A recent column on the surge of churches calling pastors in their fifth decade evoked a wide range of responses.
Many came from mid-career clergy who offered a hearty “Amen” and were grateful for the news that their sense of entering the prime time of their career was being confirmed by more and more congregations.
Not surprisingly, a number of responses came from young clergy who expressed frustration at not being taken seriously by search committees because of their inexperience and youth. They identified a significant issue that healthy congregations need to address proactively.
Seminary education for clergy is designed to be complemented by opportunities to serve in local congregations. Most seminaries and divinity schools require local church service by those planning to graduate and work in a local church setting. The problem, of course, is that those few months of service are but an appetizer for the amount of experience clergy need to function at their peak.
When congregations come calling upon recent graduates, it is imperative that they do so with the understanding that they will covenant with the recent graduate to continue his or her education experience in a full-time setting. Such an investment yields results best measured in effectiveness over decades, rather than months.
Rather than thinking they are getting a “finished product”, such congregations embrace the notion of walking alongside an emerging minister to further their education in the crucible of congregational life. It’s one thing to study pastoral care in the classroom, it’s quite another to sit alongside a terminally ill parishioner and attempt to be the presence of Christ to them.
Some theological schools have set up specialized programs to help their graduates make a smooth transition into their first full-time position. They often offer Leadership Coaching, continuing education events, and guidance for a team of laity who provide encouragement to the recent graduate. These serve to raise the likelihood of the first full-time position being a positive experience and launching the minister into a meaningful and long-lived career.
Some churches claim their role as “a teaching church”, and make a deliberate effort to encourage and nurture new clergy in their call. They establish “Residencies”, much like a medical model, and give a new minister the opportunity to experience a wide range of ministry tasks in a safe and challenging environment.
Any church can choose to deliberately not exclude young clergy from their search process. Using age barriers in profiles, whether a “floor” or a “ceiling”, seems presumptive and dismissive of the Spirit’s leading. Healthy search committees focus on spiritual maturity, emotional intelligence, and a sense of divine call that knows no boundaries.
True, I have seen 20-something clergy wreak havoc in a church due to their immaturity and insensitivity. Unfortunately, I have seen clergy of all ages do the same. I have also seen 20-something year olds excel at ministry because they have the essential skills and spiritual aptitude that will be with them throughout their career. The churches wise enough to invite them to serve with them in the early stages of their career find themselves blessed for decades because of such a positive experience.
If you are in a congregation willing to invite a woman into the pulpit, you will find a plethora of women who have inordinate ministry skills simply looking for an opportunity. Some lucky church is going to be blessed by their talent and energy for ministry.
If age is not the best boundary qualification, what are some appropriate areas for a search committee to consider?
Here are a few:
Has the person had successful relationships with laity in other settings? With fellow staff members?
What do references say about spiritual giftedness? What do they say about relational maturity? Mental health?
What is the depth of the candidate’s spiritual passion? Do they hunger to please God or people? Do they pray when no one is watching? Are they defined by others or by God’s work in them?
How does the candidate live out his/her faith beyond the boundaries of the church property?
What does success look like for the candidate?
How has the candidate been able to translate ideas into realities?
These types of criteria know no age boundaries. Prowess in these areas is a product of spiritual and emotional maturity more than the year one was born.
One young respondent recently shared with me their frustration with being systematically excluded from churches they knew they had the skills to pastor. Despite that frustration, they closed their email to me with these words: I am certain of my calling, and confident that there is a congregation where I will find joy in the service of Christ.
I envy the church wise enough to call this young minister to serve with them.