UMC concerned about decline of young leaders; number of elders under 35 lowest since 2005

UMC General Conference
Delegates pray before a plenary session at the United Methodist Church's 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon. |

The United Methodist Church has expressed concern over the apparent decline of young church leaders, notably following a report that elders under the age of 35 has hit its lowest point since 2005 and is about a third of what it was in 1990.

Wesley Theological Seminary’s Lewis Center for Church Leadership recently released an annual report on age trends in UMC leadership, focusing on the jurisdictional conferences based in the United States.

According to the Lewis Center report, there are 875 elders under the age of 35 in the UMC this year, a decline from 949 elders under 35 last year.

It represents the lowest number of UMC elders under 35 since 2005, when the total was at 850, a record low. It is also well below the amount in 1990, when the denomination had 2,385 elders under 35.

However, as a percentage of the total, elders under 35 has remained consistent over the past four years due to an overall decline in the number of elders.

“Interestingly, due to the overall decline in the total number of active elders in the United Methodist Church, the percentage of young elders of all active elders remains around 7 percent, up from the record low of 5 percent in 2005,” read the report.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., senior consultant at the Lewis Center, said in a statement published last Wednesday that it was “difficult to know all the causes of the dramatic recent decline in the number of young elders.”

“The reasons are probably many. Current denominational tensions do not help,” wrote Weems, alluding to the UMC’s years-long debate over its stance on LGBT issues.

“However, the need to encourage the young to hear and respond to God’s call for their lives, including the called to ordained ministry, is paramount.”

Weems also stressed the importance of having more young adults in elder positions, adding “when one age group is significantly lower than their presence in the population, the future is less likely to be positive.”

“With all their limitations of experience, the young see the world and the church through new eyes, bringing enthusiasm, idealism, and fresh perspectives to the practice of ministry,” he continued.

The Center’s report also found that even though the number of elders went down, the category of “local pastors” had experienced a slight increase compared to last year, going from 7,538 in 2018 to 7,563 in 2019.

The percentage of local pastors under 35 has been on the rise, going from 4 percent of all local pastors in 1990 to 9 percent in 2019.

The Center’s report on declining church leadership in the United States comes as the global denomination is set to add more bishops to the continent of Africa.

At the UMC General Conference in 2016, it was decided to add 5 new bishops in Africa in 2020 as a response to the rapid growth of the denomination on the continent.

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