Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Not Your Grandpa's Type of Clergyperson

Since beginning the pathway to parish ministry I have listened to countless people go on and on... and... on...and...on about how the church is dying, how we need to make it relevant in the 21st century, how they’ve had one person under the age of 40 show up in worship for the first time in 5 years and how they were ready to make them leader of the free world before the end of the holy hour of worship. If they darken the door of the church again, they’re elevated to sainthood. When I or colleagues who look close to my age walk into a church as the pastor the regular questions immediately begin. Then I get, “are you married?” Their face goes from being as bright as those blue halogen automobile headlights to dirty headlights that could use a good scrubbing when I break the news that no, in fact I am not yet married. The first church I served, when the matriarch figured out that I was single, she kept trying to set me up with various young women in the town I was serving. Suddenly the parish became a real-time, leaving me to spend a year trying to explain to various committees that, even if I wanted to, it would be inappropriate for me to date anyone from the small, rural town I was serving, seeing as the community life centered around that particular church.

The challenges that young clergy face are unique. In tough situations we are often brushed aside and are assumed to not be able to handle what would be thrown at us. In good situations we are passed up in favor of Pastors who have had a longer tenure. The truth is, though we lack experience, we are resilient and we know how to reach out to our support systems, when the support system is in place.

I believe that we, across the spectrum on mainline Christianity, do a good job of griping about the lack of younger clergy, but denominational structures do not do a good job at maintaining frameworks of support which are needed if younger clergy are to survive in this profession over the long haul. The top down modus operandi which we in mainline Christianity cling to, is wildly outdated. The way in which the late Gen X/Gen Y-ers tend to operate suggests that a more bottom up, grassroots way of structuring the relational parts of the church (i.e. the mentoring requirements and the formation of peer accountability groups) would be more successful in encouraging pastoral excellence in young clergy. For example, allowing peer groups to form organically, rather than by forcing upon them a structure that they do not own.

Those of us who are under 40 years of age are a hot commodity--a rare breed, I would even say a minority. People who disagree with the former statement will say, “you will grow out of it...” Yes, our ages do change but we cannot effectively change them ourselves. My computer dictionary defines a minority as “...less than half of a whole.” We certainly are less than half of a whole and then some. We should, therefore, be represented at every level of the church hierarchy. This doesn’t mean that we should be promoted over and above our skill level but it does mean that our voice needs to be authentically listened too at every turn, just like all minorities.

Though we are young, our callings are authentic. At every turn I have had to prove that my calling is real, like others in the process. When I was a student I agreed to take an appointment, if the school was within an hour’s drive of the seminary’s campus and had a parsonage. During my tenure as a student I rented half of my parents’ basement, in an attempt to save money throughout a very, very expensive process. One suggestion that was brought to me was that I take an appointment four hours away from campus, continue to live with my parents during the week and make the trek into the wilderness to this tiny country church once a week. I was chastised for turning it down because I said it wasn’t fair for me to maintain two residences, one nearer to school and one in a far off distant land. In another case I turned down a part-time appointment and was called into the Bishop’s office. My story, though my own, is not unique. Other young clergy in mainline denominations face the same difficulties, if not worse. Each of us has a unique story to tell and each of us have stuck with the sometimes arduous process because we, like Samuel, have heard the voice of God calling us. We, like Samuel have had good mentors that have instructed us to say, “speak, Lord for your servant is listening,” and we like Samuel, after some coaxing, have answered God’s calling on our lives to follow Christ.