The UMC’s Young Clergy Initiative is this week and their participants and observers are tweeting with the hashtag #UMCYCI. Click to follow along. I think it’s powerful to get the group together and allow them space to chat and fishbowl about their experiences. And they are often speaking of the roadblocks to identify, guide, and encourage Young Adults through the process to become Young Clergy.
Given that I’m not there, I’d still like to wear my opinionated-Cheetos-eating-blogger hat and chime in…In my opinion, one of the very real roadblocks to young clergy isn’t mentors, education, serpentine ordination processes, or ageism.
It’s church metrics.
The use of objective (also meaning non-situational) data to show whether a church is growing or shrinking. It’s one of the only aspects of the Call To Action that Bishops have initiated without any votes of approval from any bodies. Its usage is spreading conference-by-conference.
And I believe church metrics can become a hazard to identification, support, and retention of young clergy.
Let’s see why.
Dave Kinnaman in his recent book You’ve Lost Me quotes the following as a response to the “epidemic” of churches losing young people:
Some faith leaders simply say they will wait until young people get old enough to get married and have their own kids. Then they will be ready to return to church.
Kinnaman isn’t the only one saying it. Here’s two experiences I’ve had firsthand where they rationalize their ministry focus:
- A very senior pastor told a group of young clergy that he “doesn’t worry about it when 20yos leave church.” He was a 20 year old once and he wasn’t interested in anything but himself. “But when they have families and want them to have a church experience, they will come back.” So the church focuses on those families and gets a better return for their efforts.
- A middle-aged pastor of a growing church is located right next to a college but tells the staff not to do campus-focused worship services or offerings. Why? “They don’t tithe.” In other words, there’s no way to sustain a ministry by “wasting” money on a group that doesn’t tithe.
From the above, one of the reigning understandings of ministry is that it’s okay if they fall off the church wagon for a few years…they will be back with children, income, and attendance at family events at the church.
Hmm. Children. Money. Attendance. Where have I seen those before? Oh yes…dashboards.
Church metrics often use “dashboards” to compare ministries to other ministries. Look at these dashboards and you’ll see the primary beans being counted are (1) worship attendance (2) new members (3) baptisms, and (4) money in the offering plates [includes apportionments].
In a church metrics system, then the families-with-children demographic should be a gold mine: They will attend worship so that their young children can “get the faith.” They “join” as new members as they have often settled away from their home church towns. They will bring their new children to be baptized. They have matured somewhat in their careers and thus have the income to tithe faithfully.
Thus the metrics system gives rationalization to a church growth strategy towards young families and away from college and mid-20s people (who are leaving church anyway, don’t have much money or attend church regularly…so why waste the resources?). In this economy, church metrics encourage getting “the most bang for the buck” and for churches tightening their belt and this return-focused mentality getting more and more ears…then one can understand why money would be shifted from college-age ministries to family-age ministries.
Here’s the problem: By removing the focus on young adults under 30, we are suffering a brain drain of young clergy and young people in professional ministry opportunities.
David Kinnaman concludes his commentary on the phenomenon of not really caring that young people are leaving:
But is that really a reasonable approach, especially when the ages of marriage and childbearing are getting pushed further back? Is that what we want for young people—to have years of religious education, experiences, and relationships, only to turn away once they can decide for themselves?…[E]ven though the childhood and early adolescent years are the time during which spiritual and moral compasses are calibrated, the experimental and experiential decade from high school to the late twenties is the time when a young person’s spiritual trajectory is confirmed and clarified
So we have the following objections to the church-metrics-friendly strategy of avoiding ministry with young people:
- Are we Okay With 15 Years of No Church? To the pastors I quoted above, they grew up in a generation where you still got married and had babies before you were 25. So by not focusing on singles and couples, they were really only avoiding about seven years of a person’s life (because you have to have a YOUTH group so the FAMILIES will come). Today, couples are getting married later and having babies later. My spouse and I got married at 26 and are having our first baby at 32. That would mean we could not have been focused on by a church for 15 years of our life. Are we really okay with a church growth strategy that ignores a decade and a half of people’s lives?
- Campus Ministries matter! I was meeting with a group of young adults at my current appointment. MANY of them met during a campus ministry in college and have remained faithful Methodists since. When I look at the young clergy I shared a commissioning class with, they were predominantly nurtured in a campus ministry. Mark Shaefer at American University agrees in this blog post: “The campus ministries are dynamic centers of the church. Methodism was started on a college campus and Methodism will be renewed on our college campuses—if we commit to campus ministry.”
- The Leaders We Get Feel Isolated. We have exceptional young adult clergy and laity now that are active in Methodist leadership. They are the exception rather than the rule. But from the tweets coming out of #UMCYCI, we see that isolation and feeling unsupported through the processes is the norm. Little wonder: no one has dedicated resources towards them before…why would they now? So we reap the isolation of the leaders we DO get from our sowing our resources in “more fruitful but older” fields.
- The Leaders We Don’t Get Jump Ship. Adam Hamilton asked the following question to the #UMCYCI people: “how do we recruit people who could go to law or medical school but see church as the best place to make positive differences?” I would add that our exclusive polity against LGBT people openly serving as clergy means that gifted young LGBT people shift to other denominations where their paths are more clear…and my friends that have jumped ship are often amazingly gifted people.
Thankfully there are actions we can do NOW even in the face of this retention problem.
- Listen to Young Adults NOW. Read the tweets from the #UMCYCI this week. And also every other week you can participate in the #DreamUMC chats which are predominantly young adults. The next one is next Monday the 27th at 9pm Eastern/6pm Pacific.
- Support campus ministries. More and more of them are on the chopping block. Change hearts and minds that these are the mission fields, and the benefits are just as good as missions overseas. Find balance and support instead of outsourcing campus ministries to local churches that, as metrics dictates, won’t spend the time necessary.
- Rethink young people’s ministries as “investments” rather than “cash crops.” To farmers, cash crops are ones that are in demand and are easily sold. To pastors like I quoted above, young families seem like cash crops as once you retain them you get many “ticks” on the church metrics scale. Instead, churches need to see ministries to young people and college-age folks as investments for the future. Like John 4:38 says, others will reap what we have sowed. And you may be the beneficiary of other people’s sowing. Every church I’ve served has been a beneficiary of the Wesley Foundation at Oklahoma City University…and most of those churches never gave a dime to that campus ministry. But some did. And now I hope to give back.
Young adults don’t want to save the church. They want to save the world. If we can show them that they can save the world through the church, and pour in resources and efforts to all ages from babies to geezers, we can show that the church can be a vehicle through whom the world can be saved.
To get there, we’ll need to adapt our understanding of church metrics, and encourage our ecclesial leadership to extend special consideration to young people’s ministries, and reflect that in the ministries and missions that are supported at the Annual Conference level.
Otherwise, we will continue to say not only that “we’ve lost young people” but also “we’ve lost talented young clergy to other denominations” and while we can celebrate their achievements through Christ who gives them strength, we will also weep in our hearts in loss of what could have been. And it will be our fault.