{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Lessons on Being a Young Adult Clergy in The United Methodist Church

Being a young clergy person is tough sometimes.

On the one hand, you’re told that somehow you’re supposed to be the salvation for a declining church. The United Methodist Church has experienced over 40 years of regular decline. And now, on the heels of a financial crisis that has called our denominational leaders to explore how to rediscover ourselves in a new era, young clergy are being pointed to as signs of hope for the future of the denomination.

On the other hand, it doesn’t matter how educated I am when I enter ministry, or how well I did through seminary, there are lessons that life and experience in ministry must teach me. This requires time and patience on my part. As much as I might think I’m ready for anything, I must remember that growth and readiness come as fruits of time, practice, and patience in ministry. Further, I depend on the voices of my elders in the ministry. I need to hear encouraging words from those who have gone before me. I have a lot I need to learn and mentoring (or shall I say discipling) is the greatest gift a seasoned pastor can give a newbie like me. 

As a young person in ministry one is constantly holding these truths in tension with one another. These truths are often what call young clergy to use their discernment in deciding when it’s time to speak and when it’s time to be quiet and listen. Wisdom is a learned art that doesn’t come easily. At the same time, experience and age have a track record of robbing clergy of passion and energy. Vitality can easily be sucked from gifted clergy through the day-in and day-out rigors of ministry. And so young clergy can often harken an older member of the clergy back to days of reckless abandon and passion. Either way, we’re stuck in tension of these two contrasting ideas.

If you’re a United Methodist, you know that many are still recovering from a hectic two weeks of General Conference in Tampa. The gathering definitely had its share of contentious debate. You could find just about any flavor of discord and disharmony at the session. And over the two-week period a new voice emerged on the scene. You see, this was the first General Conference where Twitter and social media played a significant and ongoing role during the sessions. Naturally, younger clergy dominated these forums because social media one of the languages of our generation. I was blown away by some of the thoughtful and insightful posts many young clergy had. I was also dismayed by the pettiness and self-centeredness of other young clergy posts. 

I was not physically in Tampa but I did follow intently as decisions were made and commentary followed. In reflecting on all of this, I’d like to briefly share some lessons I learned:

  1. Think before you type. Twitter has a way of making anything sound snarky due to its character limits. But I learned the hard way that it’s easy to get caught up in following a big event and live-Tweeting. In looking back I realize that I wish I had a few of my tweets and re-tweets back. The distance of the digital world can mislead you into thinking that words don’t matter. But they do. And if our presence extends to the digital world, so does our Christian witness.
  2. Inclusion can quickly become a mini god. I heard many younger clergy whine about a lack of inclusivity during the decision-making at General Conference. Translated that means: You didn’t include my voice in your decision. It’s disturbing how easy it must be to try to overthrow a whole system just because you didn’t feel personally included as a major decision-maker. Much of this comes from a shared cultural lack of trust for authority. By virtue of a difference in age, older delegates became the untrusted authority. And apparently some younger clergy wanted to make it clear their apparent power was not welcome. My hope is that in the aftermath of the gathering we all learn that appeals to emotionalism are just self-centered and often do NOT benefit the group as a whole. This isn’t a blanket claim against all young clergy — many used wonderful reasoning and exemplified real leadership in how they dealt with others. But many also seemed more concerned with combating with the power brokers by grasping for their own sense of power.
  3. There’s a time to speak and a time to be quiet. I learned that there’s value in listening to the voices of elders. For one, you might be surprised how many older clergy are excited to hear the voices of younger clergy. Many of our older clergy are ready and willing to extend the hand of hospitality to those of us at the beginning of our career. Blanket statements that divide us by age and race neglects this fact. Power is a seductive force. Maybe that’s why above all else, ordination is an act of submission. We’re called to submit to God, the Church, the Discipline, and to one another. This is counter-cultural to an America that sees submission as an act of weakness and advocating for one’s own rights as the highest moral goal.

One day I’d like to possibly be a delegate to General Conference — I’ll admit that publicly. But I learned that day isn’t today. This is a season of learning and waiting in many respects. Maybe I’ll try to live by my own interpretation of a famous quote: “Speak softly and carry two big ears for listening.” I’m still working on that one. But God is still working on me — shaping and reshaping me into the pastor I’m called to be. There will inevitably be many mistakes along the way. But I’m also hopeful that, by God’s grace, there will also be many successes. And if you read this blog often enough, you’ll find I’ll discuss both on a regular basis 🙂

Honoring Methodist Conference 21st Century Style

There was a time when conferencing in the Methodist tradition meant something closer to a direct democracy than it did to the now more prevalent sense of representative government. For example, the Christmas Conference of 1784 saw the majority of itinerant pastors in America gathered in attendance. Over time, however, as the church grew both in size and structure that the proportion of representation grew less and less. Now annual conferences are allotted a certain amount of lay and clergy delegates to General Conference based on size and the number of church in a respective area. This is very similar to the method found in the United States House of Representatives and how they are organized and allotted. The way we organize ourselves in light of governing speaks to the heart of what it means to exercise our voice.

