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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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