Young Clergy Exodus – Stories in the #UMC

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I am a young clergyperson in the United Methodist Church.

On April 18th 2013, I found out that FOUR of my young clergy friends in different areas were leaving ordained ministry. I could not stop the lament from tearing at my heart. They are a terrific loss to the church and to me personally.

After discerning what to do with my lament, I decided we needed a way to gather stories of former young clergy, likely-soon-to-leave young clergy, and young adults who never finished the process. And after gathering those stories, seeing if there are common threads.

What follows below is an opportunity for you to reflect on your own experience and decision in terms of your ongoing discernment and spiritual development.

The Survey

So the first stage is gathering data of young adults (under 35 years old). As I see it, people should be in one of four categories:

  1. If you are a young clergyperson or local pastor who is leaving your ministry context this year, please fill out this survey.
  2. If you left ordained ministry as a young clergyperson (say in the past 5 years), please fill out this survey.
  3. If you are a young laity who left the ordination process or decided not to enter it, please fill out this survey.
  4. If you are in the ordination process and are considering leaving the process or your ministry context, please fill out this survey.

The survey is here (Google Form) NOTE: Survey closes on May 15th. Please respond by then.

Guarantee of Confidentiality

We may or may not know each other. I get it if you are wary of sharing personal information. My hope is that these stories will be shared in the public forum with all identifying information removed. I’ve worked with sensitive topics for years and will absolutely honor confidentiality. Any public use will be shared with you beforehand (provided that you give your contact info on the next page).

Especially if you are Category #4 and are considering leaving a ministry context, sharing that you are considering leaving ministry at this stage is highly dangerous and intimate. I get that. So this is my guarantee: any public use will be shared with you beforehand (provided that you give your contact info on the next page). This is only to gather stories.

It will be kept anonymous, and reporting will be made as non-identifiable as possible. Feel free to check with shared friends on Facebook or trusted colleagues in OK, MA, or OR as to my reliability in honoring privacy.

Please Share

Please share with people whom you know fit the categories above and that will help me gather data and collect stories to share to help young adults in and out of the ordination process find some help and hope–and the rest of us as well.

Thank you for participating.

NOTE: Survey closes on May 15th. Please respond by then.

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Comments

  1. Curtis Brown says

    Also check out The Anna Howard Shaw Center’s Clergywomens Retention Study findings. Many of the reasons for leaving ministry were not gender-specific.

  2. Alycia says

    It so saddens me to see the young ones leaving. God plans to use this generation to change the world, but the Methodist church in its current state is pretty powerless, and these kids know it. They’re not stupid. The ones who’ve grown up in the Methodist church know a lot about Jesus and His good works. But they don’t know the Holy Spirit, the one He said would follow Him and enable them to do even greater things than He did. Jesus currently sits at the right hand of His Father, and all authority in heaven and earth has been entrusted to US, His people. No one’s told them this, and they’re frustrated not being able to do the great works God’s called them to. I believe this generation loves Harry Potter and its magic because it has the power they’re looking for. I believe they want to minister like Jesus talked about in Luke 4, but they don’t feel the anointing. That’s the Holy Spirit, and that’s what’s missing. These young ones see people dying of cancer and want to help. No one’s told them they have full authority in Jesus’ name to bind that spirit of death that cancer is and speak life! Instead they stand by and mourn with the people they’re supposed to be helping. Trust me – once they grasp this and start walking in it, the Methodist church will come alive again.

    Our current Methodist system requires those interested in entering the ministry to spend way too much time in the ordination process. I was interested at one time, but I heard God very specifically tell me not to waste all that time. Instead, He sent me a mentor to help disciple me. I now minister very powerfully as a lay person, and I actually work with junior high through College-aged kids – they are hungry!

    1 Corinthians 1:18-31 speaks of Christ crucified being God’s power and wisdom. It’s a very specific word for today’s Methodist church/system. Let those who have ears hear this word. May Christ be glorified and receive all the honor!

    • Lindsay M. Wessell says

      Alycia, thank you for your thoughts. I am a 31 year old ordained UM clergywoman, and I ask that you consider expressing your opinion in a sensitive manner when around young clergy . . . I am offended that you think I and my [young] colleagues do not know the Holy Spirit. I am hurt by the over-generalization. However, it is your opinion and I have no right to tell you what to think/speak . . . I just ask that you do it with sensitivity. Thank you very much.

      • J.F. says

        Thank you, Lindsay, for saying what (too) many of the younger generation will be too hurt to say. There are a lot of assumptions about a generation without any evidence of having listened to the agony of those leaving the ministry.

