Program seeks to call young people into clergy

February 01, 2006

A UMNS Report_By Linda Green

A new program will partially address pastoral leadership concerns in the United Methodist Church and other denominations by cultivating young candidates for ministry vocations.

The program, "Calling Congregations," will organize churches in grass-roots programs to find and support the next generation of pastoral leaders for Christian denominations. It is being launched by the Atlanta-based Fund for Theological Education with a $6 million grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.

"Calling Congregations" will be rolled out later this year in the U.S. Midwest, with additional regions being added in 2007 and 2008.

A broad range of mainline denominations and other faith traditions are concerned about pastoral leadership in the future, according to Melissa Wiginton, a United Methodist and vice president for ministry programs and planning at the Fund for Theological Education. The fund wants to help congregations understand opportunities related to ordained leadership and encourage them to call forth gifted, young candidates for ministry.

The concern stems from the fact that as baby boomers retire, a need is growing for pastors, especially younger ones, she said. "It makes sense that churches get stronger when they have multigenerational clergy," and young adults attend church when they see a younger pastor, she added.

"Increasingly, the value of being a pastor has been almost invisible in the imaginations of young people," she said. Statistics indicate clergy vacancies rank among the highest for professions requiring an advanced degree and that the number of U.S. clergy under age 35 is relatively low across numerous denominational lines. According to the Pastoral Leadership Search Effort, fewer than 13 percent of United Methodist clergy in the United States are under age 40, while half are older than 50.

While ministry today has become an uncommon calling for today's youth, there are committed students who want support in exploring the call to ministry, said fund President Ann Svennungsen.

"Without encouragement, many young people defer, deny or hide their interest in serving the church," she said in a news release. "In today's environment, we've learned that potential pastors need encouragement at an earlier age, for a longer period of time, and from a wider range of institutions and individuals than ever before."

Denominations also are concerned about developing quality leadership. Much like in the business world, the need exists for high-quality leaders, Wiginton said. Businesses want leaders who are smart, possess integrity, are creative and can lead. Churches want someone with those qualities but also someone who can "think theologically about the hard questions that we have to grapple with at this time," she said.

Craig Dykstra, senior vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment, noted that "congregations are critical to the faith maturation and vocational discernment of young men and women," and the grant to the Fund for Theological Education "is an investment in engaging congregations more deeply in this work" of developing future leaders for the church.

The Fund for Theological Education is a national advocate for excellence and diversity in Christian ministry and theological scholarship. It provides $1.2 million annually in fellowships to support future pastors and scholars, and also provides a network of support for gifted young people from all denominations and racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The Calling Congregations program will establish a national network of 500 congregations and church-related institutions from four regions across the country by 2009. The congregations will be members of an ecumenical partnership committed to supporting vocational discernment among their young church members with particular emphasis on consideration of ordained ministry.

Wiginton said the fund will provide congregations with tools to help young people address the question: What will I do with my life in light of my faith? The program also will help congregations, churches and church-related organizations with nurturing youth gifted for ministry, vocational discernment and the exploration of the call to ministry among young people.

Assistance will be provided through workshops and conferences, national training for adults mentoring youth, grants for local projects, Web-based resources, youth scholarships to special events and up to 40 fellowships annually matching a congregation's financial support toward tuition and living expenses for a young church member's first year of seminary.

For more information on the Calling Congregations effort, contact Kerry Traubert at (404) 727-1170 or

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