United Methodist Clergy Trends: Fewer, Older
By Thomas Lambrecht
Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership has released his annual report on the state of UM clergy, particularly focusing on the number of young clergy (under age 35). This has been a particular area of concern for the denomination, sparking a number of initiatives designed to increase the number of younger clergy. His report allows us to make a number of observations about the state of United Methodist clergy as of the end of 2022.
Accelerating decline in the number of clergy
The first thing to notice is that the total number of clergy is declining at a faster rate. The number of elders has gone from over 21,500 in 1990 to just over 10,000 in 2023. This decline of over 50 percent has paralleled a similar decline in UM church membership and number of congregations during that same time. In 1990, there were over 8.8 million United Methodists in the U.S., which number has declined to about 5.7 million at the end of 2021. However, the membership drop is only 35 percent in that time, compared to a 53 percent drop in elders, who are the main group of clergy serving as pastors of local churches.
While a much smaller group, deacons also experienced accelerating decline. From a high of over 1,000 deacons in 2019, there are now just over 900. Full-time and part-time licensed local pastors also experienced a faster decline. From a high of nearly 7,500 local pastors in 2020, there are now just over 6,100 just three years later.
There appear to be at least two factors involved in the decline of the total number of clergy. The Covid pandemic saw an uptick in the number of elders leaving. In the ten years before the pandemic, the annual average decline in the number of elders was between 455 and 480. In 2021, however, 839 elders left the ministry, followed by over 600 in 2022. For local pastors, the numbers were increasing or holding steady up through 2020. In 2021, there was a drop of 232, followed by a drop of 323 in 2022. The hardships of the pandemic and ministry challenges during that period may have caused more clergy to retire or leave ministry.
The other factor causing an overall decline in clergy could be denominational conflict and disaffiliation. The number of elders in 2023 was 1,158 fewer, up from 603 the year before. Local pastors experienced 816 fewer in 2023, compared with 323 fewer in 2022. This sudden jump of over 1,000 in the number of clergy leaving UM ministry could reflect pastors who withdrew as their congregations disaffiliated. There were just over 1,800 congregations that disaffiliated in 2022, and a significant number of the clergy serving those churches may have withdrawn. With close to 5,000 congregations disaffiliating in 2023, there will undoubtedly be another significant jump in the clergy decline.
A changing mix of clergy
Another trend that stands out is the shift from mainly elders as pastors of local churches to the inclusion of a significant number of local pastors, who typically do not have seminary degrees and often are second-career pastors. They receive training through yearly classes at a Five-Year Course of Study (which is usually completed in more like seven years). They can receive this training while serving full-time in ministry, rather than taking three or four years away at seminary.
In 1985, local pastors made up just 15 percent of all clergy. That means there were 5.6 elders for every local pastor. In 2023, local pastors made up 38 percent of all clergy. There were therefore 1.6 elders for every local pastor. Our denomination has increasingly relied on local pastors. One reason may be that they are paid less than elders and so more “affordable” for a local church. Or it could be that more of those feeling called into ministry, especially if they are second-career and have a family, are not able or willing to move away to seminary and invest tens of thousands of dollars in a seminary degree when another path for ministry training is available. Local pastors also offer more flexibility to the denomination because they are not guaranteed a job, as elders are.
Another trend has to do with the growing presence of women elders and local pastors. The report only contains data beginning in 2020 regarding gender, but even in that short period, there has been growth in the percentage of women in ministry.
For elders, the general rule is that older generations have a higher percentage of men. For example, in 2020 elders over age 55 were 69 percent male, while elders under age 35 percent were 62 percent male. But even within each age cohort, the number of women elders has grown over the past three years. In 2020, 31 percent of elders over age 55 were women, while in 2023 it was 34 percent. The growth in the percentage of women over three years was uniformly 3 percentage points in each age cohort.
For licensed local pastors, the trend was the same (growing numbers of women), but the age experience was the opposite. The older age cohorts have a higher percentage of women than the younger age cohorts. In 2020, 36 percent of the local pastors over age 55 were women, while only 24 percent of those under 35 were women. This dramatic difference could be due to life stages, where younger women are forming families and having children, then entering ministry when the children are mostly grown. This could be due to the second-career nature of local pastors. One could speculate that women elders may be prioritizing a ministry career over other factors, such as family. The important point is that women local pastors also grew over the past three years, by 3 to 5 percentage points in each age cohort.