      • lha says

        I was ordained in the early 80’s. I am one of the very few of my classmates still in ordained ministry in the local church. I’m not sure why but here are a few ideas: pastors have a model of leadership that is outmoded and antiquated. Churches function as massive committees who have to have approval and the congregation manages the clergy rather than the clergy leading the church. This does not work and leaves one exhausted trying to meet expectations and feeling compromised as one is unable to follow one’s own understanding of the needs of the local church.

        I would guess the attrition rate, after graduation from seminary is 90%

    • says

      I am a young clergyperson serving in the UMC. I take exception to the idea that we know nothing about the Holy Spirit. You are seriously over generalizing here. It might be your experience with the very limited folks around you that this is the case (which I honestly doubt) but to say that most in our generation don’t is factually impossible. Alas, maybe that has been your experience but I hope you will get some more knowledge soon.

  3. says

    Perhaps it would be good to balance all the negative with a survey for young clergy who aren’t leaving? Seems like you’ll come out with something pretty slanted if these are the only young clergy you consult…

    • says

      Well, if this was a professional research thing, slicing the demographic narrowly to people who are leaving is appropriate. But as someone who is just interested in the stories, this is not a bad idea…perhaps a sequel in a few days or next week?

      Thanks for the idea, Jeff. I’ll give you a dollar at AC.

  4. BTrygs says

    As a person who is fighting to STAY in the ordination track while in seminary, it is so discouraging to see people dropping out around me. It really does seem like an epidemic. I am passing this survey along to many of them. I hope you will get some diverse info, but PLEASE USE IT WELL! It might do some good to contact the Young Adult representative to the Connectional Table (Kevin Sauceda or Ricky Harrison) and get them involved with this project. Thanks for sounding the trumpet, now let’s really see what kind of momentum we can build.

    • RBR says

      I want to clarify there are 4 young people on the Connectional Table.
      I thank BTrygs for suggesting we reach out to these young people, but you have excluded the 2 women who serve. The four young people on the CT are Ricky and Kevin (as named) AND Riva Tabelisma (from the Philippines and the official Young adult rep from DMYP) and Rachel Birkhahn-Rommelfanger.

      I just wanted to clarify because this is how we mis-information gets spread.

  5. Casey Taylor says

    It’s helpful to have information. However, I question the language of “epidemic” that some are using or implying. So a few questions:

    1) Are there REALLY more young clergy exiting the ministry than in previous generations? Does information from earlier time periods exist for comparison? Or are some more sensitive to this because they are themselves young clergy?

    2) I’m young clergy; no one has to defend the importance of recruitment and guidance to young clergy to me. I get it. However, why are we focusing exclusively on young clergy? What about second career persons who have begun exploring ordination?

    I commend the interest and would suggest contacting various conference Boards of Ordained Ministry for more insight and data.

    • says

      I too wonder if it’s really significantly different.

      One pastor showed me a picture several years ago. I think it was meant to help show me how difficult ministry can be. It was a picture of his ordination class (I believe for deacon when we did both) In it were at least 18 folks. He noted that only three were still serving as pastors.

      This is likely an extreme example, but again, I wonder if the rate is really different.

      Is there any way to gauge that?

      • says

        I’ve been contacted by a few people who have done similar studies; unfortunately they will likely not be direct relationships because our studies didn’t use the same questions or methodology. But perhaps they will be useful.

  6. Spencer says

    I’ve been very active with youth lay speakers at a large UMC congregation for about the past 10 years (the last time I counted, that’s about 25 kids, although I worked more closely with some than with others.

    The two who intended to go into the ministry, who both went through the Perkins School of Youth Ministry have been away from the church for several years, because both were hurt at church. One is coming back gently (a young adults program on Wednesday nights). The other serves in a ministry to the homeless in another denomination.

    The other one who still intends to enter the ministry is going to school out of the area, but does come back for summers, etc.

    What these kids are capable of, is amazing. What kids get asked to do, is way less than what they’re capable of doing.

  7. Alison Johnson says

    I don’t fit the profile for your survey, but will offer up my experience as a “comment”. I graduated from seminary in 1991 and served as an ordained deacon for 4 years in a “cooperative” ministry of three small rural churches. My biggest problems in ministry were dealing with 3 cases of child sexual abuse, and my own disasterous marraige. After those 4 years, my health was spiralling out of controll; I was very depressed, had high blood pressure, frequent migraines, and developed asthma. One year after leaving ministry and my marriage, all my health problems were resolved! Sometimes when I reflect on my time in ministry I can say that God put me in the right place at the right time, because I was trained in how to help those families with their sex abuse experiences, and then God said “Go, I release you to live your life”. I am still an active member of the United Methodist Church. Recently my pastor asked me to preach. I really enjoyed the experience, but sermon preparation and delivery still sparked two (rare) migraines… some things don’t change…. and I prefer my view from the pew.

