25 July 2012
What Young Clergy Want You To Know
Want to know what’s on the mind of young clergy? Try hanging out at the hotel bar at 1:00am during synod assembly. Despite what you might think, it is a sobering experience.
You will hear comments and conversation that range from anger, frustration, to deep sadness. Many of my friends and colleagues, who are talented and smart ministry leaders, are really struggling.
It troubles me to see such worry and cynicism among my friends and young clergy. It is a good thing for the church when young clergy are idealistic and hopeful. It reminds us all of why we do this work. I have such compassion for them and share many of their frustrations.
If you happened to show up at the bar at 1:00am, I think they would tell you...
- They love Jesus and they love the Church
- They understand they are presiding over the death of American Christendom
- They are okay with that
- But they want the church and their leaders to be honest about where we are.
- The sooner we can come to terms with our dyings, the sooner we can live into the new life that is emerging from it. Despite their concerns, they remain hopeful.
- They yearn for authenticity and honesty in their leadership.
- And long to be listened to, heard, and understood.
- They are native to a culture that the church, on the whole, does not fully - or hardly - understand or engage. That doesn’t just go for parishioners. It goes for clergy, too.
- They are never going to act or sound like previous generations of clergy.
- They feel the church needs honest self-assessment, but feel they can’t be critical because their next job depends on the people they may critique.
- They feel the expectations placed on younger clergy are not enforced among older clergy
- They are finding it really hard to get second calls.
- Some have been hurt by the church, felt unsupported, and misunderstood.
- They are no less theologically committed than their predecessors,
- But their work looks different and their language sounds different.
- Many of their initiatives do not fit into existing church structures
- This does not make them less equipped or less effective at being pastors.
- They are worried about job security - not just about getting paid (which is not always a given) - but whether they can do the job they feel called to do in congregations that don’t want to change. Being prophetic is an attribute we laud in seminary, but it can get you fired in the parish.
- They are drowning in student debt.
- They are not sure it is possible to have a full career at ministry, let alone service their student debt, cover expenses, and have a life.
- But money isn’t the most important thing to them. No one goes into ministry for the money.
- They are frustrated by the inability or unwillingness - or both - of congregations and denominations to change. Or at least be honest about why they can’t, won’t, or don’t.
- You can do most anything, if you feel like we are making some progress and people are in it together. Many don’t feel that way.
If you are reading this and writing it off, saying, “These are just the same complaints made by every group of young clergy,” I believe you do so at the Church’s peril. Perhaps the difference is that this cohort of clergy is that they aren’t critiquing an institution we just assume will still be here in ten years. They are calling us out of the cloud of denial - telling us that if we don’t act, it won’t be - and that we have to talk about it.
They can and will and some already have walked away from the ministry. If they do, the church will lose some great talent. It will also lose its cultural fluency - something it already struggles with. (In the same way when the church gives up on youth, young adult, or campus ministry.)
They are not going to “wait their turn.” Because, by then, it will be too late.
How to Engage Young Clergy
Young clergy also want to you know that they are ready and willing to support and to lead in moving the church forward.
They are already doing it by whatever means they can: sparking conversations in social media and within their professional and personal networks. Church leaders would be smart to pay attention to the conversations happening online - which are, paradoxically, offline in church circles, because we struggle to acknowledge the realities when we are together.
It is crucial for the Church to support these young clergy - and in my own tradition, beyond programs that place young clergy in the role of followers and learners, rather than supporting them as the leaders they are and we need them to be.
- They need to be brought into formal and informal leadership roles.
- They need to have the ears of bishops.
- Some need to chair synod committees, in part, so that their peers can see young clergy in leadership.
- However, much of the work they do doesn’t yet have a placed in the institutional structure of the church.
- When that is the case, the institution needs to find ways to recognize, support, and encourage that work without necessarily institutionalizing it.
- Identify key leaders among your young clergy.
- Meet with them.
- Have a gathering of young clergy (formally or informally organized), just as you might do for retired clergy.
- Listen and understand.
- Encourage and respond.
Are you a young clergy person? What would you say? How do you see it?