When I was seven, I remember standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes with my mom. For some reason that day, I was thinking about my grandmother, Gloria, teaching children’s Sunday school. She loved kids so much that I figured she would give up everything for them.
That day at the kitchen sink I first verbalized a call: “Mom, when I grow up, I want to be a missionary just like my Grandma!” I announced.
I was born Nazarene. My grandparents, Roy and Gloria Henck, gave their lives to the people of the Cape Verde Islands for more than four decades. I grew up hearing tales from my dad, who spent his childhood in those islands. He spoke of huge bugs, roller skating outside, and of enjoying all the fish you could eat. Before I started preschool, my parents invested in a shoulder-boombox-sized VHS camera so we could send tapes to grandma and grandpa in Africa.
Thirty years later, like my grandparents,I find myself deeply devoted to our Nazarene tribe. You might be surprised to know that many other young pastors feel the same way. This past March, we at Young Clergy Network teamed up with Nazarene Research Services to survey young Nazarene clergy (age 40 and younger) in the USA/Canada Region. We sent out 2,284 e-mails and 936 pastors (41%) responded. One of the things we studied was connectedness to the Church of the Nazarene. On a scale of one to five, with one being, “I don’t really think of myself as Nazarene,” and five being, “I cannot imagine a time when I will not be Nazarene,” 47.5% of respondents chose, “I cannot imagine a time when I will not be Nazarene.”
This statistic alone was incredibly encouraging. On a scale where you might expect most people to land toward the middle (“I am committed to the Church of the Nazarene, but I could see myself ministering in another evangelical church someday,” 17.5%), our young pastors are connected. As a young pastor myself, I already suspected this to be the case. Over and over again in my work, I have met committed, passionate young Nazarene clergy.
OVERCOMING NEGATIVE STEREOTYPES
Unfortunately, the negative stereotypes going around about the millennial generation trickle down to millennial pastors as well. I have overheard myths such as, “Young clergy don’t care about the past,” or “Millennial pastors don’t care about denominational administration.” But the data shows that (at least in our tribe) young clergy do care. The survey revealed that 45.4% of young pastors planned to go to General Assembly, even though most were not delegates. Also, 84.4% of those surveyed had attended at least two of their last three district assemblies. That is impressive when you consider that 63% are not lead pastors!
WHAT CAN WE DO BETTER?
At the end of the survey we asked, “What would you like to see the denomination do to better support young clergy?” The concerns these young pastors expressed and the solutions offered are practical and actionable. Supporting our young clergy and providing for their future in the Church of the Nazarene doesn’t need to be complicated or mysterious. After reading, re-reading, and categorizing, over 500 write-in answers, Young Clergy Network published a report of the top concerns. Here are a few that were mentioned the most:
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE THE DENOMINATION DO TO BETTER SUPPORT YOUNG CLERGY?
We can make more room in leadership for young pastors (mentioned 96 times).
Survey respondents repeatedly mentioned the need for younger representatives to serve at assemblies, on panels and committees, and through other areas of responsibility. The desire to have a seat at the decision-making table is sometimes mistaken for “a sense of entitlement.” However, unlike expectations of leadership in other generations, millennials, gravitate toward leadership that is both representative and collaborative. For example, if young clergy are on the district, young clergy should be represented on the committees and teams that oversee the district. The diversity of the district should be reflected at conferences, etc. Some districts are working on this. For instance, there are districts that intentionally nominate young clergy to be on their ballots and boards. However, there is more work to be done.
Young pastors are hoping to be represented on local, district, and even regional levels. One young pastor said, “I would like to see more young clergy nominated to different leadership positions within the district and as delegates to things such as General Assemblies and General Board meetings.” Another wrote: “Put more trust in us. Elect us to boards, invite us to present at seminars, give us a chance to lead and grow, and let our voice be heard. We have important things to say.”
ADDRESSING DEMOGRAPHIC REALITIES
In the Church of the Nazarene, only 16.5% of pastors are younger than 40. Only about 9% of the 2013 General Assembly delegates were under the age of 40 (Research Services). This presents two challenges: 1) Young people who expect representation feel that their voice doesn’t matter; and 2) decisions are probably being made in settings that do not represent the hopes and visions of young people. This is not for lack of interest or desire: the survey show almost half of USA/Canada young pastors already planned to attend General Assembly. Not only that, but Young Clergy Network coordinated two meetups at the 2017 General Assembly, and almost 350 people attended! Clearly, our young clergy want to be involved in our denomination!
EMPOWERING YOUNGER CLERGY
We can do more to empower and affirm young pastors (mentioned 112 times).
Young clergy want to be valued, contributing members of the team, whether at their church, on the district level, or in regional or global leadership.
Affirming young clergy can be as simple as recognizing and encouraging their gifts. The survey responses demonstrate that many long for older leaders to create safe spaces for them and to value the feedback they offer.
If we want to nurture young pastors, we can encourage, affirm, and “pass the baton.” Simple ways to do this might be: nominate young clergy for offices, recommend them for positions (especially beyond NYI), collaborate on projects, and tell them you value their opinion.
We can do more to intentionally mentor young pastors (mentioned 113 times).
So many respondents mentioned mentoring! A few mentioned how helpful having a mentor was, but most lamented their lack of a mentor:
Young clergy need mentors. I am a female ordained elder, and I feel that female mentors are few and far between. If I have to find her myself, it's hard to make the connection. If she seeks me out, however, as a part of a denominational focus on mentoring young leaders, I would appreciate that type of support.
Another said: I searched for a mentor for years and happened to finally find one who was interested in investing in me, hiring me to prepare me for ministry more than fill a position. Other peers long for such a relationship. So do our licensed ministers coming up.
Many districts already offer mentorship programs for district licensed pastors. Perhaps mentoring opportunities could be addressed for young clergy of all types, including those already ordained.
THE RISING COST(S) OF EDUCATION
We can do more to make education affordable for pastors (education mentioned 78 times, debt mentioned 80 times).
Today’s young clergy face higher education costs than any generation before us. That, coupled with the low salaries pastors usually receive, means that concerns over education and debt run deep. Respondents repeatedly talked about their financial anxiety:
Work on better scholarship programs for aspiring clergy at our schools. I'm finally out of debt, but it took years of working full-time outside of the church while still trying to minister. . . It's frustrating and discouraging to begin ministry that way.
This last suggestion might seem like the most challenging, but is has great potential! Programs like the COMPASS Initiative, resources through Pensions & Benefits USA, and regional scholarship and internship programs are already making a dent in young clergy debt, but there is more to be done. Let’s cast a vision to free our young clergy of student debt so they can focus on more important things.
REFLECTIONS ON THE STUDY
Our young Nazarene pastors are passionate and committed. They hope their desire to participate and their presence is recognized and valued. They believe in our holiness roots and our Wesleyan theology. Ultimately, they believe in their church. But they are also hope that we believe in them, too. Empowerment, affirmation, representation, and debt relief are just a few ways we can champion them and show that we care.
BRIT BOLERJACK is director of the Young Clergy Network (youngclergy.net). She hosts a podcast called “This Nazarene Life” (thisnazlife.com). She is also the college and community pastor at Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene.