Where is the next generation of pastors? This question looms increasingly large for various denominations and they are beginning to confer with each other to find answers. If a church is to continue, it must look ahead to the next generation. Pastors are retiring; who will take their places? Studies are finding that while the next generation is interested in ministry, especially ministry related to social justice concerns or campus needs, it is less willing to undertake the day-to-day role of pastor, or even to see congregational ministry as a possible option.
Where is the next generation of pastors? The Reverend Diane Hugger, a minister of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, says that winning disciples furthers the gospel of Jesus Christ "Jesus's ministry never excluded anyone. Furthermore, the conditions churches find young people in today "doing drugs, joining cults, and engaging in sexual activity when they are as young as 10 years old" make it even more urgent.
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Hugger is a part-time pastor at one church and teaches young adult Sunday school (ages 18-35) on alternate Sundays at her home congregation. She is also program manager of theological education and leadership development for the Congress of National Black Churches in Washington, D.C. Her experience as a Sunday school teacher is that young people don't know what a call to ministry is, and can't even talk about it. "Of course they can't," she said in an interview. "No one ever asks them." Yet at this age when they are seeking and questioning, they need a chance to talk about it.
In the church that she pastors, Hugger said, there is no one younger than 45. She, like a number of women, went to seminary as a second-career option. She feels she is limited in her ability to "meet young people where they are." There is a need for the generations to interact with each other, she adds, but finds that her outreach to young people is more successful when she is accompanied by a young person "who speaks the language."
In the African-American church, many young people are open to the ministry. The church is a center, and the pastor is a figure to aspire to; the rich heritage of the African-American church makes such aspiration easier, and young people can still appreciate the wisdom of their elders. But they need encouragement if they are to consider becoming pastors, and they need to be shown that the pastorate is a real possibility. Hugger did not feel called to be a pastor when she first offered herself for ministry, but her church expected her to have the experience of being a pastor before she tried any other form of ministry, and she "did not refuse the call." On the other hand, the pastor who mentored her understood her need to explore other types of ministry and let her "test the waters."
Timothy Burkholder, vice president of the Mennonite Board of Education, in Elkhart, Indiana, has presided over several projects designed to find out why fewer young people are going into ministry. The first of these was the Gideon Project, a study of enrollment trends in Mennonite colleges; the colleges are an important source of potential pastors. Currently Burkholder is engaged in the second phase of the so-called Samuel Project. The project's first phase was an examination of the call to ministry based on interviews with students in high school, college, and seminaries. The word that emerged was "encouragement." Students had thought about the pastorate, but they had broad options available to them, and no encouragement toward ministry was offered. The second phase of the Samuel Project will center on interviews with pastors, second-career pastors, and the students' parents. In the meantime, the church is urging its conference ministers, who oversee local pastors, to encourage these pastors to do more within their congregations.
From the school side, the denomination is trying to make the schools, including seminaries, more attractive. It's encouraging them to explore grants and distance education, for example. Mennonite colleges now have ministry inquiry programs for juniors and seniors.
The church itself sponsors twenty-four students who spend the summer in a congregation (usually not their own) and, in return, receive living expenses and a $1,850 tuition grant. The students' home congregation, conference, the congregation they serve, and colleges and seminaries are asked to be engaged with them. A number of students who have had this experience enter the seminary.
Burkholder acknowledged that fewer people are going into ministry. Mennonite ratios are no different from those of other denominations. There has been an increase in the number of women seeking to become pastors, but because some conservative congregations are still working through the question of whether it is legitimate to have women as ministers, it can be difficult to place them, he said. Nevertheless, Burkholder noted, "The dynamics are such that we will be suffering a shortfall of ministers, so we have to work at it." He also noted that a church reflects the persona of its pastor. A young pastor attracts younger people than an older one. "The church that attracts younger people is reaching into the next generation," he said, "and for me that is the number one priority."
In the United Methodist Church, according to the Reverend Marian Moman, associate general secretary of the Division of Ordained Ministry, in Nashville, Tennessee, identifying and recruiting potential ministers is done primarily regionally and through the denomination. The church conducts a series of exploratory events every two years with high school and college students to talk about ministry and to help them assess their own call.
In the United Methodist Church, "Ministry Sundays" have been revived. The church in general stopped talking about the call to ministry. To revive such convocations in the local church, to think that a local church would call one of its own is "very exciting," Moman said. Nowadays, she added, young people are exposed to ministry in different forms the Stephen Ministry, for example. They need an opportunity to discern. "It's a rich time for that convocation to emerge," she added.
Talking to Each Other
Moman, Hugger, and Burkholder have shared their experiences as part of the Fellowship for Theological Education's Partnership for Excellence program. "The things we do together," said the Mennonites' Burkholder, "are actually going to help us individually." Moman said that any time such a group convenes, it spurs one's thinking to one's own system. "What would that mean for United Methodists?" she asks herself. Hugger finds ecumenical dialogue important in its exploration of common concerns. The African-American church needs to look toward a multicultural world and what the implications of a "colorless society" are. Above all, the three know that other denominations share the need to attract young people to the ministry and that together they can explore different ways of achieving this goal.