Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Demythologizing Young Clergy

A good friend, colleague, and a retired US Army chaplain Steve George, posted an article, entitled "3 Myths About Young Clergy" to my Facebook wall last week with but one word of commentary from him: "Interesting."

(It's a relatively short and sweet read, so go ahead and take a look now.  Seriously, it's good.  I'll wait.)

The piece's author notes right from the outset that even though he'll only be focusing on debunking three of the myths surrounding the enigmatic and elusive "young pastor," there are an awful lot of other myths floating around out there in the ether that makes up the church grapevines of Christendom.

And indeed there are.  I have been told that we are "the church's future," all the while being fed a steady diet of outside voices to tell us what we should think about the church's future rather than envisioning one for ourselves.

I have been told that we are "exactly who the church needs to hear from," all the while seeing people all around my denomination and the wider church coming up with ever more creative ways to ensure our voices are safely compartmentalized and tucked away.

I have been told that we "have a freshness to bring to the table," all the while most of us, while still maybe bearing our factory-fresh tags from seminary, are weighted down by student debt and jaded by a seminary education that felt more like being sold a bill of goods than actually be taught how to do ministry.

So yes, there are a lot of myths about us that people appear to believe in, or at least put some stock into.  But in the spirit of the piece Steve commended to me, I would like to focus on another three, three that I think get to the roots of a lot of the other myths I just named.

Myth One: Young clergy are representative of their generation

I mean, we kind of are.  Like other millennials and younger Gen X-ers, we're at least somewhat savvy with social media and crowdsourcing, we tend to look at the long game rather than the short term, and we're more likely to value experiences over stuff.

But we're also religious clergy, and that by itself makes us extremely countercultural in a shifting generation landscape where young adults are increasingly "spiritual but not religious, "unchurched," or any number of other stale terms I know you have heard bandied about, and where only a reported 1 in 5 of millennials place a high value on church attendance.

We're the dentist who doesn't recommend Trident.  We're the cheese that stands alone.  When it comes to belonging to a community of faith, we are firmly outside the mainstream of our peers.  And yet we get treated as though we are representative of them.  Like any other demographic, young adults are not in lockstep with their preferences, wishes, needs, or desires.  But I cannot tell you how often I see us perceived that way, as though we are that uniform bloc being incarnated at the moment in the form of a 29-year-old smartass of a pastor with a small town pulpit and a humble little blog.

But frankly, I don't ever expect myself to be truly representative of my generation.  And I think if you talked to a lot of other clergy in their twenties and thirties, they'd tell you something similar.

Myth Two: Young clergy aren't relational enough for ministry

Usually, this myth takes the form of a sentiment like, "Why do they spend so much time on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Tinder?"  (Oops, sorry, just kidding about that last one.)  To be clear, I do love social media in part because it makes parts of my job easier--people will often share life events, I find out on my feed, and I can respond appropriately in my capacity as their pastor and their friend.  It is also useful to me as a serious introvert--on the Myers-Briggs, my F and T may be interchangeable, but I am always a *hard* I, and being able to use social media as a way to set up a time and place to meet up with someone to administer some good old pastoral care does wonders for my neurotically introverted self.

But here's the thing--if you noticed just there, social media was used as a means to an end: it was used to facilitate a meetup where the real pastoral care, the real ministry, could then take place, face-to-face, over coffee or a beer.  Far from relying on Facebook and text messages and email as a substitute for face-to-face ministry, all of that electronic technology actually enables us to do our relational ministry better.  It allows us to prepare for meetings rather than going by the more outdated model of keeping office hours, and it gives our days more structure.  At least, it has that effect for me.

One other note about this particular myth: I--and other colleagues I also know--institute blackouts on their tech pieces at certain points in their work.  I leave all of my electronics in my office on Sunday mornings, and if I'm heading to a death or similarly profoundly weighty pastoral moment, I leave my phone in the car.  We value our connection to the wider world, but know that we value our personal connection to you even more.

Myth Three: Young clergy throw the baby out with the bathwater

Do we care about making the church "relevant" (whatever that may mean), "accessible" (again, whatever that may mean), and "revitalized" (whatever that may mean also)?  Yes, we generally do.  But we also don't want to do it in a way that dishonors the traditions that raised us.  We're well aware that our theological views and our methods of Biblical exegesis come from centuries of rich and storied tradition.  We're fully cognizant of the emotional meaning of old hymns like "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" or even "Amazing Grace," in fact, we may feel just as powerfully about them as you do.

At the same time, though we crave to make church into something that does in fact speak to today's reality, not the 20th century's reality.  That is a very difficult thing to do in the face of what sometimes feels like an institution-wide distrust of anything genuinely innovative, which means that ministry is largely a labor of love for us.  We aren't in it because it's easy, because it isn't easy.  We aren't in it for the money, because none of us are well-paid.  We are in it, though, to breathe life into the church we love as surely as God first breathed life into Adam's nostrils.

So when you get upset over how we are trying to change things, or encouraging our members to change things, please take a moment and realize what that reaction is saying to us: it communicates that we are apparently supposed to take over this thing that you love, to run it on your terms instead of ours, and to allow you to tell us you are giving us a gift.

If that sounds harsh, that's because it is.  It is harsh for us to hear it when people resist our attempts to help the church out of (mostly) a reluctance to change.

But all of us young clergy get how hard change can be.  And if we're any good at what we do, we'll try to ease you through it as much as we humanly can.  I promise.

So those are my three myths thrown into the proverbial mixer of what folks tend to think about us whippersnappers that may or may not be mythical.  And as I said at the beginning, there are plenty more myths out there, and I would encourage you to name them, whether here in the comments or in conversation with other clergy.

Because the only way we are going to remove the mystery of misinformation about our pastors is if we actually talk with them, rather than at them or about them.

Which, really, is a good rule for life in general as well.

Vancouver, Washington
August 12, 2015

Image courtesy of iStockphoto

No comments:

Post a Comment