An interesting blog post is making the Facebook rounds today. Rev. Jeremy Smith cites a proposal coming before the Texas Annual Conference (pdf here). As a current candidate in the Texas conference, I recognize it is a risk to share it, but it speaks to some questions I’ve wrestled with this since I got my Annual Conference journal. I think Rev. Smith’s tone is too reactionary, but the charge is worth consideration. Such a clear delineation is a slap to those who’ve spent decades wrestling with a call. Yet we live within the reality declining UMC numbers nationwide. In addition, it is my personal observation that, increasingly good and effective ministries is not happening in the middle (250-500 avg worship) of the spectrum, but at its edges–in small and large churches.*
Certainly a flat age line might not be the best statement, but perhaps the bigger problem is that we as a church assume that ministry=ordained leadership. As Christians, our first calling is that of baptism. After that callings to leadership are for the benefit of the body and the spread of the Kingdom of God. Maybe that should come with a salary and a pension, but should it also come with embarrassing levels of debt for both our pastors and our congregations? There are great benefits to professionalizing ministry, but it is expensive for both the Church and its ministers.
A great part of that expense is financial, but there is also a cost in perceived value. As the emphasis on clergy (second career or otherwise) has grown, I fear we have elevated their calling over that of lay leaders or more specialized ministers. By market standards an ordained elder is worth more than a local pastor or a lay minister. We know this because they get paid more. But in the hospital room, or the prison, at the baptismal font, or the communion table is the same true? If a 46 year old candidate is asked to consider licensing; to go to East-Texas-UMC and care for their 30 members, to counsel them, teach them, lead them and deliver them the sacraments is that a lesser calling? If a 75 year old is asked to spend hours by the beds of the sick and dying is that a smaller work of God?
It is easy to read a pdf and assume the worst intent. And I won’t pretend that no ageism exists anywhere in either the conference or the drafting of this proposal. But I think the situation is more complicated than malicious. If we assume that Deacons and Elders hold an prized status, then yes, this is a travesty for a large and valuable group of candidates. However, if the Church should indeed be one body; one body of many members and many gifts set aside in different ways, then perhaps it is an effort to embrace more flexible means of ministry. The UMC in America needs to be more flexible, it needs to be more adaptive, and it needs to incorporate a wide breath of gifts if it is to continue as a meaningful witness for Christ.
Even setting aside that half of delegates and those serving on boards are laity (or should be), the proposal does not suddenly eliminate the voice of age and experience. It does possibly shrink the size of the clergy over time, it does slowly re balance and streamline a teetering system and it increases the pool of licensed pastors and lay ministers. This may be a challenge to traditional lines of thought, but that doesn’t make it bad. I have been in ministry as a lay person for 10 years and there have been many places I could speak where clergy could not and things I could say with authority that clergy could not. Callings to those places, the places clergy have no trust or power, those callings are not only equal, but valuable.
Clergy, licensed and lay, we need trust one another and be one community living, working, aging and growing together. Church should be a place where a variety of ideas can be proposed, talked about, and considered in grace. That’s what is happening here, or should be happening. When assume insult and injustice to quickly, we lose the opportunity to model a better way of life together. These are initial thoughts, and I may be proven wrong. What do you think?
*This does not mean good ministry is not happening in mid-sized churches, it is. But if we continue as we have, mid-sized churches will not be the norm and good things can indeed happen in small churches as well as very large ones.