Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New Wine in Old Wineskins

My blog entitled “Where Have All the Young Leaders Gone?” seems to have struck a nerve with many young (and some not so young) leaders. In addition to being posted here, the blog was also picked up by and was posted on my Facebook profile. Most of the discussion and response came from the Facebook posting.

There were a number of interesting comments, but one response in particular impacted me. It was written by a young woman who graduated from a CBF-related seminary with a passion for issues of peace and justice. I will not reveal her name, but she gave me permission to share her comments with my observations interjected.

She begins by saying, “I should say that one should not discount the sense of disillusionment that many young people have with Baptist life--or church life in general. While we're all still committed to faith, a large number of my contemporaries from seminary are no longer working or seeking to work in church life.” I think it is significant that my friend still has a deep and committed relationship with God that continues to sustain her. She is not mad at God, but she feels that her gifts (and those of her compatriots) have not been welcomed by the churches that nurtured them.

The reason that she and many of her acquaintances are no longer seeking to serve through the church, she continues, is “because of the issues that have been mentioned previously [lack of empowerment, an obsession with marginal issues, concerns about control and institutional survival] and partially because there seems to be little room for socially progressive young church leadership. We're seen as too idealistic, too radical, too inclusive, too whatever.” Believe it or not, I find a positive side to this comment. Where did these young adults absorb this passion? For the most part, I believe it came from what they heard in their churches, their campus ministries, and the seminary classroom. Evidently they have been exposed to the truth of the gospel and that has been a motivating factor in their vocational choices.

As one who spent many years walking alongside young adults, helping them to discern their calling, and encouraging them to find their places in ordained or lay ministry, her final comment is the hardest for me to handle. “There aren't very many churches willing to pay us and those that do very often kill our spirit by constantly being the wall upon which we bang our heads. So we seek out other means of ministering--social work, academia, humanitarian aid, etc. Some might condemn it as escapism, but there's also an element of self-care and integrity that we don't want to compromise.”

I take heart that my friend and others in her situation are wise enough to stop wasting their time and energy by “banging their heads against the wall” of church indifference, seeking worthwhile outlets for their servant calling as “worker priests.”

I have come to the conclusion that my friend’s situation is not so unusual. This raises some serious questions for me.

First, although we may have nurtured these young leaders’ passion for ministry, have we been unrealistic in interpreting the real world in which they must function? In my years in campus ministry, I continually encouraged women in leadership roles, but I came to the point when I realized that I might only be building unrealistic expectations for them. They could study religion, go to seminary, and then offer themselves to the church for service, but they were always “second class” ministers to most churches and denominational agencies.

Second, the diaspora of these young adults into secular fields may not be a bad thing. They are “being the presence of Christ” in ways that traditional clergy could never be and walking through doors that might be closed to the ministry of the church. The challenge is to help them stay in touch with some kind of meaningful faith community that will encourage them and hold them accountable as they exercise their gifts. They are the “marines of the church,” storming the beaches ahead of everyone else.

Third, I am struck by the fact that our churches are the real losers in this situation. We say we want to reach young adults, and the best way to do that is to place young adults into responsible places of leadership, but we often don’t allow them the freedom to fully exercise their gifts there. The church’s needs must come first, but perhaps it is time to reassess what the church really needs in order to flourish. These are the folks that can help us accomplish that task.

New wine is growing within old wineskins and it will find its way out into the world, one way or another.


Jorge Zayasbazan said...

I must confess that I am an older pastor that was disappointed in the younger generation. I met them at the general assembly and in other places and was deeply impressed by their passion and felt much hope for the future. I made myself a promise that I would do whatever I could to help them find places of service.

As soon as there was a staff opening at my church in Illinois, I submitted it to the CBF referral service and asked all my friends in CBF leadership to spread the word.

The position was an missional outreach program centered on teen moms and their families that was going to expand to reach the at risk families in the community. The church was an urban church in a poor neighborhood in far north Chicagoland. It would be cold, far from home and working among poor Hispanics and African-Americans. We specifically wanted a woman with an MDiv.

The job was not a dream job to say the least but after hearing and reading about the passion of our young seminary grads I was sure someone would be interested. I was wrong.

We did not have a single CBF affiliated person apply. Perhaps there are limits to what passionate people are willing to do.

I don't know who these churches are that are not encouraging these young ministers but I do now that there is a lot of need out there. What is lacking is money.

My faith in younger ministers has been revitalized by the Baptist University of the Americas. Here I have found young ministers who are willing to pay live and work among the poor. They are looking for a ministry not a job.

They do not write eloquently in the blogosphere. They don't go to the general assembly nor even know what Current is.

They quietly work in the churches around San Antonio, most for no pay. Many will be bivocational but they will be fulfilling their call.

Ircel said...

Thanks for your input, Jorge. I do think that one of the unrealistic expectations that we (including judicatory leaders and seminaries) instill in our young adults is that there will be the resources (money) so they can receive a full-time salary while pursuing their passion. This just is not true. There is more that needs to be done than we have the resources to support (or are willing to give). Perhaps we would be better off to do some things like:

1. Call out members of our own congregations to do these ministries, mentoring and teaching them while they are doing the work (this is harder where there is not a theological institution close by to help--non-residential programs would help with this). They would already be part of the fellowship and the culture in which they work.

2. Encourage the bivocational, worker-priest model where the minister makes his/her living elsewhere and does the ministry at the same time. The ideal that was always held up to me in seminary was that the "full-time professional" ministry was preferable to one where a person had to earn a living elsewhere in order to do it. I don't think that has changed. We need to value all ministry equally. Therefore, if these young adults can use their talents in the community and serve the churches as well, so much the better.

And, I do appreciate these young adults' desire to share their perspective whenever they have the chance. It opens up opportunities for dialogue.

Meg said...

I am sorry to have missed your ministry opportunity! It sounds like something that I, a young seminary graduate with CBF affiliations would have loved to do! It sounds a lot like what I am currently doing for a United Methodist Community Center. I found many more opportunities with their organization to do community ministry. All that to say - don't give up on young CBF leaders. There are some out there!