This past month, the young clergy in the United Methodist Church in Oklahoma were sent a survey asking them their opinions on several LGBT and schism/unity questions. From the surveyer:
The Young Clergy Development Coordinator for the OK Young Adult Council sent out a survey to provide a picture of where the young clergy across the spectrum in Oklahoma were on the subject of homosexuality. 54 responded out of around 75 young clergy contacted (clergy under 40) completed the survey.”
The results were published this week. Let’s take a look.
A Split Segment of Clergy
There are 10 questions but here’s the three most interesting ones. Results are rounded for the sake of discussion–the full results are in the link:
- A close split of 48% agreed that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” compared to 44% who disagreed with that statement (8% neither agreed or disagreed)
- It was a perfect split on the question “The Bible is clear and definitive on the subject of homosexuality.” The exact same percentage agreed or disagreed with that statement (46%) while only 8% didn’t agree/disagree.
- They were evenly split on Hamilton/Slaughter’s “A Way Forward“: 32% agreed with it, 33% didn’t agree or disagree, and 35% disagreed with it.
On the topic of LGBT inclusion, the young clergy in Oklahoma are more-or-less evenly split. While some may be freaking out over the high percentage of progressives in the heartland of ‘Murica…let’s look a little more closely.
Young Clergy v. their Generation
Given those responses, I wonder: how does this age group of clergy compare to their age group in society? Since the Oklahoma survey included only Millenials and the younger end of Generation X, how does that compare to their age group at large?
- Today, nearly 7-in-10 (69%) Millennials (ages 18 to 33) favor same-sex marriage, compared to 37% of Americans who are part of the Silent Generation (ages 68 and older).
- It is difficult to overstate the effect age has on support for same-sex marriage, which is evident even among groups that oppose same-sex marriage. Half (50%) of Millennial Republicans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, a view shared by only 18% of Republicans who are members of the Silent Generation.
Based on the survey and comparative research, we can affirm the following statement: the young clergy in Oklahoma are statistically more conservative than their age group. Which is odd because, as Jacob Lupfer draws out in his writings on the PCUSA, mainline clergy are generally more progressive than their age group.
Why is it that young clergy in Oklahoma are not reflecting either of these cultural/ecclesial trends?
Editorial: Some (anecdotal) cultural influences
I was raised and went to college in Oklahoma, and was a clergy member of the Oklahoma Annual Conference for the first 8 years of my ordained ministry career. So here’s an anecdotal response to that question drawn from my former life in the minority class of progressives in Oklahoma.
- Personal conviction and biblical interpretation. I wouldn’t be fair to my conservative friends if this wasn’t top of the list. And rightly so: they are why I, as a progressive, affirm LGBT equality and inclusion. However, I believe there are also some other factors which influence #1.
- High interaction & accountability with non-inclusive baby boomers. Clergy interact on a heartfelt basis with members of all age groups, but baby boomers are most likely to be on their ordination boards, local church leadership, and regular conversation. This high interaction and accountability to persons of power from different generations can have an affect on young clergy beliefs.
- High concentration of Oklahoma clergy from Southern seminaries: Perkins, St. Paul, Asbury, United, etc. While Southern seminaries are not generally called liberal (Emory just hired Dr. Kevin Watson, an Oklahoman who is strongly conservative), they are overall more conservative than their Western and Northern sister institutions and have bigger-named conservative faculty. And there’s a lot of their graduates in Oklahoma.
- LGBT Inclusion is still a litmus test. I don’t write much about my contentious ordination journey since the BOM can’t refute it and that strikes me as unfair, but I (and other progressives) had considerably more assigned papers and interviews than my conservative friends. It was admitted to me by a BOM member that if I hadn’t gone to Boston University, I wouldn’t have gone through the wringer like I did. This leads to unequal treatment: One conservative friend went up for his ordination interview and the lead interviewer was sick. They talked mostly about sports and passed him for ordination. Sigh. Also, in the past 2 years no less than four of my colleagues were asked about their beliefs on LGBT persons as part of their interview process for moving to a new church. Even though it’s 2014, it’s detrimental to both ordination and appointments to be open about your hopes for full inclusion of LGBT persons.
- Lack of LGBT-specific outreach. 39% of young clergy said there were no–or they didn’t know if there were–LGBT persons in their congregations. In the demographic survey, a third (32%) say they changed their minds on LGBT inclusion because they knew someone who is LGBT. Since clergy are viewed as anti-gay, they probably don’t see it as safe to be visible in the LGBT circles as they might in other minority situations. Hence, there’s likely less interaction than other professions in their age group.
I would hope any of my colleagues would share their own musings to refute or reinforce the above. Regardless, I’m thankful for the survey as it gives a good non-scientific-but-helpful snapshot.
Despite differences, We’re in this together
Ultimately, despite their strong diversity on doctrinal matters, the young clergy of Oklahoma reject the value structure of the Schismatic 80:
- Only 16% agreed that “the best option is for the UMC to amicably divide” compared to 68% that disagreed.
- 74% of respondents said that “homosexuality is not the most important issue” facing the UMC today.
- Trigger alert: The LGBT conversation is about persons, not issues, so hopefully future surveys will change their language.
These young clergy could have 30 years to serve together ahead of them. During my time in Oklahoma, even as a loud progressive, my good friends were many of the conservative evangelicals. One of them used to call our friendship “The Spectrum” because we joked we represented the polar opposite ends of theology within Oklahoma United Methodism.
Young clergy seem to know that despite our differences in doctrine, what matters is our connection with each other, our congregations, and our passion for Christ through United Methodism in the region. I’m glad to see that two years after leaving Oklahoma, those values are still expressed. Those folks who want to split the church over LGBT inclusion will not find fertile soil for their seeds of schismatic discontent in the red dirt of young clergy in Oklahoma.
My charge now is for other annual conferences to do the same thing: poll your young clergy as a wake-up call to the senior clergy that the generation behind them (other than a small number of outliers—mostly bloggers) isn’t going to fight the wars of their fathers, even if they are a bit more conservative than their peers. If you want to poll your annual conference’s young clergy, contact me and I’ll connect you with this poll’s creator so you can replicate the experience in your corner of Methodism.