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Photo courtesy of Texas Annual Conference

Gail Ford Smith

How Texas Conference has developed young clergy

The Texas Annual (regional) Conference leads The United Methodist Church in percentage of elders under age 35, according to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership’s latest clergy age trends study. The Rev. Gail Ford Smith is the director of the conference’s Center for Clergy Excellence, and she answered questions from UMNS’s Sam Hodges about the conference’s strategy. 

What has the Texas Conference done to try to recruit young clergy?

Honestly, we have an episcopal leader, Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, who made developing transforming leaders, lay and clergy, a high priority from day one. Bishop Huie helped us realize that the traditional pipeline that once existed for supplying pastors — grow up in a United Methodist church, go to a United Methodist college or university, become active in a Wesley Foundation, hear a call to preach, attend a United Methodist seminary — has dried up. We have to develop an alternative system and we did — an entire ecosystem, really, which begins with the local church reclaiming its “culture of call.”

We encourage local church folk to notice their own gifted and talented youth and encourage them towards the ministry or at least plant seeds that God can water. We have a conference camping program and the Texas Youth Academy, which is a two-week summer theological reflection camp with mission experiences. Our College Pastoral Internship Project provides summer local church internships for students interested in exploring pastoral ministry. Interns receive a $3,000 stipend and lodging. 

An important part of our system is seminary visits to stay in touch with our students. Usually a district superintendent and a recent graduate of the seminary are on campus to offer encouragement and support and a great meal or two! We also use seminary students on campus who serve as liaisons between the conference and the campus to create continuous community.

We work hard to support young clergy. During their provisional years they are in a wonderful residency program with personality and leadership style assessments and coaching. We also have the Ambassadors’ Endowment, which graduates can apply to for grants to reimburse seminary costs over a five-year period. For ordained elders, Advancing Pastoral Leadership (APL) is available. It is a five-year intensive exploration of preaching, leadership, evangelism, stewardship and ministry in the public square. 

Is there any one strategy you feel — or know from research — has been most effective?

I believe a significant attraction is our commitment to mission field appointments. Bishop Huie and this cabinet are committed to matching gifts and graces of pastors and churches to serve those who do not yet know Christ or have not yet found a home among God’s people. Said differently, there is no prescribed course that every pastor has to take. You know: “Well, everybody has to first serve a four-point charge, then a three-point charge, etc.” Mission field appointments have made a huge difference in how we act and talk.

It also means that those who feel called to start new churches and have the gifts to do so are placed more quickly where they are called to be. That has been attractive as well.

Why do you think it’s important for the church to bolster its numbers of young clergy?

We value all of our clergy; we need them all. But the truth is that many of us will be retiring in the next few years. I am one of them. 

If more than half of our clergy retire in the next 10 years, we will need lots of gifted clergy of every age, but especially young and diverse clergy who can serve for a lifetime. Every morning I thank God for every clergyperson in this conference and pray God’s blessings upon them. And I ask God to send us more laborers for the fields! 

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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