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|This page last updated 15 April 2007|
Join the Ministry and . . . ?
It was a revelation. At a recent conference for aspirants to the ordained ministry that this writer was chairing, we had asked the participants to comment on a draft of a recruiting brochure. Our working group composed of Boomer members of the commission on ministry (COM) had labored long and hard to produce something we thought would be compelling reading, something that would get young people asking themselves whether God is calling them to the priesthood or diaconate.
While the middle-aged and beyond were making approving murmurs, the youngest of our aspirants, a college sophomore, asked for the floor. 'Is this supposed to be for young people?'he asked. I nodded, smiling. 'They'll never go for this,' he tapped the first page, 'or this,' pointing to the next page, and then there's this'. Emboldened by his candor, the other young people began to express their criticisms as well.
The brochure is being completely re-written, following on their many suggestions.
The revelation was that we (a) really need young clergy and we (b) have few clues how to attract them. Perhaps this was already obvious, but it was strongly reinforced that day.
If we are to make the 20/20 Vision a reality, we will need a whole new generation of clergy very soon. The average age of Episcopal clergy is said to be 52. If it is true that rectors tend to attract people who are between ten years younger and ten years older than themselves, then our youngest Episcopalians are averaging 42. If we can lower the average age of clergy, we should lower the average age of Episcopalians. Just as important, we must train and deploy a new generation of clergy to counter a growing shortage.
This entails doing something we do not do well, if at all. The Episcopal Church is going to have to start recruiting young clergy. Long ago, clergy were trained to suggest to promising teenagers (all men in those days) that they consider making the priesthood their life's work. Those who accepted were sent off to seminary after a meeting or two with the bishop, young and usually unmarried. Then they were deployed as curates, youth ministers, camp counselors, school chaplains. There was reputedly no more eligible bachelor than a newly-minted Episcopal priest.
Things have changed, of course. The aftermath of the Sixties and the Vietnam War saw many people embarking on an inner quest for the meaning of their lives. At the time, studying for ordination was the acceptable way to pursue what God was asking one to do. This change bore fruit. The church now has an entire generation of women and men (and I'm one) who were able to convince a rector, committees and bishop that they were fit for ordination. Then we sallied forth to seminary from which most of us emerged with M.Div. degrees and shortly thereafter, ordination certificates. Before long, there was a perceived glut of clergy. Soon there will be, it was said, one priest for every two laypeople.
I've never been convinced that as a whole the Episcopal Church has ever had an oversupply of clergy. Certainly there was for a time a surfeit of candidates in certain regions, namely, where the 'good' jobs were. Whatever the facts of the matter, the brakes were put on the ordination process, and the commissions on ministry erected ever-more hoops for the self-directed to jump through. One hoop was youth. The few young people who stumbled upon the idea of a vocation to Holy Orders were told to go away, get a job and some life experience, and then come back. Not unsurprisingly, almost all went away for good.
Clergy of recent vintage are the products of this system. They have the charism of perseverance, among other things. They have life experience, whatever that means. Their COMs were stringent. Their bishops were vigilant. The glut had to end.
The glut did end, if ever it existed. No one speaks blithely of a priest for every two laypeople anymore. Rectors of large parishes complain of the dearth of candidates. And now, with an entire generation of clergy trained from day one to persist in a process that would be glad to see you drop out, we have to recruit young people. Or die.
The rectors should be the front line of recruitment. Yet how many were themselves recruited? It is an alien idea for us who persisted through the minefield of the ordination process to ask young people to consider the ordained ministry. First of all, the process will grind your youthful candidates down, and they will become discouraged with it and disillusioned with you. So we have to change the COM’s process. That means changing the minds of all those dedicated people who succeeded in taming the glut. Which means the bishops have to re-think the whole matter. And how many bishops were themselves recruited?
'Join the Navy and see the world', the recruiting poster said. It worked. Lots of people have seen the world standing on a gray steel deck. 'Join the ordained ministry and ...' what? What can we say?
I tell young people who show promise that they should consider whether their life's work is in the ordained ministry. It's been a hard habit to develop, after all those warnings about gluts and the worries about what the COM will do to those blithe young souls. But it is necessary. God calls young people to ordained ministry, just as God calls people in their late 50s to ordained ministry. The recruiter's job is simply to suggest that they find out more. If this is in the context of an overall constant push to help parishioners discover, articulate and fulfill their ministry--lay or ordained--then it should feel quite natural.
This means we need several things in place. COMs need to learn to accept recruits, without demanding too much of them at first. There needs to be a way of keeping young people involved in the discernment process in college. Unfortunately, we disinvested in college ministry a while ago, so we have to start all over again. That might not be a bad thing, if we can build in something for aspirants to ordained ministry. Then the seminaries will have to draw on ancient institutional memories and re-adapt to a significant percentage of young seminarians. Dioceses will have to develop mentoring programs and think up new innovative ways to harness all that energy. And we need to learn to think of deployment on a national, not diocesan, scale. There are certainly lots of other things we need, but these are important.
It all goes back to the initial approach. The rector can suggest that someone consider ordination. Rectors should do this regularly, in fact. The question the young will inevitably ask is, why would anyone want to do that? The answer can only be, because God wants them to--and what does God want you to do?
The 20/20 Vision requires a great deal of us. In the area of recruiting the next generation of clergy leaders, the Episcopal Church is
ill-equipped to change old habits. But this is a struggle we cannot lose. We conquered the clergy 'glut', didn't we? We saved lots of would-be
clergy from being told there were no jobs. Now we need to conquer the recruitment challenge. Or there will be no one to save at all.