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A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.

Conference withdraws clergy age guidelines

By Heather Hahn
4:30 P.M. ET Aug. 23, 2013 | NASHVILLE, Tenn.

The Texas Annual (regional) Conference has withdrawn a controversial proposal to discourage those older than 45 from becoming candidates for ordained ministry.

The conference's board of ordained ministry had planned to seek feedback on the potential guidelines through September and to not make a final decision until October. The conference posted the "Proposed Minimum Standards for Entering Candidates for Ministry" on its website this spring.

However, the executive committee invited all board members to a special meeting Aug. 14 to discuss responses after the Texas Conference's annual meeting. Those responses included the results to surveys returned by 329 Texas Conference members - 168 clergy and 83 lay.

After a discussion that recognized "much unintended pain caused for some clergy by the proposal," 27 of the 70 board members in attendance voted unanimously to drop the proposal, said a conference statement.

Commenters on the UMNS Facebook page generally cheered the news.

"We never intended to hurt anyone," the Rev. Carol Bruse, the chair of the conference's board of ordained ministry, told United Methodist News Service. "But many clergy took it personally. They felt it was a negative response to their ministry even though the guidelines never were going to apply to current clergy or candidates. We need to do all we can to encourage our pastors, not discourage them. We felt we had to withdraw the proposal."

The bottom line, she added, is that the plan never would have worked without more support. The board needed the conference's pastors to embrace it since they are "the frontline recruiters" of new clergy, she said. The survey results indicated that clergy were among the proposal's strongest critics.

Nonetheless, she said, the challenges that the proposed guidelines were intended to address - recruiting and nurturingeffective clergy with years of service ahead - still exist.

A task force of board members is working on a proposal for consideration at the board's October meeting to provide tools for pastors and other church leaders to help potential candidates discern how they can best live out their ministry.

"We hope that these tools will help us change the way we are credentialing," Bruse said. "Not every candidate who feels called to ministry is called to be an elder.... They need to be realistic about their lifespan, their years of service and what they are willing to expend in education and time."

The commitment to become an elder or deacon can be daunting. Earning a master of divinity degree typically takes three years for a full-time student and longer for part-time. It also can cost a student tens of thousands of dollars. Ordination candidates then must complete two to three years as provisional members of their conferences before being fully ordained. Elders also must be willing to move wherever they are appointed.

The mandatory retirement age for United Methodist clergy is 72.

Bruse said the board plans to make public whatever tools it approves to help recruit clergy after it meets again in October.

What the proposal said

The recommended guidelines provoked passionate debate across the United Methodist blogosphere and social media. Some called it an example of blatant age discrimination, while others hailed it as a welcome consideration for serving the needs of tomorrow's church.

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

  • an elder older than 45 "to pursue licensed ministry, certified lay or other expressions of lay ministry"
  • a deacon older than 45 "to pursue other expressions of ministry"
  • a licensed local pastor older than 60 "to pursue certified lay ministry or other expressions of lay ministry"
  • a certified lay minister older than 70 "to pursue other expressions of lay ministry"
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 proposal arose 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 or third careers.

Among those second-career clergy is Bruse, who is now 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.

Bruse stressed that these age recommendations were always intended to serve as guidance rather than iron-clad requirements. "There are always exceptions to the rule," she said. "But the bottom line is that our responsibility as the board of ordained ministry is to recruit clergy leaders to serve the mission and future needs of the Texas Annual Conference."

For far too long, she said, the conference has favored older clergy candidates over younger recruits. More seasoned candidates tended to do better in interviews, and they were easier to imagine behind the pulpit, Bruse said.

As it stands, she said, she fears that in 20 or 30 years, the conference will not have enough active clergy to serve its needs.

"We need to be Elis and Elijahs, and mentor these young ones," she said

But she also does not want to dismiss the contributions of older clergy.

"We regret any pain we caused to the very pastors we need," she said.

One critic's reaction

The Rev. Jeremy Smith, who regularly blogs about issues facing young clergy, was among the Texas proposal's most vocal critics and was among those applauding its end.

"I do wish them well in determining criteria for being a minister," he wrote in his blog "Hacking Christianity." "That's their right and purview to steward the church's human resources. And they have proved that they are (grudgingly) responsive to concerns about 'stacking the ordination deck' against those whom God has placed a call on their hearts, regardless of age."

He also wrote that he does not envy the board's task. However, he also noted his fear that the original proposal might prevail in practice even if not on paper.

"I've never been on the (board of ordained ministry), and I can't comment from the other side," Smith told United Methodist News Service. "But I suspect we all have our pet perspectives or driving concerns that we evaluate each candidate by. From the Texas conversation, there's enough people who think that candidates over a certain age must show that they are more qualified than a younger applicant. ... Someone's driving concern won't be removed now that the paper has been shelved."

Smith is an ordained elder and the minister of discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Ore. But he avidly has followed the debate in Texas, first sounding the alarm on his blog shortly after the proposal was posted.

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.

He praised the Texas Conference for its transparency. He suggested more boards of ordained ministry post policies under consideration online.

"I think it's important that boards of ordained ministry allow public insight into their processes and standards," he said. "While each individual's case is private, being public about the overarching values and hopes of each board would do a lot to bring clarity and scrutiny to the process. In Texas, we had a board that chose to be public by posting the minimum standards on their website, and it became a public conversation through social media. If more boards did that with new policies or standards they are considering, I think they would find more insight from beyond their borders that they could choose to incorporate or not."

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

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470or newsdesk@umcom.org.