How old is too old to join UM clergy?

The Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church has proposed changing its minimum standards for clergy to discourage people over 45 from becoming candidates for ordained ministry.

The conference’s board of ordained ministry is seeking feedback through September this year and does not plan to make any final decision on its standards until October.

But the possible changes have already sparked debate across the United Methodist blogosphere. Some call it an example of blatant age discrimination, while others hail it as a welcome consideration for serving the needs of tomorrow’s church.

According to a number of longtime church observers, the Texas Conference is believed to be the first to make such a proposal for age guidelines.

Jan Love

The proposal comes at a time when Texas and other U.S. conferences have increased emphasis on recruiting younger clergy even as they also deal with people joining the clergy as second careers.

“This doesn’t surprise me, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see other conferences move in a similar direction,” said Jan Love, dean of UMC-affiliated Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. “One must always remember that leadership skills are not always defined by age.”

But she added that she sees the Texas plan as an important step in more strategic thinking about church leadership. Whether it’s the right step is debatable, she said.

“The reason I think it’s an interesting strategic move that needs to be thoughtfully considered is that having someone become ordained is a huge investment of institutional resources,” she said.

Those resources include financial support for education, pension and health benefits. The mandatory retirement age for United Methodist clergy is 72.

The Rev. Carol Bruse, the chair of the conference’s 70-member board of ordained ministry, said the aim of the proposed standards is to help the conference plan for future needs. The policy would not affect current clergy or clergy candidates in the Texas Conference.

“It’s not just the call of God on people’s lives. What we have to discern is the call of the church,” said Ms. Bruse, the senior pastor of West University United Methodist Church in Houston. She entered the candidacy process herself at age 35, after years working in construction and as a stay-at-home mom.

“Of course God calls every Christian,” she said. “But who does the church need at this particular time at this location? That’s the hard part. We don’t have it all figured out but we’re doing our best.”

Even if the board of ordained ministry ultimately adopts this policy, Ms. Bruse and other board members stressed that it would only serve as a guideline—not an outright ban on all older candidates.

“I bet there will be a 67-year-old in every ordination class until the end of time because God is just weird like that,” Ms. Bruse said. “You’ve got your Davids who are young, your Pauls who are in their 40s and your Abrahams who are beyond childbearing years.”

What the proposal says

Under the proposal, the Texas Conference board of ordained ministry would encourage candidates seeking credentials as:

• an elder over 45 “to pursue licensed ministry, certified lay or other expressions of lay ministry”

• a deacon over 45 “to pursue other expressions of ministry”

• a licensed local pastor over 60 “to pursue certified lay ministry or other expressions of lay ministry”

• a certified lay minister over 70 “to pursue other expressions of lay ministry”

For too long, Ms. Bruse said, the board of ordained ministry would ordain anyone who finished seminary and passed the required psychological and background checks.

The Texas Conference, with more than 284,000 lay members as of 2011, is the largest conference in the South Central Jurisdiction and one of the largest in the United States. But conference research projects that in the next 15 to 20 years it will have fewer, bigger churches seeking longer-tenured pastors, Ms. Bruse said. The policy change would give the board and others in the conference a way to tell some people “no.”

Carol Bruse

It would also serve as a reality check for those considering becoming clergy about the time and financial commitment involved.

Earning a master of divinity degree typically takes three years for a full-time student and longer for part-time. Ordination candidates then must complete two to three years as provisional members of their conferences before being fully ordained. It can take another eight to 10 years for a pastor to become proficient at the craft.

“When candidates come in, they can be clueless about our system,” Ms. Bruse said. “They come in and spend their life savings on seminary, and they don’t want to leave their hometown.”

The Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr., professor of church leadership and director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, consulted on the Texas Conference plan.

His center annually tracks clergy age in the denomination. As of 2012, elders 35 or older made up more than 94 percent of all provisional and ordained elders, and 53 percent of all elders were age 55 or older, Dr. Weems said. That percentage of older clergy is unprecedented in the denomination’s history, he said.

Lovett Weems

The center does not track the ages of those entering. But as late as 2009, the center found that about 25 percent of those in the provisional process were baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964).

