Much has been written about the "crisis of younger clergy" in The United Methodist Church, and a look at the numbers confirms the crisis is real. With only 5.6 percent of United Methodist elders under the age of 35, and burnout taking its toll on them, the church's future may be in danger.
In a 2009 article for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, researcher Joseph Arnold wrote: "Several studies have noted that younger pastors suffer more stress and are at greater risk of burnout. While the first year of ministry is difficult regardless of the entrant's age, older persons entering ministry as a second career are not at the same risk for emotional problems as younger clergy."
In Western Pennsylvania, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton five years ago took action that seems to be making a difference in the lives and ministry of younger and newer clergy in the annual (regional) conference. Bickerton asked the Rev. Brian Bauknight, who retired in 2007, to work with younger clergy.
"It's kind of a unique situation because Brian was on my staff to address leadership development, but it became very clear that we needed to do something to nurture and support clergy under 35 if we want to retain them," Bickerton said.
"We both have a passion for the under-35 crowd, so I asked him to give them some guidance and support and to provide a forum for these young clergy to spend time together," he added. "Brian has a lot of respect because he is a longtime pastor. And he's developed trust, which is really important."
Bauknight has mentored a group of younger clergy, mostly under 35, each year since. Some are a bit older but relatively new to pastoral ministry. They generally meet every two weeks fall through spring, receiving help and support as they navigate the sometimes-stormy waters of pastoral ministry. The group appreciates the effort.
"Brian is very gifted at mentoring. He really takes the time to get to know the people in the group," said the Rev. Stephanie Gottschalk, pastor of Emanuel United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, who was in one of Bauknight's first groups.
"He goes to hear you preach and gets to know your setting and he offers feedback to help you develop. He asks if you've thought about a certain approach or suggests something that you might try," she explained. "That's helpful when you are a new pastor or a young clergy."
Having a sounding board
Tim Goodman, pastor of Creekside (Pa.) United Methodist Church and youth pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Indiana, Pa., said being in the 2011-12 group has been valuable. "Most of us are in rural churches or small, semi-urban churches. It helps to be around other young pastors who are in similar situations - to share struggles and hopes and bounce things off each other," he said. "Brian is a good resource. He acts as a kind of neutral sounding board."
Gottschalk explained that in pastoral ministry, "most of the time you are not around people of your age. This is a whole different unique opportunity to be in a peer group age-wise and place-wise. "
Perhaps most important, though, she said, is that Bauknight provides "a safe place to ask questions without putting your credibility (as a pastor) on the line."
Each group meets about 15 times, Bauknight said. About half of the sessions are at the farm where Bauknight, his wife and other family members live. Participants talk about what's going on in their lives and settings. Often Bauknight brings in young clergy who have been through the program to share their experience. Each session includes a meal prepared by Elaine Bauknight.
The Rev. Jason Schweinberg, who serves as pastor of the three-point Templeton Charge in the Indiana District, said the gatherings are "something you look forward to because you get to have the fellowship. Sometimes you feel like you are left out there on your own. In the group, we can learn and talk about things they don't teach in seminary that are out there."
Several participants, like the Rev. Renee Mikell, pastor of Fellowship United Methodist Church and First United Methodist Church in Ambridge, said the participants especially value the collegial relationships that develop within the group. "When you are new, you are so focused on what you are doing. This broadens our experience."
Gottschalk also is part of a group of young clergy formed by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership Lewis Fellows. The Lewis Center research was the basis for a book, "The Crisis of Younger Clergy," by Lovett Weems, the center's director, and Ann Michel, the associate director.
"Brian's program is kind of similar," Gottschalk said. Both put people together and in contact with clergy who are making it. But, she said, Bauknight's program "is much more individualized and relational. It's so much easier to maintain relationships (with people who are in the same area)."
Seeing ministry in action
Mikell said she also appreciated the visits Bauknight's group makes to other ministry sites. This winter the group went to the Allegheny County Jail, where a program alum, the Rev. Kimberly Greway, is director of chaplaincy services and works with the faith-based HOPE program that strives to reduce the recidivism rate for participants. Soon after the visit, Bauknight became a volunteer mentor for an inmate.
This year's group visited Eighth Avenue Place, where the Rev. Keith Kaufold, 33, is ministering to at-risk youth and others struggling to make ends meet in the once-thriving steel town of Homestead. They also went to Crossroads, a congregation launched in 1991 by the Rev. Steve Cordle and a few families meeting in a motel restaurant that grew through a cell group ministry. It now includes four campuses in the Pittsburgh area.
J.R. Virgin, who serves as pastor of three rural churches around Bedford, said he tells his congregations what he sees and learns "to let them know how the body of Christ works" in different areas.
Bauknight also encourages members of his groups to attend leadership-training events. Several went to the recent Ignite events at Grace United Methodist Church in Indiana, which featured the Rev. Mike Slaughter of the Ginghamsburg (Tipp City, Ohio) United Methodist Church as keynote speaker and breakout sessions led by those doing successful ministry in Western Pennsylvania.
Sharing happenings in life
The program Bauknight developed was based on some of the Lewis Center research and incorporated ideas he got from a colleague in Michigan who did something similar several years ago. His plan, however, is ever-evolving. "I've been massaging it every year," he said.
"I sense a lot more satisfaction on the part of young clergy here because (the need) was addressed rather quickly." Bauknight said. He added that most of those in the current group "seem fairly well challenged by where they are."
Gottschalk said the program allowed each participant to share something happening in life or something that needed attention. "It helped us get used to not being a Lone Ranger," she said.
"Through the whole process, you are getting mentoring and a model of collegial relationship," she added. "And Brian maintains the relationship after you are finished with the group. That is part of what makes it more real. He invites people who have been through the program back to speak. It has also helped with networking.
"Burnout is a problem among young clergy," Gottschalk added. "Serving a local church in an unfamiliar setting can be isolating; there is a credibility factor you struggle with when you are young and new to ministry; and often you are in a setting that is hugely different from what you are used to. Often there are also financial struggles and family issues that make it difficult.
"This effort recognizes that young clergy burnout is real. It's an attempt to do something about it. There is dialogue and it is mentoring, not judging. It shows a respect for the young clergy. It's so important to have healthy conversation."
*Campbell is a news and information specialist for the Western Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference.
News media contact: Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.