When it comes to deacons, the situation is different. Women make up a disproportionate number of deacons, and that percentage is staying relatively constant. In 2020, women made up 68 to 77 percent of deacons, depending upon age cohort. In 2023, women made up 72 to 76 percent of deacons. Due to the smaller number of deacons, the percentages can fluctuate more from year to year, but there does not appear to be an overall trend one way or the other.
While women make up half of the population and nearly two-thirds of church members, they still are underrepresented in the ministry. The highest percentage of women is 41 percent of elders under age 35 and 40 percent of local pastors over age 55. Deacons, who normally do not serve as pastors of local churches, have a consistently far greater percentage of women.
The primary concern of the Lewis Center report is with the number of people under age 35 in ministry. The current trajectory is declining numbers of young people in ministry in the UM Church.
In 1985, there were over 3,200 elders under age 35, which represented 15 percent of the total. That number declined to 850 in 2005, which was 5 percent of the total. Various initiatives boosted the number of young elders in succeeding years, so that by 2015 there were 986 young elders, which was 7 percent of the total. Then decline set in, and since 2021 each year has represented a record low number of elders under age 35. In 2023, there are only 449 young elders, which is only 4 percent of the total number of elders. It is mind-boggling that the number of young elders has decreased by 85 percent since 1985!
A similar trajectory is apparent for licensed local pastors. The number of young local pastors has grown substantially since 1985 because the number of local pastors has grown substantially during that time. In 1985, there were only 130 local pastors under age 35, which was 3 percent of the total. That number grew to a high of 654 young local pastors in 2020, 9 percent of the total, but it has declined since then. In 2023, there are only 416 local pastors under age 35, which is still 7 percent of the total.
The situation is the same for deacons. Deacons under age 35 reached a high of 124 in 2017-2018, at 12 percent of the total. Since then, the number of young deacons has declined to 74 in 2023, which is 8 percent of the total.
We spoke above about factors influencing the drop in the total number of clergy in the UM Church. These factors undoubtedly influenced the drop in young clergy, as well. But as one can see with the percentage of young clergy dropping, they have been disproportionately affected by decline.
Why would young clergy decline faster than older cohorts? In a private email, Weems hypothesizes that “the issue may not be so much young elders leaving as when young elders age out of the young elder cohort, they are not being replaced with new candidates.” Factors that could account for this are: a tight job market that offers more (and more lucrative) secular job alternatives for young people; uncertainty whether there will be enough churches needing pastors that will provide opportunities for young clergy, especially with the drop in congregations due to disaffiliation; the increasing number of churches that can only afford a part-time pastor; and a reluctance to stake a career on a denomination torn by theological and ecclesiastical conflict. These factors may be discouraging young people from considering ministry in the UM Church. One would hope that, once the disaffiliation wave has passed and the denomination has set its course for the future, there will be more certainty about the need for pastors and the opportunities for ministry. Other mainline denominations have stabilized after their schisms, but they have continued to decline in numbers, meaning there may well be shrinking opportunities for pastors in the UM Church in the decade to come.
The challenges facing the UM Church in the years ahead include “right-sizing” the number of clergy for the churches that will be available. Congregations are increasingly using part-time clergy, meaning there will be need for more linking of churches to share a pastor or using tent-making clergy who don’t derive all their income from the church. At the same time, clergy have to invest in theological training, which leads some clergy to graduate from seminary with huge student debt, which in turn may not be sustainable on a low or part-time salary. (That is another reason why clergy may choose the local pastor route, which is a less expensive alternative to a full seminary degree.)
All denominations face challenges with matching clergy supply and demand. It is a more acute challenge in those denominations that have guaranteed appointments, such as the UM Church. The GM Church in some areas faces the challenge of not enough clergy. Independent congregations may face the same challenge of finding a qualified pastor willing or able to work for what the church can afford to pay. It will be interesting to follow these clergy trends across denominations in the years ahead.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.
Marks of a Methodist 1: Experience
By Thomas Lambrecht
My wife is a marriage and family therapist. One of her recommended questions as a discussion starter to help couples remain emotionally connected is, “How am I changing and how have I stayed the same.” Methodism is in a period of upheaval right now, with the liberal evolution of United Methodism, structural separation, and the formation of the Global Methodist Church. Looking back over the nearly 300 years of Methodist history, it is helpful to ask the question, “How is Methodism changing, and how has it stayed the same.”