“The best thing about the Texas Conference proposal is that it takes the initiative in spelling out the clergy needs for the United Methodist witness in their area,” Dr. Weems said.

“Their proposal may seem jarring to some. It can, however, be a starting point for a process to help potential candidates explore what is their best avenue into ministry. Age is one of many factors conferences should consider in helping persons discern where their gifts can best serve the church.”

Is it discriminatory?

The proposal has plenty of detractors.

The Rev. Jeremy Smith, who regularly blogs about issues facing young clergy, calls the Texas proposal “outright ageism.”

“To lose the perspective of new middle-aged and senior clergy in an annual conference, especially those that bring interdisciplinary expertise from their first careers, would be tragic indeed,” he wrote on his blog Hacking Christianity. Mr. Smith is the minister of discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Ore.

“I can name quite a few effective clergy leading vital congregations that were commissioned after age 45. I bet you can name several as well.”

Richard H. Gentzler Jr., director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries at the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship, said the denomination’s Committee on Older Adult Ministries is reviewing the proposal and plans to send a response to the conference.

The Rev. Gwen Purushotham, who leads the Division of Ordained Ministry at the UMC’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, expressed her own misgivings about the possible standards.

“My personal opinion, I think the primary thing we should think about is the mission of the church and what kind of leaders do we need for that mission,” she said. “I would personally ask the question whether limiting that to certain age groups for certain [ministerial] orders is going to serve that mission.”

Retired Bishop D. Max Whitfield, who is bishop in residence at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, said he can see the pros and cons of the proposal.

He said the benefits include the focus on helping younger and more diverse people respond to God’s call to ordained ministry. However, the proposal “fails to acknowledge the effective ministry performed by extremely capable persons who respond to God’s calling later than their early years of life,” he said.

Bishop Whitfield also wondered whether the document meets the standards of the Book of Discipline, the church law book, which requires “openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community, and the world.”

“The church must deny ‘every semblance of discrimination,’ and this document fails that test,” he said.

For the Rev. Mark Whitley, the proposal has personal resonance. He grew up attending church only sporadically and only discovered the United Methodist Church as an adult. After years of working with the American Red Cross, he entered the candidacy process at 43 and was ordained an elder in 2011 at 53. His wife, Susan, was ordained an elder a year later.

Today, Mr. Whitley is the senior pastor of Verdigris UMC in Claremore, Okla. His wife is the pastor of Skiatook First UMC in Skiatook, Okla.

Mr. Whitley said he and his wife are “all in,” having spent virtually all their savings in preparing for their pastoral call. But he said the two have no regrets. Before becoming a pastor despite his career advances, he said he always felt a “gnawing sense of emptiness.”

“Every pastor understands the pain of ministry,” he said, “but the pain of leaving my call right now would far exceed whatever pain I feel as a pastor. It’s who I am.”

He added that to turn someone away because “they’ve reached an arbitrary age seems deeply, deeply disingenuous.”

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4 Comments on "How old is too old to join UM clergy?"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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jim
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I agree with "georgine." Young folks who go straight from high school to college to seminay often times do not have the flavor that second career folks do. One thing is for sure, if the trend is away from "old" guys to young guys, the liberal progressive spiral we feel in this country will be swiftly repeated in the church. In fact, it already is being done……….

georgine
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As a lifelong United Methodist of over 70, I have seen a lot of pastors. Some of the best we have had in the various churches I have belonged to have been 2nd career pastors who went to seminary and were ordained after 45. I cannot see any reason to exclude them from ministry.

centrist
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Older clergy bring much more in the way of life experiences and wisdom. It would be too bad if the age was limited for this reason. Perhaps there should be a better understanding of the time and monetary commitments before people enter seminary. If that is understood, then it is the candidates problem whether or not he or she wants to proceed. I find it a little difficult to believe that someone who has had, for instance, a teaching, military, or business career would need 8+ years to become proficient in the ministry. Another thing to think about is that… Read more »
revwilly
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Could an unintended consequence of the Texas proposal be that they don't receive enough candidates for their needs and they end up with far fewer pastors than they need to fill their churches?

wpDiscuz
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