In a day and age that has seen massive political upheaval across the world and major demonstrations here at home from both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movements, one must ask whether proportional representation still suffices as the prominent way we make our voices heard. We’ve seen many examples of masses of people gather to cry out against the representative governments. We now have to ask whether that’s a truly faithful way of organizing as the church. Where are persons being shut out? Who and where are the absent voices in our church? And how can we see too it that no one feels left out of the process of organization?

Interestingly, a new development has started to have an impact on larger meetings around the church. Whether it’s a conference event or a continuing education conference wireless internet, smart phones and portable tablets (think iPad) have allowed participants to log on to Twitter and react to what is heard at these meetings. Yes, social media has, in fact, infiltrated the church in new and exciting ways.

Now for those who don’t know, Twitter is known as a social networking website. Posting on the site is called “tweeting.” You can search for and follow the posts of whoever you want. And there’s a wonderful method of tagging your tweets to allow others to see what you’ve said called a hashtag (# symbol).

Let me give you a recent example of how this works in the life of the church. I went to the Wesleyan Leadership Conference in Nashville put on by The General Board of Discipleship back in October 2011. At the beginning of the gathering we were notified that our hashtag was “#WesleyLC2011.” So every time we tweeted, we ended our tweet with #WesleyLC2011. This way those who were not physically present could interact with what we were discussing. Essentially, Twitter allowed for a meeting of 75 participants to be opened up to whoever wanted to interact through the virtual world.

By now you may be asking what in the world does the Christmas Conference of 1784, political upheaval, and Twitter have to do with one another and The United Methodist Church?

First, for the first time those who were elected as delegates to General Conference do not have to be the only ones present. There will hundreds of United Methodists physically gathered in Tampa from all over the world. But there will also be hundreds gathered through the power of social media.

Secondly, many analysts have noted the fact that social media has helped drive the transformative power of political change. The Arab Spring in the Middle East was largely organized and driven through social media, often by younger adults. The same power has been seen among movements here in America as well. It is because of this influence that we have to plead with our denominational leaders to see to it that the Convention Center in Tampa is 100% wi-fi enabled. In the 21st Century, to disable Internet access would be likened to cutting off phone access. It is a means of communication and information access.

Finally, the politics of running for and being elected as a delegate to General Conference can no longer forbid access to those who are not elected. Social media has granted us unprecedented access to follow what’s happening and to voice questions and comments in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Christmas Conference of 1784. The system is in the process of being upended and we’re in the process of watching the way we exercise authority shift in a major way.

Social media has had a hand in some major change in the Arab world and here at home in America. It’s driven the voice for change and empowered those who once had no voice. By utilizing the power of social media I’m convinced that conference will no longer just be a place or an event—it will be a way of acting uniquely as United Methodists. It will be a return to a way of life that maybe we’ve forsaken in recent pursuits for efficiency and streamlined organization. And it will be a 21st Century example of honoring the Methodist sense of gathering to conference–a true means of grace–in such a way that I’m sure would make even Mr. Wesley himself very proud.


How Far is it from Macon to Egypt?

A historic thing happened in Egypt a few days ago. Well, that’s not exactly true. A historic event culminated a few days ago. The truth is, what could be called Revolution 2.0 against the oppressive regime of Hosni Mubarak has been in the works for some time.

It can be difficult as an American to truly appreciate such a far-away triumph of the collective human spirit. While we “benefit” from 24-Hour Cable News, much of focusses on U.S. news. To occasionally spice things up we can get a trashy story on Charlie Sheen amid the monotony of news of U.S. politics and the drama between Democrats and Republicans. Most would agree that our coverage of world news lacks a bit. It can become easy to feel very foreign to the rest of the world.

But thanks to social media, the unfolding drama of protests in Egypt were played out right before our eyes. Twitter and Facebook posed such a threat to the regime of Egypt that they even cut off access to the Internet for some time. When this happened, third-party sources like Tweetdeck became the forum through which they expressed their collective voice of discontent. And news reporters even perpetuated this by “retweeting” these statements so that more and more followers could see and know what was going on

What we’re seeing is a growing pattern of tools of protest for young people around the world. Say what you want about Social Media and its ills in our society, it’s being used by thousands of young people in countries that don’t allow free speech as a way to break through the iron wall of oppression that try to enforce silence among the people. What newspapers cannot print, Twitter will carry in snippets of 140 characters. What government news programs will not highlight can be instantly turned in to a Fan Page on Facebook. From there the viral spread of hope and freedom can actually spread across the world.

Don’t get me wrong, this was by no means a triumph of Social Media. The victory belongs to the people of Egypt. This revolution against oppression is the product of a people who know hope against everything seemingly to the contrary. But the tools they chose to help organize the effort was a study in what Washington and Lee University professor Claudette Artwick calls technosociality.

It’s a good day when the voice of the people can cry louder than oppressive powers. It’s a good day when powers can fall to the sound of voices of protests rather than bombs. And it’s a really good day when, through the power of Social Media and communication, I can peer through the window of my computer screen to witness the triumph of a people who joined in community to declare that there would be more to life than just oppression. I guess you could say that, in some sense, the distance between Macon, GA and Egypt seems a lot shorter now.