Tag Archives: youth

3 Myths About Young Clergy

U.S. Army Capt. Vasquez, a chaplain, reads a sermon during a Christmas Eve Mass at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, Dec. 24, 2008. Camp Lemonier is the hub of Combined Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa, providing humanitarian relief, security and anti-terrorism activities to the nations in the Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joe Zuccaro/Released/Courtesy PhotoPin via Creative Commons)
U.S. Army Capt. Vasquez, a chaplain, during a Christmas Eve Mass at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, Dec. 24, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by  Sgt. Joe Zuccaro/Released/Courtesy PhotoPin via Creative Commons)

As a pastor under 35, I often encounter disinformation about myself and my fellow young clergy.  Congregations, older clergy, pulpit search committees, and denominational leadership often fall victim to mythology about young pastors.  There are many myths out there, but here are three I find most significant:

Myth #1: Young Clergy = Young Families

One of the most persistent myths about young clergy is that if a church hires (or a Bishop sends) a young pastor, young people and their families will instantly flock to the church.  This is a serious fallacy.  While a young pastor *could* be especially insightful in reaching young adults for Christ, discipling them, and building relationships with them, it won’t matter a hill of beans if the church itself is not invested in doing the same.  If you have never asked a Christian young adult what they think about the world or what they are looking for (if at all!) in a faith community, you need to rethink if you really want young adults in your church.

Reality: A young pastor can help, but it takes a congregation dedicated to knowing, investing in, and serving with young adults to reach young adults.  If you are praying for a young pastor to come so that she or he can do all the work of reaching young people, you are setting up that pastor to fail.  You want a magic wand, not a pastor.

Myth #2: Young Clergy Don’t Like Older Adults

We live in a society where different generations don’t interact with regularity.  The breakdown of the family means that we might not know the generations before or after us.  Where ancient cultures valued the wisdom of age, our marketing-driven economy only wants the self-indulgent wallets of the 20-40 crowd. Many churches are convinced that young clergy don’t care about or aren’t interested in ministry with older adults.

Reality: This is a deep lie.  Most of my young clergy colleagues value not only older clergy, from whom we have much to learn, but also the older adults we are blessed and called to serve.  Stubbornness and close-mindedness are not limited to any age, and neither are joy or spiritual maturity.

Myth #3: Young Clergy All Want to Work with Youth and Children

Many of my young clergy friends who staff larger churches are often pigeonholed as the youth and/or children’s minister.  While many young pastors serve very effectively in these roles, one’s age does not necessarily correspond to giftedness with various generational ministries.  Just because a young pastor has three young children, it does not follow that she or he wants to work with children day-in and day-out.  Just because a young clergy likes the same bands that the youth do, doesn’t mean that the new young pastor is a good fit for the youth program.

Reality: Young clergy all have different gifts, skills, and interests.  Some might be great at planning contemporary worship, and others might love traditional liturgy.  Some may love doing the children’s moment and others might hate it.  You will meet young pastors who love visitation and pastoral care, and others who loathe it.  There are young pastors passionate about administration, and others who are allergic to meetings.

The Bottom Line

Don’t assume a young pastor has a specific set of skills or interests.  Ask where they are gifted, be upfront about expectations, and be realistic about desired results.

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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.

Spiritual Formation With Johnny Cash and Willy Nelson

I used the above song as the entryway into today’s sermon, which primarily drew on Deuteronomy 6.  After the Shema, we find this exhortation:

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. ” (vv. 6-9)

In many American families of yesteryear, it was a tradition to have a family Bible.  Usually this was a large, high-quality, beautifully decorated Bible that doubled as a place to record family history.  At the front would be a genealogy chart, tracking births and deaths, baptisms, confirmations, and marriages.  They were commonly passed down as both a sacred book and a place to record family history.  My parents have one for our family.

Family Bibles were often ornate affairs, signifying their value and place in the home

Family Bibles are still sold today but the tradition is not as widespread.  You can even buy antique ones for a more authentic feel.  I came across this ad on the internet:  No writings, complete Bible. Very clean pages. Very minor wear for its age. Corners are somewhat rubbed. Restored family pages, with the marriage certificate engraved. A very well preserved antique family heirloom!” (Emphasis added)

How did we get to place where Bibles are mere heirlooms?  In Almost Christian, Kenda Dean writes persuasively that the vast majority of youth Christian formation is done via outsourcing.  We drop kids off at youth or Sunday school, we take them to a see Christian band, or we send them on a “mission trip” for a week.  Little of this, if any, is reinforced at home.  While this is the norm in Mainline Protestant and perhaps Catholic homes, it is not so in Mormonism.  Members of the LDS church know that it is the responsibility of every adult in the community, especially parents, to raise up young people in the faith.  Most Mormon teenagers will get up at the crack of down five days a week during high school to attend ‘seminary’, a rigorous exploration of Mormon history, values, and theology.

Speaking from my own (ecclesial) house, Methodist family life can rarely compare to this kind of intentional formation.  How many of us treat our Bibles as heirlooms?  Often Bibles serve as little more than decoration for a shelf or coffee table, pristine and untouched like museum displays.  How do we reclaim, for our own time, the tradition of the family Bible?  For those of us in the Mainline there will be no spiritual revival unless we reclaim the family as the primary locus of Christian education, a place where spiritual formation (.e. prayer, Bible reading, God-talk) is prominent.

How do we do that?

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.