    • Steve Putka says

      As I’m sure you’re aware, stress-related health problems are the norm, rather than the exception, for clergy. Depression and anxiety are much more prevalent with clergy than in the general church population. I am so happy for you that you “got out” and can now be physically healthy, serving God in other ways. Blessings!

  8. Newton Boyd says

    It is becoming clearer and clearer that education does not produce transformed people or even people who know how to help people be transformed. I realized this when I returned to church, after many years, seeking fellowship so that I could fight my alcoholism. After over a year at a Methodist church I went to AA. The 12 steps of AA completely changed my relationship with God. I stayed in the church as well and was even asked to be a Ministry Candidate as a result of the change God was making in people through me. The more involved I got the more I saw that EGO was at work not Christ. Numbers and fame were the goals not saving people and changing the world. God working as He was through me became a threat and a challenge to the senior Ministers EGO. The world is making it quite clear that real transformation is the only solution and I am glad to see that young people can see this. Christians are finally going to be Christ like.

    • Jim W. -- Friend of Bill W. says

      Newton Boyd — you hit the nail on the head ! EGO = “Easing God Out” and unfortunately there’s a lot of that going in the halls of organized religion — especially the Christian religion, I’m very sorry to have to say it , but it’s true. Was Nietzsche right after all, about religion being in essence a resentment-based psychological type of response to the foibles and uncertainties of life, and that a smug sort of self-satisfication is the end result ? One is sorely tempted to conclude this, after one sees case after case after case after case of precisely that which you describe — especially in churches…. ugh…. Thank God for the 12 Steps….:):):):

    • Eric says

      12 step programs are a great adjunct to the church experience. They inject honesty, support and constructive accountability into one’s life. I see changed lives all the time in my 12-step group. There are few pretenders, because most of them leave. I wish I could say the same about our churches (sounds judgmental, but it’s true). The irony is that 12-step programs descended directly from the church via the Oxford Group. In fact, priests and other clergy were instrumental in developing the spirituality of the movement. How does this relate to clergy burnout? Well, I’ve found more support and truth — of the personal kind, i’m not talking about doctrinal truth — in my 12-step group than most of my church experiences. I go to my group each week and come away refreshed, refilled, and challenged. Everyone is on the same level, all may speak. The leadership serves, but they do not govern (this is part of the written traditions of 12-step groups). Then I plunge back into church work, and with the help of God’s grace, I manage. I will stay in this calling as long as God asks me too — I do not believe pastoring is necessarily a lifelong calling. But I believe we clergy could learn a lot about supporting one another in love and truth by modeling our relationships on the 12-step model. No, we may not be addicted to anything. (Well, maybe sin.) But 12-step spirituality is powerful, real, and relevant to our struggles in life.

      • Newton Boyd says

        I am moved by the openness of your responses. I wasn’t really thinking about burn out but I see that it is a concern. I was speaking more to authenticity. I think that accountability as a Christian to be Christ like is missing in many churches. If the same kind of accountability were taught and expected in church as is in 12 step programs church attendance would be low. As a Christian and someone that feels called to ministry it is difficult to find a path for ordination. My first thought when I read about this exodus of young pastors from the ordination process was that, like myself, they were seeing that there is a hypocrisy I don’t want to be a part of. As I walk in the world my life is my witness and often I never have to say that I am a Christian to be that witness but when I do use those words “I am a Christian” I often give the person a moment to get “that” picture in their mind and then I say “not that Christian”. It opens what would have often been a dead end situation. I know that there are people in the world that want to go to church but do not want to be part of the hypocrisy that I see all of the time. I know there is a need for a church that teaches practical teaching and life application of the Bible and spiritual principles. Yes 12 step spirituality is powerful but it is really just the spirituality that all Christians are supposed to be living.

  9. Tracy says

    Will you be able to compare this to data from previous decades? An awful lot of my friends also left the ministry after a first or second call. And that was the 80’s.

    • says

      I would have to rely on other people’s work. But some have contacted me, including someone who has data from Texas during a seven year period. We’ll see what comes up.

