How old is too old to join the clergy?

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The Texas Annual (regional) Conference has proposed changing its minimum standards for clergy to discourage people over 45 from becoming candidates for ordained ministry.

The conference's board of ordained ministry is seeking feedback through September this year and does not plan to make any final decision on its standards until October.

But the possible changes have already sparked debate across the United Methodist blogosphere. Some call it an example of blatant age discrimination, while others hail it as a welcome consideration for serving the needs of tomorrow's church.

According to a number of longtime church observers, the Texas Conference is believed to be the first to make such a proposal for age guidelines.

The proposal comes at a time when Texas and other U.S. conferences have increased emphasis on recruiting younger clergy even as they also deal with people joining the clergy as second careers.

"This doesn't surprise me, and it wouldn't surprise me to see other conferences move in a similar direction," said Jan Love, the dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. "One must always remember that leadership skills are not always defined by age."

But she added that she sees the Texas plan as an important step in more strategic thinking about church leadership. Whether it's the right step is debatable, she said.

"The reason I think it's an interesting strategic move that needs to be thoughtfully considered is that having someone become ordained is a huge investment of institutional resources," she said.

Those resources include financial support for education, pension and health benefits. The mandatory retirement age for United Methodist clergy is 72.

The Rev. Carol Bruse, the chair of the conference's 70-member board of ordained ministry, said the aim of the proposed standards is to help the conference plan for future needs. The policy would not affect current clergy or clergy candidates in the Texas Conference.

"It's not just the call of God on people's lives. What we have to discern is the call of the church," said Bruse, the senior pastor of West University United Methodist Church in Houston. She entered the candidacy process herself at age 35, after years working in construction and as a stay-at-home mom.

"Of course God calls every Christian," she said. "But who does the church need at this particular time at this location? That's the hard part. We don't have it all figured out but we're doing our best."

Even if the board of ordained ministry ultimately adopts this policy, Bruse and other board members stressed that it would only serve as a guideline - not an outright ban on all older candidates.

"I bet there will be a 67-year-old in every ordination class until the end of time because God is just weird like that," Bruse said. "You've got your Davids who are young, your Pauls who are in their 40s and your Abrahams who are beyond childbearing years."

What the proposal says

Under the proposal, the Texas Conference board of ordained ministry would encourage candidates seeking credentials as:

  • an elder over 45 "to pursue licensed ministry, certified lay or other expressions of lay ministry"
  • a deacon over 45 "to pursue other expressions of ministry"
  • a licensed local pastor over 60 "to pursue certified lay ministry or other expressions of lay ministry"
  • a certified lay minister over 70 "to pursue other expressions of lay ministry"

For too long, Bruse said, the board of ordained ministry would ordain anyone who finished seminary and passed the required psychological and background checks.

What The United Methodist Church says

In the Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book

In the Book of Resolutions, which outlines the denomination's social positions

From the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry

The Texas Conference, with more than 284,000 lay members as of 2011, is the largest conference in the South Central Jurisdiction and one of the largest in the United States. But conference research projects that in the next 15 to 20 years it will have fewer, bigger churches seeking longer-tenured pastors, she said. The policy change would give the board and others in the conference a way to tell some people "no."

It would also serve as a reality check for those considering becoming clergy about the time and financial commitment involved.

Earning a master of divinity degree typically takes three years for a full-time student and longer for part-time. Ordination candidates then must complete two to three years as provisional members of their conferences before being fully ordained. It can take another eight to 10 years for a pastor to become proficient at the craft.

"When candidates come in, they can be clueless about our system," Bruse said. "They come in and spend their life savings on seminary, and they don't want to leave their hometown."

The Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr., professor of church leadership and director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, consulted on the Texas Conference plan.

His center annually tracks clergy age in the denomination. As of 2012, elders 35 or older made up more than 94 percent of all provisional and ordained elders, and 53 percent of all elders were age 55 or older, Weems said.That percentage of older clergy is unprecedented in the denomination's history, he said.

The center does not track the ages of those entering. But as late as 2009, the center found that about 25 percent of those in the provisional process were baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964).

"The best thing about the Texas Conference proposal is that it takes the initiative in spelling out the clergy needs for the United Methodist witness in their area," Weems said.

"Their proposal may seem jarring to some. It can, however,be a starting point for a process to help potential candidates explore what is their best avenue into ministry. Age is one of many factors conferences shouldconsider in helping persons discern where their gifts can best serve the church."

Is it discriminatory?

The proposal has plenty of detractors.

The Rev. Jeremy Smith, who regularly blogs about issues facing young clergy, calls the Texas proposal "outright ageism."

"To lose the perspective of new middle-aged and senior clergy in an annual conference, especially those that bring interdisciplinary expertise from their first careers, would be tragic indeed," he wrote on his blog Hacking Christianity. Smith is the minister of discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Ore.

"I can name quite a few effective clergy leading vital congregations that were commissioned after age 45.I bet you can name several as well."

Richard H. Gentzler Jr., director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, said the denomination's Committee on Older Adult Ministries is reviewing the proposal and plans to send a response to the conference.

The Rev. Gwen Purushotham, who leads the Division of Ordained Ministry at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, expressed her own misgivings about the possible standards.

"My personal opinion, I think the primary thing we should think about is the mission of the church and what kind of leaders do we need for that mission," she said. "I would personally ask the question whether limiting that to certain age groups for certain (ministerial) orders is going to serve that mission."

Some of the online conversation about the proposal

Retired Bishop D. Max Whitfield, who is bishop in residence at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, said he can see the pros and cons of the proposal.

He said the benefits include the focus on helping younger and more diverse people respond to God's call to ordained ministry. However, the proposal "fails to acknowledge the effective ministry performed by extremely capable persons who respond to God's calling later than their early years of life," he said.

Whitfield also wondered whether the document meets the standards of the Book of Discipline, the church law book, which requires "openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community, and the world."

"The church must deny 'every semblance of discrimination,' and this document fails that test," he said.

For the Rev. Mark Whitley, the proposal has personal resonance. He grew up attending church only sporadically and only discovered The United Methodist Church as an adult. After years of working with the American Red Cross, he entered the candidacy process at 43 and was ordained an elder in 2011 at 53. His wife, Susan, was ordained an elder a year later.

Today, Whitley is the senior pastor of Verdigris United Methodist Church in Claremore, Okla. His wife is the pastor of Skiatook First United Methodist Church in Skiatook, Okla..

Whitley said he and his wife are "all in," having spent virtually all their savings in preparing for their pastoral call. But he said the two have no regrets. Before becoming a pastor despite his career advances, he said he always felt a "gnawing sense of emptiness."

"Every pastor understands the pain of ministry," he said, "but the pain of leaving my call right now would far exceed whatever pain I feel as a pastor. It's who I am."

He added that to turn someone away because "they've reached an arbitrary age seems deeply, deeply disingenuous."

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470or [email protected].

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