Occasionally I am roughly accosted. Not by the police, but by ministers of many years. ‘Where are the young ministers to lead the churches?’ As if I had personally kidnapped them? However the facts cannot be avoided: 3.1% of Baptist ministers are aged between 23 and 34 years. In the Church of England only 2% of licensed readers are under 40.1 If I am not personally responsible, then what or who is?
Could it be the younger generations letting the side down? If only we would get off Facebook and pursue the ‘things of God’! Sunday jobs while in education and career dreams driven by salaries — we make the Book of Judges look like a walk in the Garden of Eden.
Could it be the older generation letting the side down? Making us sing songs from their teenage years. Congregations obsessed with maintaining the status quo are the cancer of any young person’s dreams of ministry. Aren’t they? Maybe not. There is a problem, even a crisis, in the lack of younger ministers. Yet the path of blame and resentment has no destination. This article suggests that the solution lies in examining our routes into church leadership.
So you want to be a minister?
How did you become a minister in the past? After becoming a Christian in your chosen denomination, the Lord would call you and to Bible College you went. Once there, you were supported in prayer and finances by your sending church and spent time developing your vocational skills.
Anecdotally, you hear of students heading out to preach at local churches, of morning Bible studies and a community spirit. Then you went and pastored a church — it is just what happened.
How do you become a minister today? The Lord calls you, then people interrogate you. Is this definitely the Lord’s calling? Your calling story almost has to include a voice from heaven. Some who feel called are still sent ‘unicorn hunting’ to gain more ‘life experience’2. At times I wonder at the ‘life experience’ Jesus amassed in his tiny village working the same job.
Then you attend theological college, these vary from more academically focused to vocational variations such as youth work. Church support while there ranges from the loved and cared for to the forgotten and often hungry. Eventually you graduate with a BA (Hons) in Theology and around £30,000 of debt. How many of my year went into church ministry? A small percentage.
So now you are a minister
Once in church ministry life is hard. We always knew it was going to be. Often churches want you to become a youth minister first, then an assistant pastor and then perhaps, after a few years, on to your own pastorate. Sadly, the more you think about it the more it sounds like a career path you must follow.
For this article I undertook a rough survey. I asked my fellow young ministers from across the denominations to sum up their first two years in ministry. Of course many love the opportunity to serve God and his church in their roles. But the rest of their comments were hard to hear. ‘I am rarely allowed to share in pastoral care and am only allowed to preach once every couple of months.’ ‘I am caught between the constant tension of not being on the leadership team but equally not an average member.’ ‘My minister wants me to become a carbon copy of him.’
Rather than blame people, our efforts should focus on understanding and changing the structures around entering the ministry. I make three suggestions; three ideas that will encourage younger Christians into ministry when called.
1. We need apprenticeships
We need apprenticeships. Legacy was the idea the London Olympics was built on. It takes incredible investment of pastors freeing up their schedules to chat. It takes denominations and networks investing further in educational courses. It takes churches willing to give people a chance. We prefer trying to employ from outside our churches using job adverts only Jesus could fulfil. Are we looking to hire Jesus, the finished product, or Peter, the work in progress?
Across the country apprenticeships are springing up, but many questions surround them. Who are the apprentices accountable to if they are not working? Apprentices say their biggest struggle is their relationship with their pastor. If they do not feel they are getting the right opportunities, learning or investment, then they need somewhere to turn. There are good and bad teachers for apprentices. By running apprenticeships badly we may not just be missing someone’s potential, but wrecking a God-called talent.
Is your church organised so that over time a child currently at church could become a leader in it? If not, why not?
2. We need horizontal networks
I sat in tense anticipation. It was the interview for my application to the FIEC (Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches) Pastors’ Network. I am badly dyslexic, so applying to a fellowship with so many letters in their abbreviation is hard enough. By the end, they asked the dreaded question: ‘Is there anything you would like to ask us?’ So I did. ‘Are there any local ministers around here of my kind of age?’ Unfortunately, with my tender age being 22, there aren’t.
Then I heard about ‘The Hub’ conference (see http://www.FIEC.org.uk), a place those thinking about or entering ministry gather to encourage, equip and engage with one another. Somewhere people in similar positions can chat, chill and contemplate. I am not trying to paint heaven but suggest this as an excellent template to be localised. Especially in our generation we are looking less for people to give us directions and more for people to journey with us.
3. We need opportunities
I love windsurfing, but only because my uncle stuck me on a board and let me crash into every buoy, bank and barrier. Then after time we get better — he would say I am the exception to that rule! If we are serious about younger ministers, then let’s give people opportunities to minister. Yes, it is a calling; yes, it needs character, but the journey has to start somewhere. We can work with them as they do the Bible reading, lead a small group and deliver a sermon. Not dump our years of wisdom on them but provide guidance and opportunity.
If we are going to find these younger ministers, then we need you. We need you to work with your denomination or network and create apprenticeships that train future leaders — not that just pass on administration we do not enjoy. Why not drop your leaders an email? We need places and events to help those thinking about or entering ministry to unite. We need opportunities. Next time you are writing up the preaching rota give that budding young person a go. Work with them, and the way God uses them may well surprise you.
I am still in church ministry because someone took time out of his busy schedule when I was hurt. He simply wrote: ‘Be encouraged, keep going’. It was like a blade being removed from my back. It was all I needed. Who is the person in your church needing that encouragement in or into ministry?
James Lee describes himself as a regular speaker masquerading as a theologian! He would love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Evangelical Alliance, ‘Age of Ministers’, 2012, http://www.eauk.org/church/research-and-statistics/age-of-ministers.cfm
2. Liam Maguire deserves credit for this metaphor
This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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