What has been described as the "graying" of the United Methodist Church -- the steady increase in the average age of clergy and seminary students -- is the fruit of a trend that was encouraged by the denomination in earlier decades, according to a former executive of the church's Division of Ordained Ministry.

"For quite a long period of time we actively discouraged candidates from entering the ministry," said the Rev. Robert Watts Thornburg, chaplain of Boston University and dean of its Marsh Chapel.

Thornburg, who was an associate general secretary of the United Methodist Church's ordained ministry division in the 1970s, said that "in the past, unlike the Roman Catholics, we had been telling people at the decisive ages -- about grades 7, 8 and 9 -- that the clergy was filled up and we had all the clergy we needed."

A recent report by the United Methodist News Service cited projections from the ordained ministry division that 48 percent of United Methodist parish clergy will retire within 15 years. The report also said a growing number of United Methodists entering seminary for the first time are older than 35.

Thornburg recalled that the ordained ministry division did research with the United Methodist Board of Pensions during the 1970s and projected that "we're going to be facing a really serious shortage" in the clergy ranks in 1992 and 1993.

Noting that "the average age at nearly all of our seminaries is currently about 39 or 40," Thornburg said, "The church has just awakened to the fact that by the year 2000 we could be dead."

One sign that the trend may be changing was the attendance of more than 1,200 United Methodist teenagers considering church-related careers who gathered recently for a conference on the subject in St. Louis. The ordained ministry division, which sponsored the conference, had anticipated an attendance of 700.

Thornburg said the interest in the conference reflected "an incredible increase in the interest in doing volunteer service," which is leading to an upward trend in the number of young people considering clergy careers. "In black communities, it is clear that the church is often on the forefront of social change," he said.

One irony, Thornburg said, is that "parents who are active in churches are discouraging their kids from entering the ordained ministry" for a variety of reasons, such as the conflicts with parishioners often faced by pastors or the pay for clerics, which is lower than salaries in other careers.