By Christa Meland
Less than 7 percent of United Methodist clergy serving in Minnesota are under the age of 40. Meanwhile, more than 50 percent of the state’s clergy are eligible to retire within the next five years.
These statistics are startling—and they illustrate the need to immediately and effectively cultivate a new generation of church leaders. That’s exactly what a new Minnesota Conference internship program hopes to do.
The Exploring Leadership Internship program, or “The ELI Project” for short, is for students exploring a call to ordained ministry. Through it, up to 10 college students will be invited to participate in a learning experience during summer 2015. After gathering for a week of orientation, which will include trips to seminaries and an opportunity to learn about the United Methodist Church, each intern will be placed at a host church or organization for eight weeks. Over that period, the host congregation will invite the intern to gain hands-on experience in a wide variety of ministerial contexts—and involve the intern in intentional reading, spiritual formation, and reflective discussions to help him or her hear and discern God’s call.
Interns will receive a $3,000 stipend, $2,000 of which will come from the conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry and $1,000 of which the host church is expected to provide.
Culture of call
The program aligns with the Minnesota Conference’s desire to create a culture of call that actively encourages all United Methodists, but particularly young adults, to explore how God is calling them to use their gifts to build the kingdom.
“We often talk to young people about what they want to be when they grow up and encourage them to think about careers such as teaching, being a doctor or lawyer, or a plumber or carpenter, but we don’t often invite them to think about being a pastor or leader in the church,” said Director of Ministries Cindy Gregorson. “And yet, if the church is the hope of the world, why would we not invite young people to consider this vocation as something significant and worthy of consideration?”
The name “The ELI Project” refers to the biblical story of Hannah, Eli, and Samuel. Hannah, desperate for a child, commits Samuel to the Lord well before he is conceived. Eli, witnessing Hannah in prayer, blesses her by saying, “And may the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked from him.” After Hannah’s son Samuel is born, she and Eli help him recognize God’s call more directly. Hannah places Samuel into positions of ministry with Eli so that as Samuel hears the voice of God, Eli is there to help him fully hear and respond to it.
The program is made possible thanks to a $60,000 grant that the Minnesota Conference received last year through the global United Methodist Church’s Young Clergy Initiative Fund, which aims to “increase the number of young clergy leaders among the jurisdictional conferences.” It aligns with the conference’s Journey Toward Vitality, a roadmap that presents a vision to increase vitality in our churches and outlines the strategic pathways that will get us there—one of which is developing missional leaders.
New project manager
Joelle Anderson was recently hired project manager for The ELI Project. In that part-time position, she will oversee the application and selection process and work with the interns and host congregations. She’s responsible for ensuring a positive internship experience for the students and helping the host sites to understand their role.
Anderson, who lives in Coon Rapids, grew up Baptist and graduated in spring 2014 with a master of divinity degree. She’s thrilled to be able to lead this new program for the Minnesota Conference.
“The task of The ELI Project is vital for the body of Christ right now,” she said. “Young people are exploring what it means to follow Christ and are creative in what traditions and practices they use. What excites me the most about The ELI Project is the ability to plug young talent into churches to see how one will sharpen and mold the other. Young adults have an incredible desire to experience and be in relationship with God. Their nuanced perspective and voice will challenge and inspire others in their circles. What the hosting churches will do is bring tangible ministry experience and wisdom to the students.”
When Anderson was an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, many people told her that she would make a good pastor, and she knew she enjoyed all aspects of church: the worship, the people, learning about Jesus, studying the Bible, and educating herself about the history of Christianity. But she didn’t know what vocational ministry might look like for her life and didn’t have an opportunity to try it out. A program like The ELI Project would have helped her immensely, she said.
“I think ‘discernment’ and ‘call’ and ‘vocational ministry’ can seem mysterious,” she said. “We hope that The ELI Project will provide some tangible footholds.”
Churches across the state will be a key part of the internship process. In addition to having the opportunity to host interns, all congregations within the conference are being asked identify college students who might be a good fit for the program and encourage them to consider the program.
“Every generation is best reached by people in their own generation,” said Gregorson. “The average age of a United Methodist is 61. If we are going to reach our children and their children with the good news of Jesus Christ, we need leaders in their 20s and 30s who are passionate about the gospel and the power of Christian community.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.