Two-hundred-eighty years ago, John Wesley (Methodism’s founder) wrote The Character of a Methodist to describe what he considered the essential qualities of a Methodist. I blogged about it in June. Just 63 years ago, Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy did a take-off on Wesley’s work in The Marks of a Methodist (1960). It is instructive to see what changed and what stayed the same in the intervening 220 years, as well as how Kennedy’s perception of Methodism fits with today’s church.
Gerald Kennedy would be called a centrist in today’s theological taxonomy. He was friendly and fair toward evangelicals, speaking at the very first Good News national Convocation in 1970. But he would not have classified himself in that historical category. Raised in California, Kennedy served as a pastor and college teacher (Pacific School of Religion) in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Elected bishop in 1948, he served four years in the Pacific Northwest, then an unheard-of 20 years as the bishop of Los Angeles. He was widely respected as a great preacher and authored nearly two-dozen books. He holds the distinction of being the only United Methodist bishop to serve as an active bishop and a local church pastor at the same time, when he appointed himself to First UMC of Pasadena.
In his book, Kennedy begins with the “distinguishing sign” of Methodism being experience. By this, he means a personal experience of the love, relationship, and power of God in one’s life. John Wesley’s father, Samuel, is quoted as saying, “The inward witness, son, the inward witness – this is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity.”
This experience in Kennedy’s mind is birthed in conversion as an essential aspect of God’s working in a human life. “When [one] has it and knows it, the most natural thing in the world is to proclaim it to others and then watch it happen. Yet, … this first mark of a Methodist is often missing from our preaching.”
Kennedy laments that, “There is no room for something unplanned entering into the sanctuary and shaking [people’s] lives. It is all under control – our control. One of the main questions facing us today is whether formal churches can find room for the Spirit to move in the hearts of the congregation.” He maintains that such is possible in a “Gothic sanctuary with robes, processionals, and ritual,” but that it must be intentionally cultivated.
“This generation is as much in need of being converted as any in history,” writes Kennedy. He calls for “a thousand [people] who will receive the live coal from off the altar and set the fires of expectation to flaming in our Church.” Do we cultivate the experience of conversion in our worship? Do we testify to our own personal experience of God and invite others to share it?
Kennedy cites Wesley’s words that the one who has had this experience “is therefore happy in God.” “The consciousness that God had accepted him as a son and forgiven his sins put a song in the heart of the Methodist convert,” writes Kennedy. This joy is available to anyone, regardless of circumstances or past. “This happiness was not found at the price of reality. Sin was not just a theory to the Methodists, for many of them had come up out of degradation and immorality. They had been rescued from the hopeless part of society which the Established Church assumed was beyond the reach of sanctification.” Whom do we consider to be “beyond the reach of sanctification” today? How are we imitating Wesley and Kennedy in carrying the good news of God’s transforming love and forgiveness to those very souls? That is a distinguishing mark of Methodist mission and ministry.
Kennedy diagnosed his own time (1960) as a time of undue and unbalanced pessimism. “Theology that emphasizes human hopelessness, uselessness, and worthlessness, in order to emphasize God’s sovereignty, is unbalanced.” One could say the same of our time, when many feel hopeless and powerless in the face of intractable societal problems and our divisive polarization.
The antidote to this pessimism is the Christian experience of conversion and redemption, which leads us to testify to the reality of a God more powerful than problems. “We must bear our witness that Christianity is the restoration of joy. Nature looks different to the Christian and so does history. People become new creatures and life becomes the great adventure. Life after [our own personal] Aldersgate may not be easy, but it will never be meaningless, and it will never be sad.”
Worship is often the venue for conversion, as happened to Francis Asbury, the “American Saint” who led the early Methodist Church in the U.S. Kennedy notes, “The mark of a Methodist service is its singing, its sense of the immediacy of Christian redemption, its warmth of fellowship, and its enthusiastic invitation to salvation. The cold, lifeless, formal services, which are the marks of so many of our churches, bear sad testimony to our apostasy. This is not our way, and these are not our gatherings.”
