success stories

Posted August 11, 2003

New Clerics Seek Ways to Reach Aging Flocks

By Marek Fuchs

A young cleric just out of a seminary often looks out from the pulpit during that first sermon and sees a flock that looks to be the age of parents and grandparents. The congregants looking back often see a person the age of someone they used to bounce on their knee.

Society is aging, a trend amplified in houses of worship, where older people are more likely to attend services. More than 60 percent of those 65 and older go to religious services other than weddings and funerals at least once a week, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

That is up five percentage points from the survey taken seven years ago. By comparison, 38 percent of those 30 to 49 in the recent study attend services at least once a week, and the percentage falls to 35 percent for those 18 to 29.

Entering the seminary later in life is becoming more common, but most entrants still go straight from college or soon afterward, and are ordained in their late 20's or early 30's.

The first sight of a young cleric can create generational shock, said Wade Clark Roof, the chairman of religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and an author of "Bridging Divided Worlds: Generational Cultures in Congregations."

When Congregation Kol Emeth, a synagogue in Palo Alto, Calif., was hiring a rabbi, several members traveled to the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan to interview those about to graduate. The median age of rabbinic students at the seminary last fall was 27.

"A lot of the rabbis we spoke to had the excitement, enthusiasm and idealism of youth," said Jeff Rosen, who was on the search committee. "Then there was just some youth."

The synagogue hired a 27-year-old woman. In one of her first activities, Rabbi Sarah Graff ran a lecture series for the synagogue's retired men's club.

"I was racking my brain to think of what would be an engaging topic for a group of retired men," Rabbi Graff said. She chose tefillin, the black arm-wrapping that Jewish men traditionally wear when praying. In retrospect, she said, it was a young person's mistake, a brash choice of topic: for centuries only men wore tefillin. "I neglected to think of how it might seem to older men for a new young woman rabbi to teach them about tefillin," she said. "While I envisioned it as a point of connection, I understand now why it was a point of departure."

Rabbi Graff said a more mature choice of topic for this inaugural meeting would have played on commonalities. A more recent topic of conversation for the group was medical ethics, with those in the group talking about their personal experiences and Rabbi Graff adding the latest in rabbinic thinking.

The Rev. John Christian Kile, the associate pastor at Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, N.J., experienced similar growing pains when, at 31, he began running the Wednesday morning Bible study class for older members three years ago. "I was the age of their sons and grandsons, and I think it was initially very frustrating for both of us. We all went away wanting to pull our hair out." Much of the problem, Mr. Kile said, was that he reacted to points of disagreement like a young man strident in his beliefs rather than a mature adult or religious leader.

"I was the gung-ho new kid on the block who hadn't earned their trust," he said. "I just came on too strong with my opinions." He added that while efforts were made in the seminary to impart such practical skills, "There's no way to do it with readings or talks." Lacking a formal set of skills, Mr. Kile reached back to his stint after college as a salesman for HealthSouth, the health care services company. "The same way I had to build a relationship with doctors, I had to build a relationship with the congregants."

Rabbi Graff was faced with a challenge at the outset: the imminent death of a prominent member of the congregation while the senior rabbi was away.

"I was called into the hospital and I was a little self-conscious, because I didn't quite know what the right advice was," she said. "So I just listened."

The member's wife, Irene Abrams, 69, whose husband, Herb, was dying of leukemia, recalled the visit. "It was the day before Herb died," Mrs. Abrams said, "and Rabbi Graff came in and asked us about our life together and how we met. Herb told her about the early days of the synagogue." When Mr. Abrams died the next day, Rabbi Graff told the Abrams family that if there was someone else they wanted to officiate at the funeral she would understand. "But we wanted her," Mrs. Abrams said, "and she delivered the most wonderful eulogy."

Mrs. Abrams said Rabbi Graff had set the stage for a good relationship by weaving stories about her grandparents into her sermons, and Rabbi Graff said that although she runs a youth group, she tried hard from the outset not to be typecast as the youth rabbi, a trap she said some do fall into.

Rabbi William H. Lebeau, vice chancellor for rabbinic development and Pearl Resnick dean of the Rabbinic School at Jewish Theological Seminary, said the problems faced by young clergy are compounded by the fact that they often replace older, long-trusted clerics. The Jewish Theological Seminary tries to prepare students with leadership colloquiums, internships and mentoring programs, as do many other seminaries.

Dr. Roland Martinson, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, said students at the Lutheran seminary who spent the third year of their five-year education on internship were best served. Placing the fieldwork in the center of their years at the seminary puts the second half of it in a richer context, he said, adding that one important component of seminary education has to be "learning the characteristics of the five generations alive in the nation today."

Mr. Roof, the author, said seminaries needed to place more emphasis on teaching modern history so clerics would begin their work with a stronger sense of the events that shape the lives of their congregants.

The Lilly Foundation in Indianapolis has given grants of $18 million to churches experimenting with post-seminary residencies for pastors that are modeled on medical school residencies.

But any practical skill imparted by any sort of training, Rabbi Graff said, "is hard to integrate until you are actually doing it."

Mr. Kile agrees, adding that after several years and his own marriage, he's making a better go of it.

"I like to think I'm just growing up a little," he said.