  10. Meg says

    I think there’s some research from Pulpit & Pew that would point to people leaving in earlier decades (80’s and 90’s, maybe?). One of their findings was that for ordained clergy, the biggest bump in leaving the ministry was between 5 and 7 years. So, in our current system of appointments, that would be about 2 years after someone moves from provisional to full membership (and some would argue loses a lot of the mentoring and support that happens during provisional membership). Then on the 7 years end, there are estimates that it takes 7-10 years for someone to become “expert” in something. So, that study shows we have been losing people (for a while) somewhere between losing the support systems built into provisional membership and then going on to develop expertise in the field. A high fall-out time. Hope that makes sense – let me know if you’ve got questions about that. It would be interesting to get some current trends on when those who are already ordained choose to exit ordained ministry.

  11. Mark Cordes says

    First, I am glad your doing this and I hope you use a good methodology.. It would be a shame to waste the effort so Id suggest some peer review of your method even as this is ongoing.

    Second, there is a lot of talk about the issue of “young clergy” leaving and it will be hard to make valid generational comparisons without a historic baseline of rates of “drop out” which may or may not be higher. I also wonder if that is necessarily a problem. I have had more than one career and each change has been because the work that I was doing no longer satisfied me… Perhaps “drop out” is not a “problem” to be solved but a good and natural thing.

    Third, it would also be helpful to know out of all persons entering ministry (control for age/gender/race/cross-cultural appointment) and then see if there are differing rates of drop out… These additional dimensions would likely tell a good story.

    Finally, a good friend who was ordained just after I was has left forever the appointed ministry in the UMC but remains a pastor and is active in hospital ministry… This person is a great loss to the appointive ministry but watching the last 12 years has convinced this person (rightly in my opinion) that the appointment system is detrimental to their life and ministry so they have opted out. I think this alone would likely in some sense capture many of the reasons that people leave at all stages of ministry…

    just my 2 cents thanks for reading

    peace

  12. Bill Rounsaville says

    I am a pastor nearing retirement age( I am about to turn 62), and I’ve been actively ministering for 40 years, including youth ministry and pastoring while completing seminary. Five years into active ministry, a Pastor-Parish chairperson engineered a “backdoor” meeting(that I accidentally found out about). The committee’s decision was that I move after only one year in that appointment.

    I had replaced a pastor that need not have been replaced(they thought he was the “fourth person in the Trinity”). Therefore, there was not much chance of succeeding in this situation.

    To make a long story short, I realized that Conference politics rules, and that the United Methodist pastor is simply an expendable, disposable commodity who is less important that our leadership’s goal. Therefore, they simply cave to the majority’s pressure instead of doing the right thing.

    I now serve in part-time status, and I drive a school bus and substitute teach. My secular employment leaders have always been more supportive and affirming that many of my district superintendants or bishops ever were.
    In my secular employment, goals have always been made clear, and I know when I’ve done a good job.

  13. says

    I am no longer young. However, I was 26 when I graduated from seminary and did not take a church position for the following reasons: 1) Racism withing my faith tradition. 2) anti-intellectualism within my faith tradition 3) failure of my seminary education to provide an integrated perspective on my faith 4) I felt that relying on a congregation for my living would compromise integrity and credibility 5) the fighting and anger and personal attacks that were occurring within my faith tradition (which unfortunately appear to be continuing)

  14. Mac says

    I cannot comment from a Methodist perspective (I’m a Baptist who graduated from Gordon Conwell). We did learn in seminary that the current rate of “dropout” (from the ministry) of MDiv students stands at 50% within the first 5 years of graduation.

    I believe that info was garnered from a survey of Dallas Seminary grads, but I’m not sure about that.

  15. Heather says

    I will be following your study with interest. I am not considered “young clergy,” being second career(third, maybe fourth depending on how you define “career”) and not entering Seminary until my thirties. My journey through the Ordination process has been tortuous, has taken almost 7 years, and is ending with full ordination this summer. I am not leaving. The process has been toxic, the politics are a nightmare, but I am in parish ministry doing the work God created me to do. It is a fine balance, but it tips by grace, and I am staying.

    However, I have two young adult women under my pastoral care who are most certainly called to ministry. They have watched me in this process for the last five years, and they want no part of it. Two wonderful, faithful, passionate women who will probably not become ministers in the United Methodist Church. I am certain they will always be in ministry, and I celebrate that. But I’m saddened that they will not serve in the denomination that raised and nurtured them.

    This process is utterly broken. I hope studies such as yours, and the others I am hearing about go some way towards proving this and that the voices of those who decline to participate in it might have a part in changing it.

