full time (while attending school full time year-round), I will graduate without debt. Do you know what tuition at Perkins, Duke Divinity, Brite, even Truett (if not ‘Texas Baptist’) would have set me back? Enough that paying student loans and becoming a pastor immediately afterwards is impossible. We’re talking $50-60,000+ degrees before living expenses. I can’t afford to take an unpaid internship at the expense of paying my rent and it’s hard to find a paying ministry job around here (except in youth/music ministry, but those areas of the seminary have me beat out.) And I have 2 years FT paid para-church experience & 1 year unpaid youth ministry experience, beyond the summer camps/ VBS/ every other little leadership experience.

    I’m not UMC (though I attended a UMC church this sunday evening for a meeting- they mentioned having had the same preacher for nearly 50 years & in the past 5-6, it’s been a new one every year, if that seems to be a new problem), so I can’t speak to the specifics of that denomination. But maybe there’s a bit of the same problem: Denominations and pastors are literally talking (and charging) young seminarians out of seeking the pastorate. Lord knows our parents are begging us to look elsewhere too. It took my mother 6 years to accept the fact I wanted to go to seminary and preach because of pragmatic reasons and she’s on the altar guild! My stepfather still thinks it’s both a useless degree and a desolate field in which I will never find a job/ learn a transferable marketable skill.

    As it stands, it looks like I’ll be bi-vocational (and happy that at least I can preach without fear of moderating my message in order to keep my paycheck, as many pastors have admitted to me they have done) and possibly “without a building”. Ready for leadership? God willing and God granting, yes. Do you have anywhere to put me when I’m ready? That’s the bigger question for every denomination I’ve flirted with.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Lilly. You raise several excellent points. I finished seminary saddled with more debt than was healthy AND without the personal or family discipline to tackle it, so it took me 18 years to finally pay it off.

      Also, as much as we clamor that we need more and effective young clergy, I also hear of conferences putting ordination processes on hold because they don’t have places for new ordinands.

      One thing the UMC needs is some sort of bi-vocational allowance that includes ordination.

  7. I just saw your quote about “the system.” A colleague came back from a conference recently and said that the speaker said that beware of spending more than five years in any one system. This is because you will increasingly find yourself being changed by the system, rather than having any transformative influence over the system yourself. For psychologists, a system could be a large agency such as a state hospital, or especially for health psychologists, becoming part of the medical community. Institutional values are not necessarily or always compatible with the ethics of our profession. Likewise, other disciplines (such as medicine) have different ethical codes and different standards for behavior.

    Being a part of any system can be comfortable, and we may need the stability of the guaranteed paycheck that comes from becoming embedded in a system. We just need to realize that any system can eat us alive, and often we don’t even realize that we are being slowly digested.

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