Pastors under 40 face unique challenges

The reality is that she could be making a lot more money in another profession. It will take her years to pay off her student loans, and she works at a job that many people her age just don’t understand. She’s a single woman who would like one day to marry and have children, but she lives in a small Nebraska town where unmarried young people are few and far between.

“There’s no way on God’s green Earth that I would be here if God hadn’t insisted on it,” said Forbes, who considers herself “really blessed” by her call. “This is not what I would have chosen for me. I’m here for one reason — this is where God wanted me to be.”

The 7 Percent Event

In October, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) plans to hold what it calls the “7 Percent Event” — a gathering for young pastors, those under 40, who these days make up only 7 percent of the ministers in the PC(USA). It’s scheduled for Oct. 9-12 at the Stony Point Conference Center near New York City, and is the second such gathering convened. The first, two years ago, drew about 60 people. “The reason to do a national gathering in one location,” said one of the organizers, Bill Golderer, “is that there are too few people to do regional events.”

And the Presbyterians aren’t alone: a recent report by the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education concludes that across denominations, “the profile of seminary students has changed dramatically in the last half century. . . . Fifty years ago, virtually all students studying for graduate ministry degrees in North America were white men who had recently graduated from college.”

Today, there are more students who are older, more women and people of color, more who didn’t decide to go to seminary until after they’d left college and already had worked in at least one other career.

“If the statisticians are correct that the average age of entering seminary students is older than 34 . . . and if they are correct when they point to the small (and shrinking) percentages of ministers under the age of 40 in our denominations, then we are running the risk of losing our edge,” James P. Wind, president of the Alban Institute, an ecumenical group that works with congregations, wrote earlier this year in an institute publication focused on the concerns of young ministers.

“To stay vital, religious congregations need the pressure of the next generation,” Wind wrote. “They need the moral challenge of conviction that comes with the idealism of youth and the lack of countless qualifications that come with middle and old age. They need the outrage at hypocrisy, the naïve questions and the freshness of not having done it that way before. The wisdom of the elders needs the stirring, shaking questions of the younger to stretch beyond smugness, weariness or limited imagination.”

Some of the workshops being offered at the 7 Percent Event reflect that sense of young leaders wanting to find new ways to help people connect with God — including discussions on using technology in worship, reaching a postmodern audience, and “Preaching to Rattle Teacups and Wake the Dead.”

Another intent of the conference, Golderer said, is to give young pastors the chance to build friendships that cut across differences about controversial issues in the church, to create relationships of trust that might allow them to support one another, through e-mail and long-distance friendships, over what could amount to decades of work together in the PC(USA).

But there also will be time just for conversation, for talking honestly with people who can understand about the joys and frustrations of counseling people old enough to be their parents about things they’ve never experienced, and being told, when they present new ideas, that “You’re just a kid” and “You’ll grow out of that.”

Shaped by different cultures

Some pastors in their twenties and thirties are confronted almost daily with the recognition that cultural references that have shaped them — the music, the movies, the connectivity of e-mail — aren’t even on the radar for some in their congregations.

In an Internet conversation for young pastors, one woman wrote that she serves as pastor of two small country churches, and “the church treasurer for the bigger church is 80. Every three months or so, she wants to know if we really need to pay for this ‘Internet thing.'”

One of the most popular parts of the 1999 conference — an idea which will be repeated this time around — was the “Top 10 Project,” in which the young pastors listed the 10 things they most wished they’d learned in seminary. (One young single pastor suggested: “I always wanted us to have a workshop called, “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.”)

“Young pastors today feel very isolated,” said David Colby, 30, a pastor from Westminster church, Wilmington, Del., who attended the first gathering and is on the planning team for the second. Ministers in their twenties and thirties often work long hours in demanding jobs; their colleagues in ministry often are older and at much different points of life; and, because of people’s natural tendency to gossip and the denominational requirement that pastors be chaste if they are single or faithful if they are married, their personal and romantic relationships can be watched as closely as the first showing of a blockbuster movie.

“Not only is the pastor supposed to be a certain age and the pastor is supposed to be male — the pastor is supposed to be married,” said Kevin Conley, a 30-year-old, single pastor from North Carolina.

Forbes remembers the bridesmaids being surprised when she took to the dance floor after performing a wedding. That wasn’t their image of what a pastor should be like. “The people in my generation aren’t even going to church, much less leading church,” said Forbes, pastor of First church, Tekamah, Neb. “People my age don’t want to hang out with a minister . . . . I’m not exactly the person they want to invite to the next party.”

Some who do go to seminary never plan to work in parishes. And some of those who do serve congregations burn out quickly and leave. Colby said some people reject the idea of going into the ministry in the first place, in part because of concerns over the relatively low pay and “the sense of never having enough time for a personal life and never having weekends off.”

Especially in smaller churches, “You are surrounded by people,” but because of the need to maintain some professional distance “You can’t divulge the fullness of who you are” or talk about problems at work, said Golderer, who directs the Center for Church Life at Auburn Seminary and is on the planning team for the 7 Percent conference.

For many young pastors, it’s like “Welcome to the island, Mr. Crusoe. You’re left — left and bereft.”

A deep sense of call

At the same time, however, young people who choose to enter the ministry often do so with a deep sense of call and a desire to bring God’s message to a hurting world, even as they’re uncertain of what lies ahead. They recognize that the future of the PC(USA), and of mainline denominations, is anything but clear and sure. They worry about spending years and too much energy fighting over issues such as homosexuality. They wonder if churches can touch the hearts and imaginations of people their own age.

“We’re in an age where people are still suspicious of institutions but open to the idea of looking for meaning and spirituality and connection to communities,” Colby said. So younger Presbyterian pastors, while rooted in the Reformed tradition, often are open to new ideas about worship and ministry, and some have deliberately sought out congregations that seem open to new possibilities.

Kevin Conley is pastor of Covenant church, a small congregation in Winston-Salem, N.C. Probably 75 to 80 percent of its members are “definitely over 55,” Conley said, and a lot are considerably older than that. But “they’re not all stereotypically older people, resistant to change,” he said.

Kerri Hefner, 26, said that when she was interviewing for jobs she tried to get a sense of “whether they were happy with the status quo or they wanted to change.” Some congregations “were happy sitting there with 15 members” and everything staying just as it’s always been. “I thought, ‘Forget it.’ I’ll just bag groceries until I find a church that fits.”

Hefner did find a match. For the past year she’s been pastor at First church, Taylorsville, N.C. She met a man and got married (“I found my husband in a really unlikely place” — a meeting on preventing domestic violence). Now some of the older men in the church have stopped flirting so much, and the moms have stopped trying to fix her up with their nephews and sons, and instead have started asking when she plans to have a baby.

Younger pastors smile at some of what they encounter, but it’s also a sense of call, of doing the work that God has led them to, that brings them joy and connection, and true satisfaction in the work.

Conley has been at his church for several months now, and is enjoying the “firsts” — preaching his first sermon there, his first time breaking the bread at Communion, baptizing the first baby.

“Just getting to know these people — that’s a blessing in itself,” Conley said. On hospital visits and in hallway conversations, he’s talked with retired teachers and men who served in Asia and Europe in World War II, heard the faith journeys of people who have dedicated their lives to the church. After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, his congregation held its first midweek prayer service in probably 20 or 30 years — and talked together about the idea of forgiving enemies.

Sometimes, Conley thinks maybe he should change his mind, go back to graduate school, try something else. “Then I think, ‘No, I think I’ll stay here,'” surrounded by his elders, in the place where he feels he belongs.

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