Mississippi Conference Attracts Young Elders

December 04, 2009

By Vicki Brown*
Dec. 2, 2009 | DALLAS (UMNS)

Eleven percent of elders in The United Methodist Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference are under the age of 35, more than double the percentage of young elders nationally.
The conference's success is no accident, said church leaders attending EXPLORATION 2009, a national event for young people considering a call to ordained ministry.
Officials say the state is reaping the success of efforts that include committing resources to campus ministry, holding annual calling events in the conference, having churches adopt seminarians and offering regular statewide youth events.
"Our bishop [Hope Morgan Ward] has a real heart for youth," said Kevin Murriel of Brandon, Miss., a student at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. "There's been an emphasis placed on youth involvement throughout the conference."
The conference has 41 elders under the age of 35 in 2009, or 11.11 percent of its 369 elders. In the United States, there are 906 provisional and ordained elders under the age of 35, or 5.25 percent of the total, according to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
Mississippi has 27 campus ministry units across the state – one on every college campus, including community colleges, Ward said. All are Wesley Foundations, and she said many of the campus ministry boards and alumni are active in supporting those ministries.
"The Wesley Foundation at Mississippi State has more than 400 students and Wesley at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Perkinston gathers hundreds of students each week," Ward said.
Ward said United Methodists in Mississippi are conscious of supporting and staying in touch with seminarians, too, since there is not a United Methodist seminary in the state.
"When we make appointments, the young people are appointed first, and that may be helpful in keeping our seminarians in the conference," Ward said. "Many of them want to be associate pastors so they can have mentoring by a senior pastor. But if they want their own church, we try to appoint them to one that won't be so isolated."
The Rev. Lisa Garvin, director of Ministerial Services for the conference, said campus ministry is now the third largest item in the conference budget.
"I think it's paying off," she said.
The things the annual conference has done are not rocket science but a continued focus on the issue, said the Rev. Karen Koons Hayden, pastor at Centenary United Methodist Church in McComb, Miss.
"Get your Ministerial Education Fund money in, sponsor a student to an event like EXPLORATION or a statewide calling event, adopt a seminary student, have a calling service in your local church every year," Hayden said.
"Personally, I think it all comes back to mentoring and how seriously a church and pastor take their role in stewardship of the person," Hayden said. "We do keep reminding pastors that it is part of their job."
Those connections may be one reason Mississippi does not lose seminary graduates to other conferences, Hayden said. She said there are a lot of hoops to jump through in the candidacy process and that "if you've got someone loving you, and supporting you, praying for you, and listening to you, it's easier."
Ryan Parker, a Duke Divinity School student from Hattiesburg, said his pastors and district superintendent took the time to talk to him as he was thinking about vocation.
"They would call and e-mail," Parker said. "They see it as a process of helping you to see what you couldn't see."
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*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.