  16. says

    It is an odd juxtaposition to see this coming on the heels of the article about Texas not wanting older clergy. If age doesn’t matter, then who cares if younger clergy are exiting? And how do we know that the “exodus” (alarmist?) is vastly different in ministry than in any number of other fields – education, law, medicine, non-profit work, etc.?

    Your line of questioning – or at least many of the responses – also seem to indicate that if news of the 2nd (or 3rd depending upon one’s take on allegorical reading) ‘exodus’ is true, then something must be wrong with “the system.”

    It could just as easily be true (if only partially, still, an important part of the story) that the exodus might have something to do with a feel-good, coddled generation who doesn’t do well without constant warm-fuzzies and hand-holding.

    Are there clergy-killing churches (for pastors of all ages)? Of course. Has ministry ever been easy? No – it wasn’t for the Wesleys, even when they were 20-somethings themselves.

    I will be ordained this year at age 30. The process is not easy and it wasn’t always fair. That makes it a system with human involvement, not a grave injustice. We do Christ’s mission no good by making it easier, or more accessible, or by lowering the bar so that more can make it through. In fact, if we take the example of Jesus calling the disciples to heart, then it would be difficult to imagine the process (especially since the telos is, for elder candidates, lifelong employment!) being too rigorous. Graceful, but always rigorous.

    • says

      From what I’ve read so far of the 102 responses, there’s been good amounts of self-critical comments as well as pointed failures of the system. I know of coddled people in every generation, what makes you think their presence is vastly different in this generation than any number of other generations?

      I was offered a lower bar for my ordination process. I was told if I wanted to cruise through it, then I didn’t need to be fully honest in the doctrinal questions. Low bar if I kept my opinions to myself. I didn’t, I was fully honest, and I had more obstacles than most (wrote a LOT of clarifying “essays”), and I too was ordained at 30.

      I think it is an overgeneralization to claim that young adults want the bar lowered for them. On the contrary: you and I can shoot for any bar we want to. But for people like us, the bar is always in the same place. That isn’t true for others without our privilege.

    • says

      I think it’s also worth nothing (and I answered the survey) that speaking that generally would include you as the coddled type. When describing generations, it’s important to realize if one is in it and not speaking with I statements from one’s personal experience, particularly when there may be a tone of blaming. I’ve read enough these two weeks of people either describing my generation for me or speaking on behalf of me as part of my generation to last me a while.

      Jeremy’s lowered bar is the one I worry about — I’ve watched candidates be delayed for actually knowing good, Wesleyan, sacramental theology as it sounded too Catholic to the BoOM that wasn’t as educated. I’ve heard more than one elder in full connection tell those same folks the necessity of dancing to get through the process. I don’t think it got into my survey, but my observations of the candidacy process (which I left before I was certified) was there was way more hazing than discernment. Someone’s comment on the piece about ageism reflects that as they talk about more experienced clergy having earned their dues rather than gained gifts of ministry.

      The candidacy processes that I observed (mostly for progressive women) were fraught with worrying about who might find out what you believe that challenges the normative narrative — even if it’s perfectly orthodox and backed up by centuries of scholarly writing on how we understand God. Universalism? Early church. Talk about it in your papers? Intense discussion, maybe a delay. Saying that the bible didn’t have easy answers and that we have to struggle through them caused someone to be delayed.

  17. Melissa Tustin says

    Hey Jeremy,
    Just for clarification, when you or a study say drop out is most common at 5 or 7 years, do you think that means after beginning to serve a church or after being ordained?

  18. Kevin Rutledge says

    Its sad but ironic that young clergy no longer want to be in the UM Clergy and there are conferences that only want younger clergy.

  19. HRG says

    I’m a bit late to this discussion, and am CC(DOC) rather than UMC, but I do want to point out something else that many have not considered. It isn’t just politics or doctrine, though there is a lot of both. It is also the reality that as the mainlines deteriorate, there are fewer and fewer positions that pay a living salary. Because the cost of higher education is so exorbitant, so many of us have student loans and cannot afford to serve a rural church without going bankrupt or defaulting. Most of us, no matter what we do will ever be able to afford a house and are cautious about being able to afford children. As well, itinerancy was fine when men were pastors and their wives raised children and lived on one income, but asking a spouse to move & find a new job every 3 years when one MUST have 2 incomes to survive is ridiculous. Carol Howard Merritt’s “Tribal Church” breaks this down clearly. Our traditional church paradigm just doesn’t work for the world we live in and attrition attests to that.

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