Why is it that church leaders want to “hear from young adults” as long as they can frame the conversation? Why is it when young adults are asked about the church, every conversation centers on what’s wrong with the system? And why is it so common that the aftermath of these conversations are riddled with older church leaders shaking their heads at the “sense of entitlement” on display among younger clergy?
United Methodists are probably aware of a meeting that happened recently sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. This was the first of what promises to be many meetings funded by a new line-item of $7 million dollars from the denomination marked for the development of more young clergy for the ordained ministry. The meeting was largely geared towards assessing the current track towards ordained ministry [Note: I was not present so if I'm wrong, please correct me and know that I'm merely reporting what was reported by The United Methodist Reporter in their article]. While the entire gathering seemed largely positive (despite the tone of articles), there was a good deal of critique levied against the current system of ordination.
I’m also reminded of a gathering held last year in my own annual conference where young clergy gathered for dialogue. The event was a good time of fellowship and it was geared towards giving young clergy an opportunity to give voice to thoughts on the church system — Does the appointment-making process suit young clergy? How does the system ignore the needs of young clergy? Can the system be improved in order to better meet the needs of young clergy?
All of this is fine and good but I think gatherings like this have created a myth that somehow young adults are a growing voice for change in The United Methodist Church.
You see, when meetings are geared towards airing grievances, then that’s what you’ll get. If we want to empower young clergy to help address issues of decline in the church, why are gatherings focused largely on complaints about the shortcomings of our system?
Let me applaud both gatherings for what they were intended to be — a first step in empowering young clergy. But why are we not talking more about ministry?
Battling the Sin of Entitlement
Could it be that in a culture of decline, one of our major issues is our collective sense of entitlement? I’ve got some older pastor friends who’ve told me about “entitlement among younger clergy” — and they’re right. We have a lot of debt and complicated family situations and it can be frustrating at times to work in a system better suited for a 1950s style of living. But for those of us who grew up in The United Methodist Church, served on committees as lay people, answered a call to ministry, and now serve as clergy we also know the temptation of entitlement is something you learn from others. All of the debate centered on guaranteed appointments, more apportionment giving, and salaries are laced with a sense of entitlement among all clergy — “we deserve 100% job security,” “we need a large conference staff and spending accounts even when local churches and lay people are suffering,” “I deserve that raise because I work harder than most.”
I don’t think everyone in our system operates out of a system of entitlement — please hear that. Like many sins, entitlement is a temptation that lurks below the surface and masks itself as a choice for something good. But all clergy, young and old alike, suffer from this temptation whether we want to admit it or not.
What Should We Talk About With Young Adults?
If we want to avoid nit-picking the system in favor of dialogues centered around ministry, where should we begin? If The United Methodist Church is serious about reaching out to younger adults in the pews, then leaders should get serious about learning what makes a young adult in 2012 tick. If most church leaders are 50 and older, then there’s a growing need for these leaders to learn about other generations. Young clergy are a great place to begin this educational process! As young adults, a majority of the people we pastor are old enough to be our parents and grandparents. On the other hand, older leaders are largely pastoring their contemporaries or folks old enough to be their parents.
With the gap widening between those over-50 and under-50 in the church, what if we could have grand conversations where learning happens across generations? Older leaders can learn about a generation foreign to them, and younger pastors can learn how to be leaders.
If the young clergy are to lead, then we need to grow into it starting now. You’re not a leader simply by virtue of being a part of a demographic. However we can’t operate in a system of “pay your dues” any longer — the church won’t survive it over the long run. And if older leaders want to mentor and truly lead the next generation, then it’s time for more education on what it means to be a young adult — the church won’t survive decisions, sermons, and vision devoid of the concerns of a younger generation.
One thing is for sure, exercises in placating young adults by giving room for them to vent are fine and dandy if they eventually lead to true dialogue about ministry. But dialogue requires one side be ready to talk about ministry — not themselves — and the other side be ready to listen as though something is at stake beyond their own personal interests.
What are some examples of gatherings where ministry and leadership are the topics of conversation? Where have you seen clergy across generations help each other in ministry and leadership?