EXPLORATION Speakers Say Young People Must Lead UMC Now

November 23, 2009

By Vicki Brown*

God needs young people to help lead The United Methodist Church now, speaker after speaker told the 535 high school seniors and young adults who attended EXPLORATION 2009, November 13-15 in Dallas. And over and over again, they promised that God and the church would be with them as they answer the call.
 
"God is calling us to bring some freshness, some newness, to be innovative. God is calling you to lead us to that," the Rev. Tyrone Gordon, pastor of St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church in Dallas, said in his sermon during opening worship Friday night. "It doesn't matter how old you are. And when you hear God's voice speaking to you, you don't have to be afraid because God's not going to leave you alone."
 
And 170 of the 535 students attending the national event said "yes" to that call to ordained ministry. They signed commitment cards indicating they are ready to serve the church as ordained elders and deacons. Another 96 said God was calling them to ministry other than ordination, while 151 said they were unsure.
 
The Rev. Motoe Yamada, pastor of Sacramento's Japanese UMC and one of the event's speakers, says "at least 25 young people" from the California-Nevada Annual Conference attended.
 
The event, sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), aims to help youth and young adults discern whether God is calling them to ordained ministry. The continuing need for young clergy in The United Methodist Church was highlighted again by the 2009 data issued by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
 
While the decline in the number of elders under the age of 35 has leveled off, the study found young elders still are not keeping pace with clergy entering retirement age; it found there were just 906 elders under age 35 in 2009. Young deacons now make up 8.42 percent of deacons, although there, too, numbers remain small - 77 out of 915 ordained deacons.
 
Bishop Dyck calls this exciting time to be in ministry
 
Bishop Sally Dyck, episcopal leader of the Minnesota Annual Conference, told EXPLORATION participants they have plenty of other options, and may get pressure from parents, teachers, and others who want them to make different choices.
 
Dyck preached from John 21:15-19, in which the risen Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?" - and said Christ was trying to make sure that Peter understood what it would mean to accept the call to "Feed my sheep."
 
"Because in ministry, there is a sacrifice," said Dyck. She related the story of an early appointment to an inner city church in Cleveland, Ohio, two weeks after a court order was issued to bus children in order to achieve desegregation in the schools. Living in a parsonage across the street from an X-rated theater and a parking lot where a motorcycle gang gathered, Dyck said she often felt unsafe.
 
"But no one ever bothered my property or me. It 'gave me religion'; I learned to trust in Jesus like I had never trusted in Jesus before," she said.
 
"God calls us to care for the people," Dyck went on, saying that anywhere there is need is the church's mission field, from the concentration camps of Nazi Germany to an inner city neighborhood struggling with poverty.
 
"There has never been a more exciting time to be in ministry," she said. Any career path young adults choose today will be in an institution or business that is trying to rethink itself for the modern world. She said the church, at least, is clear about its purpose. "We're not here to maintain an institution, we are here to love the people," she said.
 
Participants find Small Groups format helpful in discerning call
 
Participants said that while the preachers and worship were inspiring, the small group sessions and workshops on such topics as "How Do I know God is Calling Me?" were the heart of the event.
 
"It was great to be in a community with people who are in a similar place, being able to discern my call with people in the same place," said Kenneth Schoon, a senior at the University of Cincinnati.
 
The Rev. Meg Lassiat, GBHEM's director of Student Ministries, Vocation, and Enlistment, said small groups were organized this year by age and understanding of commitment. "We thought it would be more helpful for people to meet with others who are wrestling with similar issues, and the comments I've gotten indicate that worked well," she said.
 
Many said the call can be isolating and that hearing the call stories of the preachers, elders, and deacons who gave testimony at each worship session - as well as the discussions in small groups - helped them realize they were not alone.
 
Amy Beckwith of Arlington, Virginia, said her small group was all recent graduates who are "trying to figure out what to do next." A recent graduate of Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, she said her group is going to try to stay in touch with each other after the event as they all continue the discernment process.
 
"One of the best things about this event was worshipping with a bunch of young adults. That is really hard to find," Beckwith said.
 
Lassiat said that while much of the event focuses on ordained ministry, it is not just designed for those who decide they want to be ordained.
 
"We tried to make it a good chance for people to discern both ways, whether they are really perceiving that God is calling them to ordained ministry, or whether the call they are hearing is to lay ministry," Lassiat said.
 
The Rev. Mary Ann Moman, GBHEM's associate general secretary of the Division of Ordained Ministry, echoed that sentiment in her welcoming remarks.
 
"Baptism is your certificate for ministry, and your task now is to discern if your call is ordained or lay ministry," Moman said.
 
Stuart Jones, a student at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, said he had considered religious studies with an eye toward seminary. "I've also thought about mission work, and I think this event helped me realize I'm not called to ordained ministry."
 
Jones, who is a photographer, said he attended the workshop on non-ordained options for ministry. "I had been thinking about using my photography to promote mission programs, and I found out there is actually someone who does that."
 
Not alone
 
Many of the speakers reminded participants that if they accept God's call, they will not be alone.
 
"I hope you saw the words of prayer and caring from fellow bishops that were projected on the screen before worship. The bishops of your church are concerned about you and praying for you, and we want to make sure you know there's a place for you. Our doors will always be open if you want to talk," said Bishop Earl Bledsoe, episcopal leader of the North Texas Annual Conference.
 
Rev. Yamada said in her sermon at closing worship that when she felt God's call to ministry, her own pastor discouraged her.
 
"I hope you don't get discouraged, and I hope you find people to support you," she told the participants. "There are many challenges in ministry, but there is so much joy to share.
 
“People will tell you that they need you in the future, but we need you now. You are already doing ministry,” Yamada said.
 
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.