I just finished reading Kevin Watson’s post on his desire for the Call to Action committee to make recruiting young clergy the first priority for the next quadrennium. I agree with Kevin on many points, for I think in the zeal to improve the process of credentialing from that of the 1992 Book of Discipline, we have created an exclusionary vetting system rather than something that discerns and affirms the call to ministry. There are a variety of reasons for this, but that is the subject of a different post.
I’ve heard the call from many recently for the need to recruit and empower young clergy, especially given the current deplorable state of our church overloaded with baby boomers heading toward retirement. What Kevin and others seem to suggest is that somehow young clergy are inherently more effective in their practice of ministry, either through their abundance of energy and passion, their willingness to challenge the status quo, their technological prowess, or simply because they are likely more attractive to their peers who aren’t currently attending our churches. In this we would do well to take the advice of St. Benedict, who wrote in his rule that the voices of the younger members of the community were desirable, believing that God often reveals God’s self through the witnesses of the younger members.
And yet, I find myself troubled at simply thinking that age is the most important factor in driving clergy recruitment, as Kevin suggests. I have no doubt that is partially driven by the fact that I am far from being a “young clergy,” even though my mind hasn’t been willing to let go of that status. While I still have kids in school, it’s due to Kay and I marrying later, and both of us would be considered on the downhill slide toward retirement (although, given our financial situation, the state of Social Security, and the age of our kids, I doubt that either of us will be able to retire until they kick us out). I’m 50, and while I’m friends with a bunch of younger clergy, I surely ain’t one.
Yes, there may be jealousy involved, but I also know that I was frankly not ready to take the role I have now at age 25, even though I probably would have thought so then. I didn’t have the maturity to deal with the relational realities found in most congregations. I didn’t have the patience, nor the ability and willingness to honor the folks who have come before . . . those aging saints that fill the pews of most of our congregations. That may say more about the delay in my own maturation, for there are no doubt brilliant young clergy who are able to have wisdom far beyond their age. However, I’m not certain that these gifts to the church aren’t more an exception than the rule. Attempting adaptive change in the dysfunctional systems found in the majority of our congregations today requires the wisdom of Solomon at times (something that I still don’t have at age 50) and having a little life experience certainly helps.
I am one who thinks that going to seminary straight out of college and then to a local church straight out of seminary may not be the best thing. Being a local church pastor requires the juggling of multiple skills — public speaking, organizational leadership, financial management, HVAC repair, and graphic design — most of which isn’t taught in seminary. Getting a few years walking in the context of where most of our parishioners live provides a variety of skills and understandings that can serve one well in the church.
The danger with focusing on young clergy is that we confuse chronological age with passion, energy, commitment, and even technological know how. The problem is not one of age — it’s a system that values conformity to institutional norms above that of leading congregations to a vibrant and living faith that is relevant to people of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. We have a process that lifts up those who say the right answers or who calm the boat in the storm, and does what it can to stamp out those with an entrepreneurial spirit. The issue isn’t age — it’s values.
Don’t get me wrong, for I’m not saying recruiting young clergy isn’t important. But the definition of who is “young” may be as much a state of mind as a chronological age. Our focus in thinking about effective clergy should not be chronos but kairos.
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