One is struck by the boldness and bluntness with which Kennedy confronts the shortcomings of the churches of his day. Such therapeutic honesty is lacking in many of our leaders today. Unfortunately, the same diagnosis of “cold, lifeless services” might be levied against many Methodist congregations today, whether they are formal or informal, traditional or contemporary in style, singing hymns or the latest praise music.
Worship is to be an embodiment and overflow of our experience of Jesus Christ. “Methodists sing their theology. … Theology ought to be sung, for, if it is real, it is a part of a person’s emotional life.” Charles Wesley’s over 6,000 hymns expressed Methodist belief in a way congregations could internalize. Songs sung on Sunday are often the soundtrack playing in our head throughout the week. Unforgettable are those experiences of singing with other believers joined together in a common faith and a common experience of God’s redemption through Christ. There is a power in such worship that sets the table for the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of all who are there.
Kennedy sums up the Methodist mark of personal experience in this way: “The Methodist preacher without an experience is a fire that smokes but never flames. The Methodist [layperson] without an experience may be a [salesperson] for an institution, but who wants to live in an institution? We believe in a wide variety of experiences, and we do not assume that God deals with all [people] alike. But we believe that God reveals Himself to every [person], and, if we will allow Him, He will find us, and we will know it.”
Are we structuring the ministry of our churches in such a way as to encourage people to seek the Lord in a personal way and come expecting to experience him? This is an essential mark of Methodism that needs to be recovered in the church today. It was the hallmark of the Wesleyan revival in the 1700’s, was lacking in much of the church of Kennedy’s era, and is often absent in our congregations today. Authentic Methodism cultivates the presence, love, and power of God in a real and tangible way. Absent that experience, we have nothing to share with a world hungering for God.
Thomas Lambrecht is aUnited Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo of Bishop Gerald Kennedy (1907-1980) courtesy of Abilene Library Consortium provided by the McMurry University Library to the Portal to Texas History. Kennedy was the feature speaker for the 1967 McMurry College Willson Lectures.
Notes from Africa
By Thomas Lambrecht
As I write this, I am in the middle of a three-day meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, with about 40 leaders of African Methodism. Most are United Methodist, while a few have already joined the Global Methodist Church because they were evicted from the UM Church.
The devotion this morning was led by a pastor from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He talked about the passage of Scripture in I Kings 18 when Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel. He illustrated from the passage that those who speak prophetically for God are often viewed by people in authority as “the problem.” When Elijah confronted King Ahab, he addressed Elijah as “you troubler of Israel.” Elijah replied, “I have not made trouble for Israel, but you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals” (I Kings 18: 16-18).
When people challenge those in authority for speaking or acting contrary to God’s will as outlined in Scripture, the challengers often are put down as the ones causing problems. The story was shared here in the meeting about a pastor who raised questions to the bishop during the annual conference session. The next day, the pastor was removed from his appointment and evicted from the parsonage. At 8 PM the pastor was asking a colleague to borrow his truck because he had to move all his family’s possessions out of the parsonage by midnight and move in with his brother to have a place to live. I turned to Good News president Rob Renfroe, who is also at the meeting with me, and said, “And I thought we had it bad in the U.S.!”
The last Perspective told the stories of an African leader arbitrarily and illegally removed from the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters and about a U.S. pastor summarily suspended from his church, even though the church’s disaffiliation vote failed. We are grateful for the bishops who have acted with measured wisdom and fairness. Unfortunately, some bishops are increasingly exercising autocratic power in ways never envisioned by the Book of Discipline. They have become a law unto themselves. Stories of punishments and persecution are common in Africa, aimed at traditionalists who are not willing to go along with the One Church Plan agenda of their bishops.
From Small Beginnings
The episode of Elijah on Mount Carmel ended with God bringing rain after three years of drought. God promised Elijah he would bring rain, and Elijah began to pray on the top of Mount Carmel. Periodically, he would send his servant to look for signs of an approaching rain. Time after time, the servant would return, saying, “There is nothing there.” But on the seventh time, the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea” (I Kings 18:41-45). Within a short time, “the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling.”
The African leaders here sense the coming of the rain of revival. They believe that, despite the difficulties posed by the ongoing schism in the UM Church, God is bringing spiritual revival to the continent of Africa.
