The statistics are in and they are as disappointing as they are predictable: the people most likely to be making decisions for the United Methodist Church are those who will spend the least amount of time living with the consequences.
According to data from the GCFA, the delegates to the last General conference were overwhelmingly older in age. The largest single decade of delegates were those in their 50s who composed 36% of all the delegates present. If you take all those who have more of their life (on average) behind them than ahead of them (those 40+), you reach an astonishing 85%. When it comes to the youngest group (those under twenty) you get 4. Not 4%, but 4 total delegates (or 0.6%). This is a problem.
Disclaimer: Because of my status as a provisional elder, I am not electable as a delegate. This means that what I am about to say is in no way in service of my election.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore the older generations in my life. They provide me and all the younger generations with perspective and grounding. They have modeled for me a brilliant work ethic and amazing loyalty. I am in no way suggesting we need to flip the statistic to be as unrealistically weighted towards younger delegates, but I believe that if the Church is going to survive and thrive in the future, we MUST promote and empower the younger voices among us.
I have found an inverse relationship between my age and optimism about the future of the UMC. The more I speak with leaders, I find the same to be true anecdotally among those in my social network.
When any organization loses an optimistic vision of the future, it loses the ability to harness present problems for future success. Instead of seeing any of the myriad of current issues as containing the potential for the expansion of the Kingdom of God, we see them as one more reason that the church cannot survive as it is much longer.
The problem is that the younger a leader is, the less likely they are to have powerful connections and the less likely they are to know how to campaign successfully for office. IN fact, many of the young leaders I know are turned off by the political side of the church and would feel disgusted with themselves for mixing politics and religion so thoroughly. They need your help.
That is why I am asking, no begging, the UMC leadership in every annual conference to let go of half of their votes that would normally be spent on the standard guard of skilled church politicians and spend them on the future. Rather than voting for all the top contenders from last General conference, vote for the young leaders who will spend the majority of their lives living with the decisions made at the next General Conference.
For those who have developed the skill of church politics and have been to General Conference before, I ask you to let go of your seat and use your considerable political capital to get a next generation leader elected who would have never been able to do it themselves. What if you told everyone who asked if you were “running” that you would like them to vote for the young clergy in the smaller church down the street?
But how do you know which one to choose? Without a track record and years of conversations in the hallway between annual conference sessions, how do you find a young leader worthy of your vote? I’d like to suggest a couple qualifications, and none of them have anything to do with how they feel about your pet church issue (I know you will handle that yourself).
1. They Are in Love with the Theology and Practice of Ministry of John Wesley: Seminary (or church history for those not ordained) can do one of the two things for people. It can make them bored with their heritage, or fall deeply in love with it. It is my opinion that the only way that we will make a difference in the future is if we recover the Wesleyan theological vision and reclaim the movement that John Wesley and Francis Asbury helmed. We need people who long for a truly Wesleyan movement.
2. They Aren’t Begging for Bureaucratic Power: We have plenty of church bureaucrats. Most people I know either come into church leadership because they are passionate about Jesus or because they are passionate about power. We need far less of the latter. I know that we can find leaders who love Jesus and see the burden of bureaucracy. When they are empowered, they are not in awe of the bureaucrats and are not afraid of making sure we have less of them.
3. They Are Optimistic About Our Future: If we want to find new solutions to problems, we have to have people involved who believe those solutions exist. When we find people optimistic about our future, they do not enter a discussion presuming only one of the existing options will work. If we want to have a viable movement in the future, we have to give the reigns to leaders who are ready to chart new ground in old discussions because they know there is a solution that hasn’t been discovered.
That’s it. Find those people. Elect them, and pray that God would continue to use our church to spread scriptural holiness across the land.