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Children of the Cloth

The Claremont School of Theology Is One of Several Organizations Across the Country Trying to Get Kids More Interested in Pursuing the Ministry as a Career

November 04, 1998|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a moment, the 6-year-old girl will preach.

But for now, in a church pew, Summer Dowd-Lukesh bounces on her father's lap. She knows her sermon by heart, so no use taking it to the pulpit, where she might fiddle with her papers or roll them up like a spyglass. Empty-handed--at 3 feet, 8 inches, 44 pounds, in a burgundy velvet dress--Summer scampers to the podium and climbs atop a stool in Mary Jane shoes.

She will see whether she likes this preaching thing. Someday, Summer might be a pastor or a zookeeper. It's hard to sort out in the whirligig of her days at home in Rancho Cucamonga, where she must feed chickens, shoot marbles, gather walnuts, soar on a tire swing, dream in a treehouse and write in her secret diary (yes, there's a boy she loves).

On this night, Summer will deliver her first sermon, as a winner in the Claremont School of Theology's Future Ministers Competition. Two other winners in three age categories, for 5- to 17-year-olds, also will preach for the first time. And then each of the winners will walk away with a prize that could shape her or his future:

A one-year scholarship to the school's graduate seminary--that's worth $8,000 in tuition now and likely thousands more by the time Summer is old enough to get a master of divinity degree. (The scholarship cannot be exchanged for cash).

Nationwide Effort to Attract Youngsters

Claremont's competition is part of a growing effort nationwide to get kids as young as 5 to consider the ordained ministry. Major commitments underway include a private foundation's multimillion-dollar grant program to "recruit talented young people" and a plan by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops to target youth for the priesthood.

In Claremont, organizers of the preaching contest wanted to dangle a carrot in front of young people that they wouldn't forget.

"That is awesome," said Kathy Lee, of the prize awarded to her 16-year-old daughter, Kelsey Lee, one of the preaching winners. "That's maybe God's calling her to say, 'Hey, this is it, girl.' "

And maybe: Hurry.

With seminary statistics telling a troubling story, mainline churches and other institutions are trying to catch children before they stray into more tempting, lucrative careers. Consider: the average Catholic priest is 58. More than 50% of seminarians tracked by the Assn. of Theological Schools are 35 or older. And in the last 30 years, while the Catholic population grew by 31%, the number of students in Catholic seminaries plummeted by 60%. (By comparison, enrollment in rabbinical schools is up.)

The numbers are forcing church leaders and theologians to think like recruiters and rethink the way young people enter the ministry. Is the ministry a calling first and vocation second, or vice versa? (The word "vocation," in fact, derives from the Latin vocatio, "a calling.") Or, these days, does the call come when the door to the ministry is opened for a young person who might not otherwise hear it in the hubbub of a MTV, modem-plugged world?

"If it is put to the child, 'OK, you do this well, so therefore the job opportunity is there for you,' that would be a fundamental shift in the way most churches conceive of the ordained ministry," said Robert K. Martin, assistant professor of religious education at Yale Divinity School. "Most churches would be quite adamant in saying, 'This is not a normal kind of occupational choice you choose. This is an occupational choice that discovers you.' "

Claremont's preaching contest got one of the judges, the Rev. Paul Tellstrom, thinking about whether the pulpit was any place for a child.

"Could this be harmful?" wondered Tellstrom, pastor at Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church. "Could this pull someone in who now has to be a minister?"

But then Tellstrom remembered how he felt at age 11, when he heard God's call. He was lonely and discouraged, with no one to confide in--and put off the seminary until he was 36. Now he is heartened by the way Claremont's contest confirms a young person's intuition by giving her a chance to preach--and backing up winners with a meaningful prize.

"If this is what they're doing right now," Tellstrom said of the entrants, "they are feeling some kind of call. I'm not saying that this is the bolt of lightning, but this might be something that seals that call--'Yes, I was right to think of it.' "

Until now, efforts to tap kids have been subtle. But the sit-back-and-wait approach isn't working, some church leaders say. San Dimas pastor James Bowser, for instance, used to volunteer for a Rotary Club career program when he lived in Tulare, Calif., hoping a high school student would sign up to follow him for a day. In eight years, no one ever did.

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