Just over a year ago, the Global Methodist Church officially launched in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Churches there were not allowed to disaffiliate by the bishop. Instead, over the past several years, two of the four bishops have steadily cast out of the church pastors and lay leaders who attempted to promote a traditionalist position. The good news is that, since launching a year ago, there are now over 160 churches that have been planted in homes and other meeting places in the two episcopal areas in DRC where the outcasts are. God is using the hardships to birth a new church that is unfettered by corruption or abuse of power, focusing on the Gospel, evangelism, and serving others in the name of Christ.
Just last month, for the first time, churches successfully disaffiliated in Africa. During the Kenya-Ethiopia Annual Conference meeting, 58 out of 91 churches in Kenya voted to disaffiliate and join the Global Methodist Church. Sixteen more that were planted in the last year have also joined, making for 74 total GM churches now in Kenya. More congregations may join them. You can read more about the details here in the GM Church’s blog.
The African leaders take great hope from these developments. They believe out of small beginnings – a cloud no larger than the size of man’s hand appearing on the horizon – God will bring great revival and rain down his Spirit to quench the spiritual thirst in a dry land.
Some progressives and centrists are working very hard to marginalize the voices of Africa. They believe the African delegates to General Conference can be persuaded to support the regionalization plan endorsed by the Connectional Table and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. This plan would isolate the various regions of the church from each other, allowing each region – and most especially the U.S. part of the church – to enact its own agenda, unhindered by input from other regions of the church.
However, there is no support for such regionalization among these African leaders who represent the majority of grass-roots United Methodists. Some African bishops are reportedly withholding all information from their people about the conflict in the church, hoping to keep them in ignorance and thereby direct the course of their annual conference without questions or hindrance from their people. Pastors and lay leaders who share information are penalized, keeping others in fear of similar punishment. All of this occurs outside the prescribed processes of the Book of Discipline and contrary to the fair process of church accountability. There is still no way in our Discipline to hold such bishops accountable.
Again, despite persecution and hardship, these African leaders are standing firm. They will not compromise the principles of our faith. They see through the attempts of the bishops to manipulate them. They understand that the point of regionalization is to free the U.S. church from hearing or heeding the traditionalist voices of Africa, which now constitutes a majority of the worldwide United Methodist Church. They continue steadfast in their contention that they cannot remain part of a denomination that goes against Scripture by affirming same-sex marriage and the ordination and consecration of non-celibate gays and lesbians as pastors and bishops of the church.
The bishops have prevented churches outside the U.S. from using Par. 2553 for disaffiliation, claiming it only pertains to churches in the U.S. (Churches that have successfully disaffiliated in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Estonia, and Kenya used other strategies to accomplish their goal.) That is why African leaders have submitted petitions to the 2024 General Conference to reinstitute a revised Par. 2553, as well as a streamlined process for annual conference disaffiliation, both of which would apply to conferences and churches outside the U.S.
Not only does the bishops’ interpretation fly in the face of the actual language of Par. 2553, but it also represents a resurgent neo-colonialism in the way that many U.S. UM leaders treat United Methodists outside the U.S. and particularly in Africa. Their experience of this resurgent neo-colonialism has often been mentioned by African leaders in the meetings here this week.
Many African delegates have been asking for months for the Commission on the General Conference to send them their letters of invitation to General Conference, so the delegates may schedule their interviews to obtain a U.S. visa. Despite repeated requests, many delegates have not received the invitation letters. Time is running short, as some U.S. embassies in African countries are now scheduling visa interviews six to nine months from now. Soon, it will be too late for some African delegates to receive their visas. An unusually high number of African delegates are at risk of not being able to attend General Conference. Perhaps, if African delegates cannot be converted to support regionalization, their presence at General Conference can be compromised, forming just another way to reduce the traditionalist voices and votes from Africa.
The African leaders in this meeting are not discouraged. Despite the obstacles, they see the hand of God working here in Africa, bring people to Christ and multiplying concrete expressions of God’s love to be experienced by thousands. They believe in the power of prayer and in the ability of a wonder-working God to overcome all barriers to bring about the growth of his kingdom. As diverse parts of the Body of Christ, U.S. Christians could use more of that confidence and faith. Judging by the tenor of this meeting and my previous experiences with these anointed leaders, the African church stands to contribute much to the future fruitfulness of global Methodism.