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New program seeks to encourage younger ordained ministers

By Jerry Hames
ENS 053104-1
5/31/2004
[Episcopal News Service]  When Melinda Bobo perceived God's call and inquired about seminary training for the priesthood after graduating with a master's degree from Purdue University, she was told that she lacked life experience.

When Joel Daniels, a postulant from New York, ventured to tell priests about his desire to be ordained, they warned him that he wouldn't make much money.

Such reactions, which have dissuaded many young people from entering the priesthood in recent decades, have caused a critical absence of young clergy for many mainline denominations, including the Episcopal Church. As a result, these churches have developed a new collaborative partnership with the Fund for Theological Education in an effort to reverse the trend and encourage younger people to consider the ordained ministry.

"It's an important step as we seek to embrace new leadership for the future," said Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold.

Matthew Price, research director of the Church Pension Fund, said the number of young people younger than 35 entering the priesthood each year has dropped from 300 in 1960 to less than 50 in 2000. "The church right now is in a weak position. But we can do something about it," he said.
Many leaders in theological education are concerned about what the church has lost.

"We have paid a heavy price in the last 30 years by not ordaining younger people," said the Very Rev. James Lemler, president of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.

"The price has been that we have almost lost a generation of potential ordained leaders. We have also lost that kind of energy and vigor that is brought into the church, and we need to find a way to regain it."

Lemler's observations and the stories of earnest young men and women who found little encouragement when they explored the ordination process are recorded on a DVD that is part of a program that seeks to awaken priests and congregations to the need of young clergy and to urge young men and women for explore professional ministry.

The program, PLSE (pronounced "pulse"), is a Pastoral Leadership Search Effort that has drawn the participation of the Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ denominations. It offers a safe, web-based environment for young people to ask questions about ministry with their peers. Trainers frame questions for them and provide resource information, as well as conferences for young people who want to consider ordination. The website also points to those parishes and dioceses that actively recruit younger people.

Some persevere

Even young people who face discouragement but persevere pay an emotional price. Bobo, who graduated from Purdue University in the Diocese of Indianapolis, didn't withdraw from the church.

"But I did pull back from the idea to become a priest. It took me 12 years to decide that I would again go through the process," said Bobo, now assistant rector of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Minnetonka Beach, Minnesota.

And Daniels? "The last three years have been marked with delay after delay," he said. "I'm still in it, but I'm so much less in it now than I was four years ago."

The DVD is part of a package mailed to all Episcopal parishes across the country. It include two brochures--one directed to congregations and ministries, the other to young vocational explorers. There is a service to affirm the commitment by young leaders to Christian service and an enrollment form by which a parish can sponsor a young person.

"This is a very exciting project that warrants the church's attention," the Rev. David Gortner of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary told members of 100 endowed Episcopal parishes who met in Atlanta last month. "The problem is much greater than we realize. It's like an iceberg--we don't see the depth of it yet."

Endowed parishes have recognized the crisis and pledged half of the $100,000 required to implement the program. Other support has come from dioceses, the Episcopal Church Foundation, the Episcopal Church's national program and the Church Pension Fund.

"The newness that I experience in the church is a willingness of young people to offer themselves for service with a sacrificial attitude," said Thom Chu, program director for ministries with young people. "There is a higher vision they want to serve. Our response needs to be one of engagement."

For more information, call PLSE at 800-275-8235, ext.53, or visit: http://www.theplse.org/