Thursday and Friday of this week, I was in Nashville at a gathering of 10 UMC young clergy. We were invited by folks from the GBHEM and two young clergy (Chris Roberts from the Indiana Conference and Jenny Smith, a seminary student at United). The agenda was for us to talk about some of the issues that young clergy face in the UMC. The momentum going on for the gathering was strong, as we had all Facebook “friended” one another and had begun thinking about our purpose for being together. I learned that the ball had begun rolling when Jenny did a series of video interviews about young clergy at General Conference last year and then posted them on a website that she created. Chris saw the videos and expressed interest in being a part of something intentional to bring young clergy together to talk about the issues that face the church and how we might work in a unified manner to approach those issues. The gathering that happened this week was the fruit of that interest.
The 10 of us (plus Meg Lassiat from GBHEM and a few other “drop-ins” from Nashville) spent our time reviewing a non-scientific survey that Jenny designed to gather some feedback from others who are young clergy or care about young clergy in the UMC. (If you see a trend of technology in the introduction above—Facebook, video interviews, website—just wait…we’re not done with technology yet! We also had a simultaneous “liveblog” that included 7 of us in Nashville and about 25 others, at any given time. The transcript of our conversation is here.) While I won’t attempt to summarize the entire 24 hours that we spent together (we did get a dinner break and night off, which of course consisted of us talking the whole evening!), I do want to give my concluding impressions:
• First of all, this is a very hopeful group! We’ve heard Lovett Weem’s excellent research on the clergy crisis in the UMC and while it would be tempting to despair, this group and many others have chosen to hope that God will use us to impact the church in a powerful way.
• Younger clergy, though appreciative of the work of their forebears, are not necessarily interested in the same discussions of previous generations (especially regarding theological diversity). What seems to be a recurrent trend is that we are often more interested in what unifies us. (Here are a couple of quotes that got bandied around a bit: “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity” and (my favorite) from E. Stanley Jones, “Here we enter a fellowship; sometimes we agree to differ, always we resolve to love and unite to serve.”)
• We decided that what unifies us is the desire to be disciples and make disciples.
• Many younger clergy feel isolated, voiceless in their annual conference and concerned about burn-out.
• Younger clergy seem to reject the perception that most appointment systems are based on a competitive model (rewarding—both financial and otherwise—those with more years of experience and making younger clergy “do their time” in more challenging appointments) and prefer to work in a more collaborative model of ministry. (This point here deserves a significant amount of analysis, some of which I hope to go into at another time.)
While we did do a significant amount of discussion, we did arrive at a couple of points of action. We talked about two different things that could address some of the needs of younger clergy that arose from the survey, our discussion and our online participants. First, we talked about enhancing the website that Jenny has already started. Our hopes are that it could become a “hub” that is keeping track of things pertinent to younger clergy—best practices, blogs, events of interest, and even forums for discussing topics of particular interest. (If you have a blog that you would like to include on our blogroll, or if you know of some “best practices” for young clergy, please email Ashlee.Alley@sckans.edu.) We also discussed the potential for a gathering of young clergy that would address some of the biggest concerns facing us (again, namely isolation, voicelessness, and burn-out). There will most definitely be more to come with all of this, but I have to say, that as a young clergy (for a few more years, anyway ;) and also as one who works with college aged students who often are experiencing a call to ministry (and sometimes to ordination), I come away feeling really hopeful for the church in the days (and years, and decades) ahead. There are many who desire to serve Christ and his Church and they even want to do it under the auspices of the UMC. We’re not a perfect church, but God IS doing some great things within us. And I really think that this is one of them.
For another take on someone else who was there, read April Casperson's blog.