Young Clergy and Farm Teams

Today, Jeremy over at Hacking Christianity, has encouraged people to write about Lovett Weems’ book Focus.  I’m about half way through with the book and it has a lot in common with the statistical analysis I was doing on the clergy in my conference.  It seems to mingle well and I’ll probably come back to some of the results of my finds and Weems and how they do agree when I finish.

But what caught my attention is in the introduction in the book.  Weems opens by drawing links between the United Methodist Church and the New York Yankees.  The connections are neat to think about and probably mean more if I was a huge fan of baseball.  One topic he brought up was the Yankee’s unwillingness to move into the farm team system to build their homegrown talent.  This got me thinking…are small churches/charges the farm teams for young clergy in our current system? (man that sounded really Sex and in the City like)

Think about the purpose of the farm teams for Major League Baseball.  Once a person graduates college and is good enough to get into the program they can being to prove themselves in minor leagues.  They can move up from the Asheville Tourists to the Greensboro Grasshoppers to the Durham Bulls and finally be called up to the big leagues. (Yes I am aware that those teams are probably not owned by the same Major League team but those are the ones in my area I knew were 4A, 3A,& 2A ball clubs.)

For young clergy when they graduate from seminary and give themselves over to the itinerant system many find themselves in one of three spots; an associate (because they choose this path), a pastor a 2+ church charge, or the pastor of a small station church.  THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THESE POSITIONS, please don’t get me wrong, but they can be drastically different than the churches many young clergy come from.  This is because many young clergy come from much larger churches.  Because of this it can lead to burn out and other struggles because the small church is a lot different than the mega church in locations, personalities, and family systems. (they are also exactly the same in some areas as well, don’t get me wrong)

It seems that small churches and charges are the farm teams for ministers.  If you prove you can handle a small church they move you from 4A to 3A and then on up until you have been in the ministry for 30 years and you finally get to play your last seasons with the big boys.  This seems to be the old style of appointments and I wonder how this will change as the death tsunami that Weems predicts starts to hit our denomination?  Will the old itinerant rules that are silently and invisibly in place still be around as the tsunami hits and drastic change hits the denomination?

In a previous post I note that over the next 10 to 15 years there will be a clergy death tsunami too.  Will the young clergy who are getting out of seminary now have a chance to move up quicker in the league of clergy because of the huge openings in the pulpits that cannot be filled by the clergy they usually would be?  Does this mean as a young clergy one could possibly be running a large church (200-500 in worship) within the first 15-20 years of ministry?  That is almost unheard of these days.  If this does become the case how will those who have been waiting 25-30 years to get that appointment treat those young clergy who do get sucked up to that pulpit instead?

Will the old idea of a farm team be going away because the only churches who will be able to afford commissioned and ordained clergy will be larger congregations after financial resets are demanded by lack of funds?  Are young clergy prepared for that transformation and is this a tool to help get more young clergy into the denomination?

What do you think?


5 thoughts on “Young Clergy and Farm Teams

  1. Hi, this is Kirk from over at Signs Unseen who is doing this sync blog too.

    One thing I learned on my recent trip to the Cal Nev conference area is that their ordination process is constantly having to hold back young clergy candidates who are ready for ministry and ordination because of the lack of available appointment slots to put them in. What's happening is that these young folks are seeing their peers in the UCC and other denominations get through and ordained in about 2-3 years while the UMC is telling them 5-6 years. Ugh!

    No wonder they're opting for free agency early in their careers. So to stretch your minor league metaphor a bit further, can we afford to wait for the Death tsunami to hit the clergy ranks or will we have burned too many bridges and find our farm leagues emptied out of our best talent?


  2. The problem I see is that younger clergy from a divergent culture are being sent into churches that are 40-50 years older, which are institutionalized convergent (sameness) culture. Many younger clergy want things to be different, to be dynamic (much like our generation). We want to change things while the institution wants to stay the same. This is much of the tension. For clergy it seems, the big leagues wait until you act,think, and look the same. This works out that many appointments are institutional churches that don't know how to act or work differently and work with or invite a new generation, so it is nearly impossible to change anything at the lower levels, as the institution continues to lose contact/relevance with younger generations. The churches most willing to be dynamic/and appealing for younger generations seem to have the fewest denominational ties and have more young and/or rebellious people, a more dynamic culture. In this way a Prairie Chapel or a New Church Start may have more in common with young pastors than an institutional church eternally mired in staying the same.


  3. Kirk, thank you for your comment and you pose an interesting question. My thinking on that is that the General and Annual conferences are run by people in 50s, 60s, & 70s. It took all we could to get one person elected from our conference who was under 35. I think there is chance that bridges will not be burned IF people are willing to heap some of the responsibility of making decisions on the younger generations. How different would it General Conference (heck even Annual Conferences) if the median age was around 45?

    Nathan, thank you for your comment and I agree that there is a disconnect with the places and experiences young clergy have when they felt their call and the reality of their first appointments. I was pleased to hear that our bishop (Goodpaster) actually makes it a point to appoint seminary grads first during the appointment process. That tells me there is a focus (at least here in WNCC) to give young clergy the best chance of survival. I agree that New Church starts may be more appealing but once again will the institution had over 'their money' to inexperienced, wet beyond the ear, clergy who haven't had a chance to prove themselves?


  4. @Nathan. There's a 'new wine into old wine skins' issue here for sure.

    @Jim. As a 'former young adult clergy person' who is now 41. I'm amused/bemused that I'm only 6 years from being classed as a young adult by the UMC and still 14 years from the current median age for clergy in the UMC. I ponder sometimes if the 'young adult' goalpost will continue to chase me as I age and never reach the 'median age of clergy' goalpost!

    In reality, we know that the yin/yang of these metrics will ultimately have their sudden reversal of course, but will our structures survive that? Who knows.


  5. Kirk, I know the pendulum will eventually swing the other way and I am curious/worried/nervous what the UMC will look like when it does. What I do know is it will be different than what it looks like today. The unknown is scary but then there is something in the Bible about not worrying about tomorrow and trusting God…somewhere in there…


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