ASHLAND, Ky. (KT) – Several eastern Kentucky Baptist churches are finding youth in the pulpit to their liking.
Being half the age of most of their congregations brings its own set of challenges, according to five twentysomething pastors who gathered for a sit-down last week at the Greenup Association of Baptists home office. But what they lack in experience, they make up for with enthusiasm.
They often have juggling acts, with young families being started while trying to navigate often being first-time pastors in churches that have been entrenched in areas for decades. Yet they are not tired and worn down and they bring fresh ideas that also may entice a younger generation of believers.
But many established members may still ask: Who are these young whippersnappers and are they ready to lead these churches?
“The biggest challenge is establishing credibility with that age group and it’s done not through seminary, but loving on them,” said Josh Schmidt, the greybeard of the group at 29 and the pastor at First Baptist Church Grayson. “You are investing in them as a person. It’s not an ideal situation, honestly. The church prayed about it a lot and I prayed about it a lot.”
Schmidt and the other four pastors – Landon Copley of First Baptist Church Olive Hill, Casey Carver of Inez First Baptist Church, Josh Haywood of Harlan Baptist
Church and Seth Carter of First Baptist Church Paintsville – have been welcomed by their congregations despite ranging in age from 24 to 29.
“Our individuals at church have been open and receptive of having a young minister,” said Copley, who is only 24. “It does present its challenges. A lot of the older folks have wisdom and I’m leaning and trusting in the Lord to help me minister. In any church you’re going to run into those situations. By and large, at Olive Hill, everyone has bought into the vision and been on board.”
Copley and his wife, Lori, are expecting their first child soon. “That not only fuels into our marriage and life but fuels into my ministry. I love waking up every day.”
Each of the pastors have found mentors to help guide them through the winding maze of church leadership. Regional Kentucky Baptist Convention consultant Paul Badgett has given a helping hand when he can.
“I’ve agreed to be a mentor to a couple of these guys,” Badgett said. “They call me from time to time about different things. But some of them have to learn by the university of hard knocks.”
Badgett said the trend of younger pastors filling pulpits comes out of necessity. “Churches are struggling to find pastors,” he said. “We don’t have as many preachers to pick from anymore especially in eastern Kentucky. Other areas don’t have as big a problem because the churches are bigger (and attract more candidates).”
He said these pastors and other young ones like them throughout the state could benefit from a revitalization boot camp that takes them through some intensive training. While nothing replaces experience, they do bring youth exhuberance to churches, he said.
Haywood, 28, said in Harlan the battle comes from several points because there are no jobs. Harlan Baptist is the historic church in the area and will celebrate 150 years in the fall. He grew up attending the church.
“You’re seeing older congregations that need to adapt to the culture,” Haywood said. “Almost all the young people are leaving Harlan County to find jobs. It’s also trying to challenge the older congregation what does it look like to invest in them? There’s a healthy realization that we do need to change and adapt. We’re working through a lot of those things.”
He wants his church to be a “more hospitable church” with the idea of getting the church into the community. “The church isn’t the building, it’s the people.”
One advantage of young pastors is the natural attraction for the 20-40 age group that so many churches are trying to reach.
“We have a relatability to the younger generation,” said the 24-year-old Carter, the pastor in Paintsville. “We’re trying to get into the schools and go where young families are.”
Carter said many of Paintsville’s young adults have told him they are glad to hear from a young preacher. “They feel like they relate to you,” he said. Carter said his church has a good number in the crucial and sometimes hard to reach 20-to-40 age group.
But Carter also respects the older members who have the life experience that he lacks. “Anytime you’re trying to minister to people there are natural challenges,” he said. “A lack of wisdom and life experience on my part is one. Everybody here has been very accepting. I’m learning not only what it means to be a pastor but a father and a husband.”
Casey Carver, 26, is pastoring his second church. He was a pastor in Clay County for 3½ years before accepting the call to Inez only three months ago. The churches have similarities in that they were both once booming in the coal industry with a lot of wealth and now struggle for jobs and drugs have taken a major toll in both places, he said.
As for dealing with the older generation, Carver said he is working on “bridging the gap. I haven’t experienced wars like they have. There’s definitely a gap not only in age but in the area. We’re trying to find common interests and figuring out who they are. The biggest thing for me and my family is simply loving on people, investing in them and showing an interest.”
Each of the pastors have ventured out into the communities with varying degrees of success. What most of them have found are communities where the gospel is welcomed but not always practiced.
“I’ve learned eastern Kentucky people have head knowledge of Christ, they know the gospel story, but it’s not in their hearts,” Copley said. “People in Carter County are starving for a clear and concise gospel. There’s a lot of confusion in our area in what the gospel really is. This is free grace, it’s not about works.”
Carver said in Inez “everybody is connected to the church in some way but the desire to be involved in the local church is not where it needs to be.”
Some of the pastors are brand new to the areas where they are leading, and some are familiar to their congregations. None more so than Schmidt, who is following his late father Paul Schmidt into the pulpit in Grayson. His dad was pastor for nine years. “I’ve had to establish with them I’m not the pastor because my father did this,” he said. “At the same time, it’s hard to lead someone in a new way. Dad did his own thing. I pastor like Josh Schmidt.”
Schmidt said “people don’t want church as usual. Youth I don’t know has anything to do with it. People are looking for something real.” He said the biggest need for Carter County is “revival. There’s a lot of brokenness in Carter County and Jesus is the only salve for that. God give us Grayson to make his name known.”
Carter said the single biggest need is for churches to commit themselves to prayer. “I don’t think we understand how vital prayer is,” he said. “We need to devote ourselves to prayer. Yes, we pray, but very few times do we devote ourselves to prayer. The only way to fight this battle we’re in is on our knees.”