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.