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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2009 Archives > September-October 2009 > Meeting the Need for New Leaders in the Church and World

Clockwise from top: The Rev. Lovett Weems, the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, the Rev. Jerome Del Pino
Meeting the Need for New Leaders in the Church and World

By Tom Gillem

A worldwide denominational movement to reinvigorate The United Methodist Church is placing high priority on developing principled Christian leaders. It is an effort to overcome a crisis in clergy and lay leadership that exists especially among United Methodists in the United States.

"I believe that the key challenge facing The United Methodist Church today is the kind and quality of our leadership," says the Rev. Jerome King Del Pino, general secretary of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry  in Nashville, Tenn.

"Preparing a new generation of Christian leaders is GBHEM's mission. However, every general agency, annual conference and local church has a vital stake in the task of forming, nurturing and deploying Spirit-led, creative and faithful leaders for the future of our local churches, our educational institutions and our ministries of outreach."

Although the focus to develop principled Christian leaders includes both clergy and laity, the denomination faces an immediate crisis because its active clergy is growing older and the number of elders under 35 who will eventually assume top leadership roles in the church is barely increasing.

Research by the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr. shows that in 2008 the median age of active clergy in the denomination was in the mid-50s, and the greatest growth was occurring in the 55-70 age group. At the same time, ordained elders under age 35 had reached just 5 percent of active elders for the first time this century.

Because the most common retirement age in recent years has been 64, the younger clergy are going to be called into significant leadership positions much sooner than typically occurred in the past, says Weems, executive director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

"The young clergy that we do have need to be deployed strategically," he says. "We've got to realize that we don't have that large supply that we used to, and the future of The United Methodist Church in the United States depends on our being able to learn how to reach more people -- younger people and more diverse people. So the young clergy need to be deployed in a way that will really help us do that."

When an organization is in decline, as The United Methodist Church's membership in the United States has been since 1964, "that's the time when organizations need leadership, but they tend to seek out good administration and good management," Weems says.

"But in a situation where things need to be different, you need more than good administration and good management. You need leadership that can help define the reality of the current situation and help discern that future that God is calling us to, and to help lead people from where we are to where God would have us to go," he says. "That is the challenge for clergy leaders, and that is the challenge for laity leaders."

At the congregational level, says the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, general secretary of the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn., developing principled Christian leaders includes both the lay leadership within the church and all church members in their everyday lives.

"The local church has the responsibility to think about intentionally building a ministry program that starts with how people are formed in faith as infants and children and then moves across the lifespan ...," Greenwaldt says.

For adults who never were part of a faith-forming experience, the congregation needs to provide entry-level faith formation learning arenas that help them learn what it means to have an active, growing faith, she says.

"A congregation is the primary place of (faith) formation for everybody," Greenwaldt says. "Some move on into professional ministry, i.e. ordination, but most everybody stays on the lay side. So the church has the responsibility across the lifespan to form folk in faith, and that's primarily done in local churches."

--Tom Gillem is a freelance writer and photographer in Franklin, Tenn.

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