The number of “young elders” – clergy under age 35 – isn’t keeping pace with clergy entering retirement age.

CHICAGO (UMNS) – Kerry Bart’s faith blossomed in his mid-20s. Two years into a career as a college chemistry teacher in Iowa, he grew curious about being a pastor.

A friend invited him to tour a Pennsylvania seminary. The visit affirmed his sense of calling. His ordination came four years ago.

“You don’t do much faith sharing in a science department,” said Bart, 37, an elder at Spring City United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania. “The invitation to visit a seminary was a catalyst for me to becoming a pastor.”

If The United Methodist Church wants younger clergy, more invitations need to be extended to young people, he said.

The need for young clergy – and the wide age gap that exists among pastoral leaders in the denomination – is made clear in a recently released study. It shows the number of “young elders” – clergy under age 35 – isn’t keeping pace with clergy entering retirement age.

The fastest growing segment of United Methodist clergy is over age 55, according to the study by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

“The decline in young clergy has been far more dramatic than the decline in church membership,” said project director Lovett H. Weems, Jr. “There’s no quick fix to turning around the trend.”

The study’s key findings include:

  • The number of young elders dropped slightly from 910 in 2008 to 906 in 2009.
  • The percentage of young elders made up 5.25 percent of active elders in 2009, a slight increase from 5.21 percent in 2008.
  • Forty-two percent of young clergy are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. In contrast, the Northeastern and Western jurisdictions together have only 20 percent of young clergy.

“The good news is that the dramatic decline in elders over several years seems to have leveled off,” Weems said.

The low point hit in 2005 when the number of young elders dipped to 850, the study showed.

Bart said young people today are more wary of organized religion than in previous generations.

“They see clergy sex scandals and other messes and think, ‘I don’t want to be part of that,’“ he said.

United Methodists are trying various approaches to stem the tide.

One of the most successful is the Holston Conference, which serves churches in north Georgia, Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

No major urban area or seminary is located in the conference. Even so, the number of young people entering ministry from there remains among the highest year after year.

So what’s the conference doing to foster vocations?

Weems points to weekend events held twice yearly that draw roughly 2,000 youth. The events always include a vocational discernment component.

“A common characteristic of young clergy is that they were involved in church as children,” said Weems, co-author of “The Crisis of Younger Clergy” from Abingdon Press.

“Youth ministry, camping ministry and campus ministry all need more attention,” he added. “But there’s no one solution to fit every situation.”

Susan Hogan serves as a freelance writer in Chicago.