I believe that our denomination has a large problem looming that I am hearing little about. Our active clergy are mostly from older generations. I am currently 40, and it is easy for me to notice that I am the youngest clergy at most conferences and on most committees. I struggle to think of another profession in which this would be true. Enrollments of Inquirers and Candidates (the beginning process for ordination) are down by 25%. Seminary enrollments are down. There is a decline in the number of these seminarians that are pursuing church ministry. The denomination is administering half the number of ordination exams as they did 7 years ago. Another relevant factor is that many people who have been ordained in the recent past are second career pastors. These pastors bring valued wisdom and experience, but they will retire along with the rest of the baby boomers within the next 10-15 years. We may have a crisis looming in leadership for our churches.
I understand that we are currently experiencing the closure of many churches. I understand what the Pew Research polls are telling us about the decline in religious affiliation. But we cannot embrace the model of a dying church. I believe that a forward looking church needs to be concerned with training leadership. The church is, no doubt, changing, but surely God’s new creation will require leaders.
We are also currently suffering from the loss of perspective that is brought through younger leaders. We are dismayed to see the decline in church attendance in Generation X and in the Millenials. Surely it would help if we had the perspective of these generations present within our church leadership. Seeing younger clergy serving churches might also help these generations feel that they belong when they come to visit our congregations. I have certainly experienced that this is true in my own ministry.
Some obvious, but difficult, things we can do to ease this problem would be to offer greater financial assistance for seminary education. Most pastors do not make large salaries and it is impractical to expect seminarians to take on large debts in order to get the education we need them to have. We can also invest in programs that walk alongside our young adults who are committed to religious life and help them discern their call.
The church is changing, not dying. The eternal church of Jesus Christ will not die but will continue to reform and reshape. We need to invest in the future.