Sunday, August 27, 2006

Mainline Churches: an Old Man's Game

Variations on this story have appeared over the last few years. Again, note that mainline denominations, including the ABC, are always cited. Where's the data on the SBC, the Assemblies of God, the Vineyard, Calvary Chapel and the rising tide of non-aligned megachurches? I suspect the data would be strikingly different. This is more evidence that the "mainlines" are being sidelined.

Churches hunger for young clergy
Ministerial ranks thin on leaders under age 35

By MARK DAVISThe Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionPublished on: 08/28/06

She was visiting a Zambian nursery filled with children whose parents had died of AIDS when the Rev. Katie Givens Kime had time to talk with the 18-year-old woman who had come with her, all the way from Atlanta.

Did she like being a minister? the teen asked. How had she become one?

The Rev. Ben Anthony, 28, an associate pastor at St Luke's Episcopal Church in Atlanta, is an exception in the ranks of a graying clergy.

Kime considered her answers, and the questioner. The young woman, who was on a church mission trip with Kime, was bound for college; what the minster told her, Kime knew, could help the young woman answer some of life's questions later on.

Ministers, answered Kime, are important. They touch lives. They make a difference.
"What might happen, is that [she] will remember that conversation — remember it forever," said Kime, an associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. "And maybe [she] might ... choose the ministry."

Believers can only pray that she might. At 27, Kime is a relative rarity in the ranks of Protestant ministers — a young pastor.

Concerned about the dwindling numbers of clergy under the age of 35, an Atlanta nonprofit organization is about to launch Calling Congregations, a nationwide effort to help churches identify and educate young ministers within their ranks. The Fund for Theological Education, which will oversee the initiative, hopes it will recruit 500 churches to find young clergy by 2009.
Established in 1954, FTE is an ecumenical organization that stresses theological training and scholarship with fellowships, workshops and other programs. Its president, Ann Svennungsen, thinks Calling Congregations could help fill a growing gap in pulpits across the country.

With increasing numbers of baby boomer ministers eyeing retirement within the next few years, churches need to move fast to find their replacements, she said. The best place to look, she said, is among "communities of disciples" — congregations.

Funded by a $6 million grant from the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis, Calling Congregations will focus first on churches in and around Chicago. Early next year, it will begin contacting churches in the Atlanta area and elsewhere in the Southeast. The ecumenical program will focus on Methodist, American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations, among others.

The program will link participating congregations with each other, provide technical support and offer advice to churches searching their pews for new ministers. Most important, it will offer up to $5,000 in matching funds to help defray the costs of educating young pastors, Svennungsen said.

The need for young blood is acute, agreed the Rev. Ed Tomlinson, executive assistant to Bishop G. Lindsey Davis of the North Georgia United Methodist Conference. The organization, the largest Methodist congregation in the nation, represents about 342,000 Methodists attending more than 900 churches.

Tomlinson calls young pastors the "hen's teeth" of the church — rare. "We need to get young men and young women who are capable [ministers] coming out of our churches," he said.
A study conducted by the Wesley Theological Seminary of Washington underscores how pervasive the shortage is.

The seminary, which trains Methodist ministers, focused the recruitment of ministers within its own ranks from 1985 to 2005. It also surveyed American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Lutheran, Nazarene and Presbyterian Church in the USA organizations.

Bottom line: Ministers born after 1971 are hard to come by.

The survey found:

• Ministers under 35 comprised about 7 percent of the denominations' supply of pastors.
• Ministers ages 35-54 represented the largest number of pastors — 52 percent.
• Ministers 55 and older comprised 41 percent of the active pastors.

Despite those findings, said Svennungsen, denominations have been slow to recruit young people. "If the lawyers [association] faced this [shortage of young practitioners], they'd be up in arms," she said.

So why won't they come?

Ask a church official why more young people aren't coming to the ministry and the answers will vary. Some will cite the pay — starting salaries may hover around $30,000.

Others, such as Kime, think the career has lost some of its prestige. Some people are liable to think ministers are just following orders from an earthly hierarchy.

"Pastors aren't seen as individual thinkers," she said.

Still others are likely to echo the Rev. Carter McInnis, a 29-year-old Methodist minister who last year started a church at a Lawrenceville elementary school.

"I think we're missing out in college," he said. "Sometimes, that's where the church loses its touch."

Churches also lose touch, said the Rev. Jeri Parris Perkins, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Hartsville, S.C. She's worked with the FTE in the past and has pledged the support of her 600-member church in Calling Congregations. The organization plans to enlist that church, plus others in the Southeast, beginning in January.

Churches, Perkins said, need to nurture promising youngsters, giving them roles — in choirs, Sunday school, youngsters' worship services. In time, they may decide the pastorate is a life they want, she said.

The shortage of young ministers, she acknowledges, is real: In 2001, her church began looking for a young associate minister to work with the church's youth. It searched for a year before hiring a 31-year-old pastor.

She is confident the program may make future searches easier.

"The FTE has been wise in understanding that people most often hear calls to the ministry through the church," she said.

The Rev. Ben Anthony is one. An associate pastor at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta, he's 28.

Anthony became interested in spiritual matters while taking religion courses in college but wasn't satisfied with what he learned in the classroom. He had to know more and found it in church. In 2003, he got his master's in divinity degree from Emory University.

Anthony, like Kime and McInnis, knows he is the exception, not the rule, in religious life. "I've had to redefine what a peer is," he said.

He also hopes that he won't always be the anomaly, that his peers are waiting to be discovered in congregations all over the country.

They are waiting, Anthony thinks, for the word — from above, certainly, but also from within the walls where they worship.

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