Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Doogie Howser, M.Div

I don't mind being The Young Pastor as much as I used to.

The reaction was almost immediate when I started. 'Oh, he's so young...he won't want to visit the older people.' This quote was relayed to me within the first month. I'd barely moved my stuff into the office and already I was the whippersnapper who wouldn't give the retired folks the time of day.

Being introduced to the community was what really got me, though. First swiss steak supper, I quickly found out that I could only fake a smile and laugh so many times when received with any of the following reactions: 'Oh, you're so young!' 'You're young enough to be my grandson!' 'You look like a teenager!' I mean really, do I have to pretend that this is the first time I've ever heard this, play like it's still the cutest thing that someone could say to me?

After a while, I started coming up with a running list of comebacks, some of which I've used, some of which I'm glad I've kept to myself.

'Ah, you noticed.'
'Yep. I'm eighteen. I'm Rev. Doogie Howser.'
'Thanks. I moisturize.'
'The fountain of youth is in the baptismal font. I'm selling vials for 50 bucks.'
'You're old enough to be my grandfather!'

Someone once bought the 'I'm eighteen' line (without the Doogie Howser bit). No kidding. They just stared at me in amazement, their jaw propped up on the pew in front of them. That only irritated me more. I finally snapped, 'I'M TWENTY-SIX!' I tried saying it with a smile, but I'm not sure how they took it because I walked out right after I said it.

I resigned myself to the fact that in that awkward stage where people are just starting to get to know each other and run out of things to say, this is what they resort to: a lame observation about my age. It's not unlike asking a really tall guy if he plays basketball or, God forbid, asking an overweight woman when the baby's due. You never hear, 'Wow, you're black!' or 'Hey, you're bald!' or 'Holy crap, you wear glasses? Me too!' Somehow, 'Boy, you're young' is acceptable in 'polite' conversation, perhaps in certain instances meant as a compliment but more often (read: always) comes off as condescending and a little rude. With observations about one's youth come somewhat masked statements about experience, maturity, and seniority, sometimes constructive, sometimes not so much. The majority of the time 'Boy you're young' slips out of someone's mouth, it is said in surprise, as in 'I expected someone older' or 'You can't possibly be the sole pastor here' or 'If you ever cross me I'll take you over my knee and send you to bed without dessert.'

So yeah, I'm getting over that now. Can't you tell?

I've come to view these exclamations about my youth in a more positive light. For one thing, being a member of a younger generation in a position like mine, I bring a different viewpoint than my older colleagues. You know the phrase 'youthful energy?' Yeah, I dig that one. I've got some of that, and I'm not afraid to use it. 'Boy you're young.' I sure am. And that means I can see some of the ways we need to step up certain things. I might pay more attention to when the youth are getting the shaft. I might be better at noticing that the 20-somethings have needs that aren't being met.

That, and there's a certain level of fawning that my ego loves. I'm willing to admit that. It's something I'm acknowledging and dealing with. At our ecumenical Thanksgiving service two comments were later relayed back to me: 1) 'Wow...he's cute,' and 2) 'Is he single?' I don't get treated like eye candy very often. It can be flattering in small doses. My wife gave me a good squeeze after I told her about these. It felt good to have her agree and to claim me all over again. So there.

So being The Young Pastor has its advantages and perks. True, one has to hear those stupid exclamations a few more hundred times and feign good nature (or does one truly HAVE to do the latter?), but coming from a younger generation, I can point out all those concerns that get ignored, and I get a few compliments in the process. I can even work the prejudice to my advantage. Guitar in worship? Oh, that's just Jeff being young. I can play that game. I won't be young forever though, so I'll get all the mileage out of this that I possibly can. And then when I'm old I'll know to give the new Young Pastor the benefit of the doubt.


mark said...

I know where you are coming from. I am in my senior year of seminary, and spent the last academic year as an intern pastor in a congregation. I heard the, "Oh, you're so young!" comment a lot, or at meals at church I was told to go get more food since I was still a "growing young man." I got the comments from parishioners that they were old enough to be my grandparent or that their children were about my age. There was an older woman who called me "young'un" (but I let her because she was awesome) and a couple older gentlemen called me "kid" a few times. I rolled with it, smiled and laughed, or made witty comments back to them. But I realized that it wasn't so much that they were amazed by how young I was (or looked, I'm 28 but can pass for several years younger) but that I was something they don't see very often anymore: a young adult as a pastor. After a while, it just didn't bother me anymore and it became a nonissue for the people in the congregation. The comments changed from me being so young (except at church meals when I was encouraged to eat more) to how impressed they were at the work and ministry I was capable of doing. I think I changed a lot of people's minds when they saw that this young person could get up and preach a good sermon.
Also, and you comment on this, too, it gave me a special vantage point with the youth. They loved coming in and spending time in my office, sitting and chatting, and having me show up at youth events. The pastor of the congregation was 60 years old and the intern before me had been 60, as well. They were excited and ecstatic to have someone even remotely close to their age in a leadership role in the congregation. I have been told that my presence sparked life back into the youth, and some even started attending that hadn't in a long time, or had never come before.
So, embrace your youthfulness. I know you say that you do, and this is kind of funny that I'm telling you to do it, because it has been a growing edge for me. I always fear that people will not take me seriously because of how young I look, and I'm constantly surprised how it turns out that it is more of an issue for me than for those around me.
I'm going to end this comment now, I've already rambled far longer than I intended. Just wanted to let you know that there are people out there who are experiencing the same things you shared!

kwpershey said...

Boy, can I ever relate. Only I was 24 when I was called as a solo pastor (25 now), and female, and with a nose piercing. So not only am I "Rev. Granddaughter," I'm "Rev. Rebellious Granddaughter" in the eyes of some. I still get plenty of comments, though much fewer from congregation members.

Karen Sapio said...

The wild thing is, at 41 I'm STILL the youngest--or one of the youngest-- persons in the room at half of the clergy meetings/gatherings I attend. Scary.

But at least no one has mistaken me for a member of the youth group in a while. That used to happen all the time.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I feel your pain. I teach at a local community college at an off-site location. During finals week we had a different clerk at the site to unlock our classroom doors. I walked up to her and told her that I needed my classroom unlocked so I could administer my final exam. She unlocked my door, my students took their final, and I went back downstairs to thank her again. When I thanked her for unlocking the door she said "do you have any more finals?" I told her no that I was finished. She then proceeded to ask me if I was a freshman. I just sort of stood there, dumbfounded. I said "Oh, no. I'm not a student; I'm an instructor. I GAVE the exam. I'm 25 and have a Master's in English; I'm not a freshman." She then proceeded to tell me how young I looked and that because she's in her 40's she can't tell how young people are anymore, blah blah, blah. It was incredibly insulting. This happens a lot; most of my students don't believe that I'm old enough to be teaching them (probably because some of them ARE my age or have KIDS my age.) So I feel you pain, brother, I feel it.

Jeff Nelson said...

Welcome, Baisden. Can't help but feel that I know you...:)