Written by G. Jeffrey MacDonald
July - August 2002
Whether they have hospital visits to do, Bible studies to lead or weekly sermons to prepare in their new career, pastors below age 35 rarely have extra time to build new organizations.
But with precious few colleagues of their own age—just 4,000 nationwide across major denominations—youthful clergy are making time to get together, worship and bond over their distinctive, shared experience.
Since 1998, Christ Clarion Fellowship groups have taken root in pockets across the country. Three hundred youthful clerics now forge personal connections with same-age colleagues in an aging field.
In the United Church of Christ, for instance, 92.7 percent of pastors are over 40.
CCF is "for people who say, 'I go to my denominational meetings, and I'm the youngest person there,'" says the Rev. Chapin Garner, 32, a pastor at the United Church of Christ of Norwell, Mass., and co-founder of Christ Clarion Fellowship. "'While there are lots of good people there, I really relate to no one.' [Being young in ministry] really enhances what can be a sense of loneliness and isolation in the pastoral life."
Finding pastors her own age is a regular challenge for 32-year-old the Rev. Cynthia Worthington-Berry, pastor of First Parish Church United, a UCC/UUA congregation in Westford, Mass. Although she has a husband and 14-month-old daughter for support, she says she gets tired of hearing from clergy colleagues that she's too young to understand many things.
"I'm the youngest person in my church on any given Sunday morning," Worthington-Berry says. She seeks peers in ministry to discuss "how we can make that a powerful plus for my people and for God."
Christ Clarion Fellowship was born at a New Mexico retreat for 25 young pastors with a $30,000 grant from the Louisville Institute.
Participants concerned for the looming clergy shortage as retirements outpace ordinations and also for their own fellowship needs left the summit with a mission. They would each start grassroots groups in their own states to share food, play together, worship and stay connected over e-mail.
Despite growing interest, the national organization could soon disappear because members don't have time to write grant proposals to sustain it, according to Garner. And grassroots groups may need to sustain themselves independently, he added, because denominations aren't yet giving serious attention the wave of clergy retirements certain to occur over the next two decades.
"The church that has allowed this clergy crisis to come to be might not be the structure that gets us out of this," Garner says.
The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald is pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass., and a free-lance journalist, who contributes regularly to Religion News Service.
Go to www.plymouthrocket.com/ccf/.