Tag Archives: youth culture

St. Gregory the Great’s Advice to Young Clergy

I interrupted my current reading with something special for my ordination: Pope St. Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule.  With his description of the ideal pastor and rather cutting remarks on the temptations to which clergy are prone, it was a humbling read to surround the days leading up to my ordination as an Elder in Full Connection.

A large portion of his Rule is devoted to specific instructions for people with opposite vices or situations; while this section gets a bit tedious and repetitive, there are nonetheless some gems within.  Especially interesting to me was the section entitled, “Those who are able to preach with dignity but fear to do so out of humility [does anyone know one of these people???], and those whose lack of skill or age prevents from preaching but who nevertheless rush into preaching.”

In that section, St. Gregory elaborates:

“…those who are prohibited from preaching because of a lack of skill or age, but nevertheless rush into preaching, should be advised that in their arrogance to assume the burden of the office of preaching, they do not cut off the opportunity for their own future improvement.  Moreover, as they seize prematurely what they are not able to do, they should be careful that they not lose those very skills that they might otherwise have achieved at a later time…they should be advised to remember that if young birds try to fly before their wings are fully developed, they fall from the height that they sought.”

He goes on to use – and really, who could be better? – the example of Jesus:

“And so it is that our Redeemer, though as the Creator he remains in heaven and is always by his power the teacher of the angels, did not wish to become a teacher of men until his thirtieth year on earth.  Clearly, he did this to instill a wholesome fear into the hasty by showing them that even he, who could not err, did not preach the grace of the perfect life until he had reached the appropriate age.” (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007 [163-164].)

I am struck by how much this is the opposite impulse of many churches today, including that of my own (United Methodist) tribe.  Denominational authorities tell us everywhere that we need more young clergy, and many claim (or at least imply) that our time to ordination should be faster/simpler/easier.  I have my own thoughts on why “The Process” is so complex, and why it should be so in every corner of the Body, but here I am mostly interested in the age factor.

St. Gregory regards it as a vice that one would seek to preach at too young an age; we seem to act and think the opposite.  Mirroring, rather than challenging, the cultural assumption that everything new is good and the way of the young is the way it should be, the church too quickly and too often runs after the young like a drunk stumbling for a lamppost. Thus the values of the market win out over wisdom, and we effectively despise those whom most healthy societies have revered.

I am almost 31.  I am about to enter my 5th year of full-time ministry, and I have much to learn.  I have no illusions that I have achieved the heights of pastoral wisdom or preaching excellence, and I am horrified that anyone my age or younger would already be showing interest in the Episcopacy.

Wisdom is the fruit of years, and more specifically years of prayer, study, discernment, experience, and some serious grace.  While the young should be cultivated for spiritual leadership, and I understand that the investment the church makes via ordination (if for no other purpose than the rather mundane reasons of insurance and other benefits) means that younger clergy may be preferred by the system, we who are young should not seek to speak of God too soon or too lightly.  We should not presume that being young gives us some kind of monopoly over leading well or preaching with power and conviction.

In short, we could use a dose of Gregory’s advice: don’t be in a hurry to speak the words of salvation, to presume to speak for God.  Jesus didn’t get going until he was 30.  Don’t be too proud to walk before you run, or to sit in the chair of the apprentice before assuming the role of the master.

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The Idolatry of the Young and the Future of the Church at General Conference 2012

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As a culture, our golden calf is young people: their presence, whims, fashions, and thoughts.  Advertisers certainly know this.  MTV does.  The head of MTV once said, “We don’t shoot for young people, we own them.”  Everyone wants young people.  The church is no different.

The identity politics at the UMC General Conference 2012 has been troubling.  Our church has been in decline since 1968 when it formed, and yet our structure has remained the same: a multiplicity of corporate-style boards with redundant agendas, massive bureaucracies, and little oversight.  The economic and cultural realities are such that we as a church can no longer fund this corporate beast.  Attempting to make any changes, however, has proven difficult.  Tribalism is rampant.  Each group is asking, “Who made that plan?”  “Why wasn’t I at the table?”  “Did you think about this group?”  “Were they consulted?”

At one point in the deliberations, someone actually said, “I want everyone who wrote this legislation to stand up so I can see who they are.”  Read: it matters little whether or not the legislation is good or effective, it matters if the people who wrote it look like me.

To be certain, we are a worldwide communion, a big-tent denomination if there ever was one.  We have many voices that need to be honored, many constituencies that are a gift to Christ’s church and the Wesleyan movement.  I had enough schooling to know that social location matters.  I don’t think it should matter more than faithfulness to Christ or zeal for fulfilling his mission, but that is a separate debate.

One of the strangest things in all of this has been the idolatry of the young in our church.  I’ve seen it at all levels.  “Why aren’t there more young delegates at General Conference?” they ask.  Well, to get elected to GC involves being known by a lot of your peers, and this likelihood increases as one is around for longer periods of time.

Most troubling is the reversal of the locus of wisdom in our culture.  Ancient societies and even Americans of recent generations revered the old; we looked up to their witness, honored their accumulated knowledge, deferred to their experience and listened to their voices.  That day is gone.  We want the young: to know their thoughts, to have them present, to follow their lead.

As a young pastor in a church that has few of them, I’ve seen this repeatedly.  “What do the young adults think??” “How do we get more young adults??” We are desperate for young clergy and desperate for youth and young adult representation in the church.  Granted, the Oxford Methodists were young when they got going; however, anyone who knows the story of the Wesleys is well aware that they were very unusual 20-somethings by the standards of any age.

So why all this fuss about young people sitting at the leadership table? Frankly, I don’t get it.  I’ve been a pastor now for just under three years and I have very little wisdom about the church to share.  I’m still learning, studying, figuring out how all this actually works.  A big deal was made of GC 2016 being after school was out so more young adults could attend.  For what?  Honestly, other than for the sake of appearances, what are 20-somethings going to contribute? (Again, note: I am one of them.)  Let the conferences send their best and brightest, their wisest folks, most effective in a diversity of roles: large and small church, campus ministry, chaplaincy, peace and justice ministries, district superintendents.  That is a range of experience that would matter.  Those are gifts that could serve the church.  What we’re doing now is little more than parroting the worst in tribalistic American politics.

Would you want a 19-year-old brain surgeon operating on you?  Would you want a 26-year-old to be President?  Me neither.  Nor do I want a large number of 20-somethings, who have proven to be effective at little (if anything), to be making decisions for the worldwide communion of people called United Methodists.