Musings & Younger Perspectives:
A Glimpse of the Future
By Colin Cushman
Let me start off saying: I’m not going to try to convince you of anything. If you are among the demographic that will ever read this, you already have your mind made up about what I’ll be discussing – and that’s fine because I’m not trying to sell you on anything.
My second disclaimer is: that the first is obviously a lie. Of course, I can’t present this neutrally. However, I am not going to spend my time arguing
1. for gay marriage;
2. that we are being un-Christian in our actions toward our LGBTQ brothers, sisters, and family; or
3. that Bible-believing Christians can come out on both sides of this issue.
Instead of talking to you about that, I want to tell you about what’s going on at Boston University School of Theology, one of the premier United Methodist seminaries training the church’s next pastors.
As a denomination, we have slowly reached a realization: we have plateaued, we aren’t getting any younger, and nobody is coming in – especially young folks. The UMC in the US has lost a ton of people during the decades of disenchantment following the 60s. Not to mention, we have a mandatory retirement age for our clergy: 72. We are beginning to do the math and see that our clergy population is soon going to be unsustainably thinned.
Our church is getting older and, within the last few years, we have begun to internalize that fact. It has seeped into our discourse as a church. We are beginning—with little success—to target young people because we need to perpetuate the structures that we have built. Floating all around is the rhetoric that we need fresh young people to become clergy. We know that we cannot survive as a church without a new influx of pastors and parishioners.
As a denomination, though, we make it hard for prospective pastors—intentionally. The Book of Discipline really shows its cards in one passage where it is talking about provisional members (who are in the last stages of the ordination process) saying that they are “on trial” and “on probation.” (¶327) You can’t get any more specific than that. The ordination process sucks….period. It is far from the process of mutual discernment that it should be. You have to be insane to want to jump through all of these flaming hoops in the first place.
Here’s the kicker: we have scores of young people lining up Y E A R N I N G to put themselves through this process. And we are actively preventing them from becoming Methodist pastors.
One good friend that I have is in my class in seminary. In her own vocational discernment, she has felt an indisputable call to ministry. Everyone around her recognizes it and affirms her gifts as a pastor. I have worked with her in a ministry setting; I know that she is currently the best pastor that I have ever known (and watch what will happen when she actually learns how to do it!). Through various circumstances, she has found herself without a denomination. When I talked with her about becoming a pastor in The United Methodist Church, she laughed in my face. There was no hesitation when she said that there was no chance that she would be a pastor in a church as discriminatory as that.
If this friend were the only one, it would, perhaps, be an isolated incident. But it’s not. One friend, who has come out as queer, has found that she has to censor which classes she takes so that her annual conference will not reject her. And this is despite her last relationship being a heterosexual one. Another friend is bi. She is not sure that she will ever be married, but is currently searching for a new annual conference, since she can no longer go back to her old one. Several of my friends refuse to go through the process of becoming elders because they know that they will never get through the process without them being outed. They are trying as hard as they can to find a way to still follow their calling. These ministers, individually and collectively, are doing the work of God in the world and would love to be allowed to jump through the hoops of the ordination process. However, we are standing in their way.
Our denomination’s response to our LGBTQ brothers, sisters, and family is directly losing us the best future pastors out there. Some want nothing to do with us. Others will not subjugate themselves to a soul-killing process that would never accept them anyways. Others have resorted to “adjusting” their calling to be something that they can actually achieve.
Certainly, there is some difference among the UMC’s seminaries, as well as the other seminaries from which pastors come. However, we have friends among the best-regarded seminaries, so we know the stories that are arising all across our top institutions. The story is the same: we are driving off our best and brightest potential pastors. These are the very people who can help solve the problems that we are facing as a denomination and as a Church. We are holding the gate open, yelling for them to come in, and slamming it in their faces. No, it’s not unanimous, but the next generation of pastors is securely on the side of ordaining LGBTQ folks. We need to take this into serious consideration when we are thinking about our future. Why?