Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mainliner's Lament

There's something that I increasingly am lamenting about my church, at the local level and beyond.

I am a 27-year-old pastor, almost two years into his first pastorate. Like many colleagues my age, I've followed pastors with a significant amount of years' experience and age up on me. I go to Association and Conference gatherings and am usually the youngest clergyperson AND church representative by 15 years easy. In the instance that my Association combines meetings with our neighbor Association to the north, I have a few colleagues closer in age. Still, we are a small handful in perhaps 150-200 older people at those gatherings.

This past Sunday was our annual church picnic. There was a waterballoon toss. After the official activity was over, something had to be done with the extra waterballoons. Well, if you're at a church picnic with extra waterballoons, there's only one logical use for them. I tried to outrun a junior high track runner and finally just gave up and took my hits.

Now it's true, age isn't more than a number and I know some 50-year-old pastors who would whoop it up with kids in a waterballoon fight. In fact, I've watched one such pastor tumble down a makeshift Slip-and-Slide on a hill. So while I can't assume that only young pastors would have such fun with their kids--not to mention preach a relaxed, joking style, admit and roll with his screw-ups, and passionately and intentionally reach out to an otherwise neglected 18-25 year-old crowd--I do worry about who will come after me. In the far-off yet inevitable event that I move on to another ministry setting, what is the guarantee that another young or young-at-heart pastor is going to follow up on what's going on here? If my experiences at the wider church levels are any indication, there's no guarantee. And what sort of culture shock will that bring?

I don't have an answer. I suppose that if I did I wouldn't include 'lament' in the title to this entry. Something is wrong. Whether it's our image or our process or the institution, I don't know. Where are the younger clergy in the UCC? In mainline denominations in general? We're out there, but not in abundance. Some are seeking positions but are told by churches that they don't have enough experience. Others are relegated to non-ordainable youth ministry positions. Still others do get ordained but find themselves patronized by senior pastors and/or congregations and seek hospital chaplaincy positions after only a few years in the local church.

Maybe it's our attitude. Maybe it's an attitude of condescension and preservation that is keeping younger pastors in single digit numbers in Associations. Maybe a desire to keep that Old Time Religion mixed with a Good Old Boys network (coincidence that both of those include the word 'Old?') is holding younger clergy at bay and ultimately frustrates them into vanishing. Whatever the reason, the church is dying as a result.

But how much of that is us killing ourselves in slow and subtle degrees?

I for one am glad my church took a chance with me. Not to toot my own horn, but I think that they are, too. I pray that more churches do.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I think it's refreshing to see younger pastors. I'm more able to connect with them, and I'm sure it's because I'm younger, too. It seems that lately, more and more people are entering the seminary FIRST, and making that their first "career" (if you will). I hope the trend continues and grows! Not that it's bad to become a pastor mid-life after several jobs/careers, but there is something to be said about people who KNOW from the start that it's their calling.

St. Peter's UCC said...

Jeff - This conversation needs to be happening at all levels, from local churches to the WCC.

As a 24-year-old person-in-ministry, what I see happening is my "Millenial" generation deciding, mostly subconsciously, whether the institutional church is an effective setting for our world-changing/world-saving? ambitions. I hope the verdict is still out; there are some bright spots. Not enough, I fear.

You know all too well the overwhelming tendency for mainline congregations to define and work towards "growth" as "younger people doing what we've done for 50 years." My guess is that strategy will leave the mainline church a remnant of what it is now in 30 years.

There's too much to sum up in a comment... but thanks for bringing this to the surface - hopefully it will bubble up here and in other places, again and again, spreading awareness and leading to transformation. -howie

Anonymous said...

I am a young pastor too. At a church that professes to want to attract more "young people."

I find myself caught, knowing that young people, clergy or lay, will not save the church. I am not going to magically turn the culture around and make make the young'ens start rolling into the pews.

But at the same time, sometimes I feel like the rumors are true: church is for old people, and I am in the wrong place. These are my worst days.

I think the real problem, what is really holding the church back, is the expectation that there be young people. The idea that "we need young people"--as if people like you and me and so many others weren't already here, as if God is helpless to move powerfully in God's church and world without 13-30 year olds--this is paralyzing the church.

The whole mainline church is grieving...older folks grieving what it used to be, younger folks grieving what it could be but isn't. "Lament," that's what your post is titled, and I completely get it. I feel you.

And, I also believe a time is coming when our laments will end...not because the average age of our congregations will drop by 30 years. But because we will be done grieving what isn't and be ready to live and love what is.

Young or old, we are God's people trying to catch up with God's amazing work in the world. I don't think we can see that right now, because of our expectations and our grief.

But God is younger than our youth and older than our elders, and God will make us new. Not make us young, but make us new.

When we come to terms with the fact that we are mostly old with a healthy peppering of young, when we realize that our age doesn't factor so highly in God's plans, we will be ready for what God is already doing.

And then those apostates might get curious about what's happening in our churches, because suddenly we won't be so mopey.

I think it's this future that we leaders of all ages must learn to live now.