Monday, February 2, 2009

Membership Decline = Age of Bishops?

While at a missions meeting I listened to my chair, a semi-retired man, complain that there was too much information on the internet these days and that the conference needs to get back to sending stuff through the mail, as in snail mail. His reasoning…the internet is too impersonal. Later on that day I was at our District Leadership Seminar and learning that now the conference has some cool links on their site about our apportionments. Now if you have questions about why the conference needs $129 dollars from your congregation to go to the Black College Fund, you can now link to that program and learn how that money is used. I thought that was a huge advancement in our technology, bringing us up to the mid-90s now.

These polar perspectives were in my head as I read Bishop Goodpaster’s book, There’s Power in the Connection. Goodpaster wants the UMC to move past their 1950’s mentality and into the modern world. I think this is also the push of the Igniting Ministries new campaign RETHINK Church. I had a chance to hear the Bishop at a Congregational Development meeting where he professed he wanted to start 30 new churches in the next 5 or 6 years. (Another topic for another time) In his talk at that meeting he said that we need to concentrate on the younger generation. We need to be paying attention to attracting and ministering too the 20 & 30 somethings of our society. He confessed that he remembers the first TV his family bought and how different that is from what this generation is and has grown up in.

With all this on my mind it got me thinking (I hope you can follow my train of thought here). Could the UMC’s decline in membership, the failure to attract young clergy (under 35), and the inability to now attract that younger generation be caused by the age of our leaders? What is the average age of the bishops in the US? I am guessing it is in the high 50s if not 60s. These are the Silent and Boomer Generations, the ones that remember what church in the 50s was like because they were there. They grew up and learned how to do church in the 60s and 70s. I confess I have no knowledge of who runs stuff in Nashville, but I am guessing they would be around the same age as my conference office, which are the same age as my bishop. What would happen if a 40 year old was elected bishop? Would a Generation Xer have a different take on how to run a conference and make it an effective force on that conference’s people? Are we stuck in the 50s-70s as a denomination because that is the church our leaders know?

Of course I can see annual conference now, looking up at a 41 year old bishop dictating where people go and what ministries do. “He’s too young to be Bishop.” “She doesn’t have enough experience?” Yet those are the same people who on their church profiles ask for a young clergy with kids to be their next minister. If we are too break free of the funk that the UMC is in (in America at least) we need to break up the old way of doing things. At my age, 31, I am in my seventh year of ministry. How old will I be when I receive the right amount of ‘experience’? How old does one have to be to be considered for top level appointments (whatever those are)? 30 years from now when Gen Xers are taking over the leadership roles, are we going to be open to doing church the way Gen Ys or Millennials want to do it or need it to be done? Are we going to be able to hold back from the temptation to say…‘now I can do it the way I have always wanted to.’? Are we going to be able to hear the needs of the Millenials and the Net Generation? Or are we going to be stuck in the 90s and 00s in the place that is familiar and best known?


Theresa Coleman said...

And the upping of the age of mandatory retirements and the horrible-ness of the retirement portfolios guarantee an increase in the average age of Bishops.

Michael said...

Good thoughts, but I am a little uncomfortable with the idea that mere age is adequate data by which to judge the effectiveness of a person. Not to say that age is not a factor, of course, but I am a bit over 35. Such a blanket endorsement of relative youth seems to pigeon-hole far too many extremely effective "over 35" clergy.

By the same token, I can also understand young people who might be more inclined to at least visit a church with a younger pastor, but what will they find once they get past the pastor's age?

There can be no doubt that a younger pastor might bring a breath of fresh air to a perceived "old" Council of Bishops, but will the air be solely because of his or her relative youth, or will there be something substantial that may have little to do with age?

Very thought-provoking. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

These are important matters to discuss, and I suspect with more prodding and back and forth, the questions would be clarified and refined.

I don't hear Jim arguing for a blanket policy or a position that says being older than 50 - by itself - is a detriment. But, it is an interesting data point.

I think it was the Boomers who made the saying famous - don't trust anyone over 30. Maybe the Millenials are going to re-educate us about that. As I recall, the sixties were a mildly bumpy time as the rising generation asserted its values and worldview.

One thing I wish I could see was how to minister to multiple generations or even how to transition the focus without tossing people out of the pews.

Right now, many "older friendly" churches are de facto shutting out young people. But, when you change to chase the 20s and 30s, you tell the older folks they are no longer important.

Unknown said...

I think generational ministry is extremely important, and John you are right, you do have to watch out for neglecting one generation over another. To jump topic a little, I have noticed that when people talk about making sure there is something for all generations, as far as ministry, they are usually talking about WITFM (what's in it for me) ministry. If there are opportunities to connect people in loving our neighbors through ministries that can use people of all ages, that is the best inner-generational ministry, not just is there a bridge club and a youth gym night.

Michael, I was not trying to endorse only under 35s and younger. I think a person does need to gain experience in the local church in order to understand 'church'. I guess my question would be, how many years = the right amount of experience? How many years does someone need to be in ministry to gain the knowledge and experience to make the qualified for those higher level appointments? There are ministers of every age (just starting out and close to retiring) that are still relevant to ALL generations. Maybe the better question is how are those ministers still relevant? What is about them that attracts/ministers to all generations?

Michael said...

Jim, I'm sorry I made it sound as though you were. I've seen so much coming from the Church that seeks "young" pastors but has virtually nothing for 50-year-old, second-career pastors trying to finish up school, etc. There is such a thing as too much emphasis being thrown in one direction.

Experience is relative. I don't know that there is a way to adequately measure beyond practical experience.

Rev. Kristi said...

Well said. I have been saying the same thing for a while. This is a generational issue that stems from our society. The same Boomers and silents who say the 41 year old is too young also considered themselves well experienced when they were that age.

Age is not necessarily the factor, but it is openness to change. God is still working in this world and if the UMC refuses to get into this century and recognize peoples various gifts of all ages and be open to change, God will use those who do.

Thanks for these thoughts.