(Photo: AP Images / Matt York)
The United Methodist Church has begun to see an increase in the number of young clergy after decades of decline, a new report reveals.
There are now more young local pastors than at any time in recent history, according to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.
Up from 3.4 percent in 1985, local pastors under the age of 35 now make up 5.8 percent of all 7,341 UMC clergy, including part-time pastors.
At the same time, however, the median age of local pastors is still 55.
Younger clergy are not necessarily better ministers than their older colleagues, but they often bring a new passion and fresh ideas to their vocation, the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr., the project director of the study, told the United Methodist News Service.
For years, United Methodists have been making efforts to draw more young people to clergy positions after a report in 2007 found that less than 5 percent of the denomination’s leadership came from the younger generation. Twenty years earlier, 15.05 percent of the leadership were aged 35 or under.
The Rev. Jerome King Del Pino of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry called it a leadership crisis and urged action to double the number of young people in clergy, elder and deacon positions.
Weems of the Lewis Center observed, "Our assumption is that God continues to call people of all ages, so if there is a particular group not responding to that call, then it’s probably not [because of] God. There are other reasons why younger persons might not be responding."
One of the reasons he listed is that there are fewer children.
"What under-35 clergy have most in common is that they were active in church as children," he said, according to UMNS. "They were active in church as youth. So if year after year, there are fewer children in church, then it would naturally seem that there would be fewer clergy coming in."
According to the Lewis Center report, released this week, for the first time, more than half of active elders are now between the ages of 55 and 72. Elders are responsible for preaching and teaching the Word of God, administration of the sacraments, and ordering of the ministry of the church.
What may be accounting for the high number of older clergy is the decrease in retirements, mainly due to the economic downturn.
Meanwhile, the percentage of elders in the 35-54 age range dropped dramatically over the last decade, from 65 percent in 2000 to under half in 2010.
Still, the denomination has reason to hope.
There are currently more young elders, deacons, and local pastors than ten years ago, the report shows. The number and percentage of young deacons – who are responsible for forming disciples and assisting elders in the administration of the sacraments – reached their highest levels in 2010. They now make up 9.56 percent of all deacons.
The purpose of the Lewis Center's ongoing research effort is to identify clergy age trends in The United Methodist Church so that denominational leaders have the data for planning and a baseline for monitoring future changes.
The United Methodist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination in the country with 7.9 million members.