A New Generation of Clergy Leaders

One of the North Alabama Conference priorities is to call and cultivate a new generation of clergy and lay leaders.  Why have we made new, young clergy a priority?  The average age of our clergy is 59.  We are facing massive retirements in just a few years.  In the past decade, we have been ordaining only about a third of the clergy we’ll need to replace retiring clergy and the average age of our ordinands has been rising.

This priority has been one of our greatest challenges: most of the leaders in our Conference, nearly all of the pastors of our most vibrant congregations, are over 50. In fact, at a recent conversation I declared, “this has been the most difficult priority of all our priorities to realize.”

Well, I was wrong!  Bill Brunson, the new chair of our Board of Ordained Ministry, reports that at the end of 2007, our Conference was forth in the entire connection in the percentage of elders under 35 years of age.  Here are the top four:  Arkansas – 284 Total Elders – 25 under 35 – 8.80% Holston – 322 Total Elders – 28 under 35 – 8.70% Oklahoma – 329 Total Elders – 28 under 35 – 8.51% North Alabama – 368 Total Elders – 31 under 35 – 8.42%

Sadly, that percentage, just twenty years ago, was about 30%.  Still, I am gratified that we are in the lead in the calling of a new generation of leaders.

Bill Brunson has led our Board of Ordained in a complete overhaul of the Board’s procedures for naming, noticing, and nurturing new clergy. They have changed scholarship funding procedures, visits to seminaries, and revamped the interview process.

I am pleased to report that already the Board’s work is bearing fruit:

This year we have 24 applicants for Provisional Membership.  The average age of those 24 is 38.5 years.   22 are applying for Provisional Elder with an average age of 37.68.  12 of the 24 applicants are 35 or under.  This is marked progress over the past two years.  However, it also indicates that we have much work to do.  This is still only about a third of the young candidates that we need, just to keep pace with retirements.

Robert Lancaster, pastor at Wesley Chapel, Northwest District, testifies to his congregation’s commitment to this priority: “Our Lay Leadership Committee has made it a priority to elect young adults to each of our committees.  We also put youth members on many of our councils and encourage them to speak up and be heard about their needs in the church.  Several of our older members are coming off committees, after many years of service, this year.  Please be in prayer they will also see the need for younger leadership to be trained, involved and supported….  Our Lay Delegate this past year to conference was under the age of 30….  He came back and gave two reports to the Sunday Morning congregation about the need for young pastors and leaders in the church.  We have made younger committee members a priority at Wesley Chapel.“

It is gratifying to see positive results for our efforts.  I call upon every congregation to pray and to make intentional efforts to notice, name, and nurture prospective new pastors.  ALL new clergy come before the Board of Ordained Ministry because one of our congregations has sent them there.  How many new pastors has your church produced in the past decade?  The 2009 Annual Conference will focus on this priority.  We are asking each congregation to identify and to send as member of the 2009 Annual Conference your most talented young adult.

It is wonderful to see progress being made on this priority.  Thanks for your efforts to give our church a vibrant, faithful, future.

Will Willimon

10 thoughts on “A New Generation of Clergy Leaders

  1. I want to begin by thank you for dealing with this important topic. As a young clergy I have found it hard to find a church that want or is willing to hire someone young. Of course this can discourage younger believers that have been called by God. If you look at most job listing for pastors you see that most congregation want someone with 10 or more years with experience. Yet there are very few churches that are willing to give young clergy a chance to get experience that they need. I think this is right now a huge problem and will definately effect how many pastors join ministry in the future. It can be extremely discouraging when young clergy are turned down time after time based on experience. It greatly frustrates many clergy. It is my opinion over the next decade we are going to see a dramatic decline in men and women who will be will to become pastors. Thank you William for all you do. May God continue to bless your life as you have and continue to be a blessing to many others. I hope you have a wonderful week. You are always in my thoughts and prayers.


  2. Bishop, you might find it a little easier to recruit young clergy if you dealt head on with the hatred and bigotry in your conference. It might even help to create an environment where seminarians don’t sit around saying “I wish I didn’t have to ignore some of the great issues of my faith in my DCOM and BOOM papers” and “Gosh, I’m so glad I learned about racism, systemic evils, the peaceable kingdom and homophobia, but how am I ever going to share this with the established system in my home conference? All they care about is pensions and buildings.” Perhaps rather than changing the technicalities (although I do appreciate your efforts on that front) you should deal with the oppressive culture of the church.


  3. I believe that God calls us. I think if God does call us and the church hinders our calling then those than hinder are going to be held accountable. I believe ministry shouldn’t be a job or profession but a calling by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I think we still have a choice to answer the call or not. And sometime other believers make or try to make that decission for you. I think what leads to burn out and young clergy leaving the ministry is that the congregations don’t give them a chance, don’t encourage, don’t fan the flame that every clergy should have. Instead many congregation quinch the flame.


  4. In order to cultivate the culture of "calling" we need to do as you say bishop: " I call upon ever congregation to pray and to make intentional efforts to notice, name, and nurture prospective new pastors."The first part of that is crucial, because we can establish all kinds of priorities, but without a prayerful reliance upon God to move upon the hearts and lives of our youth, young adults, and others, we will not see the kind of passionate new leadership we need emerge. We can also tell the truth about a call to ministry, i.e., that it must originate with the Holy Spirit, and not with recruiting efforts, career days, or job listings. Sometimes the local church is a poor vehicle for the Spirit's use. We pastors and churches need to lift up a response to God's calling to ministry as one of the noblest aspirations of a person's life.Then we pastors need to tell our own story of how God called us, with all our humanity, doubts, and vulberabilities, and how, in spite of it all, made our own success in ministry possible through God's grace.We've got to be honest with young people about the struggles of ministry. It's not easy! There are prejudices to overcome, along with cynicism, systemic trip-wires, boring or irrelevant seminary courses, etc. which hinder some and cause others to stumble. There are two key words: FAITH & COMMITMENT; if the faith and commitment is there, God will sustain you in the journey and lead you toward a fulfilling life in service to Jesus Christ.


  5. Bishop: I hope you can jumpstart some of the young preachers in the world of Tim Tyson and Blood Done my Name as I have recently blogged for the Baptists at my blog. The popular Rick of RickNBubba will be a featured speaker for the state’s Baptists this year, and in this world of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin a quick study in Tyson and Hugo Black and Judge Frank Johnson may be necessary. I hope to see you weigh in on it all soon, as not news to you, the political headlines of late cut close to your extended world at the Christian Century. Side note, with your love of the novel, good read of James Wood’s review of Marilynne Robinson’s latest The Prodigal Son I’m sure is in your sites, as well as the tremendous job New Republic did with same; Ruth Franklin the reviewer there, I think.


  6. Bishop,I would encourage you to look for pastors outside of the “order of elders”. Younger folks are tending to reject insitutions and thus the ordianation process. But, in some places they are serving as lay and local pastors, in increasing numbers. Aren’t they still pastors? I think so!Just a thought.


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