Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons

During Dr. Per Anderson’s presentation on Moral Deliberation at our Fall Theological Conferences there were a lot of assertions made about young people.  Millennials we call them. Used to be Generation Y.  They are the generation born from early 80s to 2000.

Everyone is talking about them.  Dr. Per Anderson had studies about them.  Lots of our own non-millennial pastors were going to the mike to talk about them. Seems they don’t do moral deliberation the way we do.  Which must mean they don’t do it all.


Funny thing, there were younger clergy in the room.  They weren’t going to the mike.  But they had something to say.  They were on Twitter.  And they were pretty annoyed that people were talking about them rather than asking them what they thought.


The church has always been obsessed with young people.

With good reason.  In order to keep the institution going we need new blood. The trouble is what that usually means is that we want young people to come in, learn to do things our way and keep things going the way they always have.  Young people have always rebelled against that but for the most part, in the past, they were pretty compliant.  They would come back to church after their rebellious streak, bring their kids, maybe fight for a few newfangled ideas but for the most part fall into line and continue the status-quo.


But that is not happening any longer.  Most of them just plain are not coming to church.  They are just not all that interested.  And this has set off a panic in a lot of churches and launched some desperate attempts to appeal to them.  Every day there is some new article which purports to have the answer to appeal to those young-uns.


A lot of talking about young adults is going on with very little listening to.  About a year ago, Keith Anderson, co-author of “Click to Save”, wrote this blog post about young clergy.  “What Young Clergy Want You to Know.”


It got a lot of attention.  A lot of older pastors didn’t like the suggestion that young clergy are different than us.  I think they were just miffed at the suggestion we should be paying attention to someone other than ourselves.


Being a baby boomer I can say this:  we are used to being the center of attention and some of us are not real good at sharing the spotlight.


This is the thing. People in privileged positions never like to admit that others experience a different reality.  White people don’t like it when people of color suggest society treats them differently.  Men are often shocked to find out women experience reality differently. The mantra “Stop using labels to divide us”, when used by people in power, is a way to silence those with different experiences.


Now I understand if you are a middle aged pastor who serves a small rural congregation, you may not feel so privileged.   But in truth, in the ELCA, compared to younger clergy, you are.  You assume people will listen to you in a group of your peers. You feel free to go up to the mike and talk about young people even though you are not one.  The church operates in a way that is comfortable and familiar to you.


Younger clergy have a different reality.


So I would just ask my older and experienced colleagues to just be quiet for a minute and listen to our younger colleagues.  We might learn something.


Along those lines I offer you a response offered up by one of our younger synod clergy, Pastor Dena Stinson.  She wrote this a year ago.  You probably missed it.  It is worth your time.


What I want other clergy to know


In response to recent blog posts “What Young Clergy Want You to Know.” and the response to it “What older clergy want you to know” (which changes only a few words to make the same thoughts about a different group of people), I have a response too.  The information shared in both is honest and valuable.  I would like to add to the list, and perhaps build a bridge.  As a young pastor who works closely with an “experienced” pastor, I know it isn’t always easy to be who we are in the church and sometimes we don’t understand each other.


 Our expectations are very different, but our hopes are very much the same.


There are many challenges and frustrations that go along with being a pastor. Many are shared among all clergy.  Some are denominational, gender related, or yes, generational (though often not based on age, but rather the years we are trained).  Let’s not create a divide amongst colleagues when they may be all the support we have on a bad day, and the only ones who truly rejoice with us on a good one.


That being said, here is what I would like my friends and colleagues of all ages to know: The church isn’t dying, it is changing.


Many of these changes are very positive.  Some are quite painful for those who did not anticipate a change.  To talk about the church as we know it not being here in ten years is either very optimistic, assuming serious transformation will be complete in one decade, or very pessimistic, assuming that everyone who loves this church will die off or give up that quickly.


Either way, I choose to believe the church will be here in ten years and will strongly resemble the church I grew up in. There is much value in tradition.  The church has passed on much to us that enriches our lives of faith.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we just need to focus on who is important. The Holy Spirit is at work among us.  There is joy in the kingdom of God. Transformation and renewal are the work of God.


Fear is your enemy.


It doesn’t matter who you are, if fear wins over faith, you will be ineffective in your ministry.  Be willing to take some risks for the sake of the gospel.

We need to support each other, even if we don’t always understand each other.

Not all “younger” pastors agree with each other.  Not all “older” pastors agree with each other.  Matters of opinion and taste are always secondary to the proclamation of the gospel.


Regardless of age, proclaiming is about communicating to the people you are with.  If they don’t understand your language, you need to adjust so they can hear the Word of God through you.  It isn’t your voice that needs to be heard, it is God’s.


The church idolizes “young people” these days; they also aren’t expected to pay as much to pastors with fewer years’ experience.  This adds challenges for older pastors looking for a call.


The church idolizes “young people” these days; they think young pastors will make other young people flock through the doors.  This is an unrealistic expectation.  Not all young pastors like to work with youth, and we are not called to be the savior (Jesus already took care of that).


Regardless of these challenges, the Holy Spirit is at work in the call process.

What is important is not age or years of experience, but rather that the gifts a leader has match with the gifts and needs of the people they serve.


It is difficult to have a life away from your flock.  Take your days off. Take your vacation (all of it).  Spend time with family, be deliberate about making friends. You won’t have a life away if you never attempt to leave.  God is still present with your flock, even when you are away.


When I hear complaints from pastors who say they can’t afford to retire, but they own a large home, three vehicles and numerous other expensive things, and have a spouse with full-time income, I’m doubtful. (Btw, it is not a requirement to put your children through college.  People have been doing it on their own for generations.)


When I hear complaints from new grads who say they can’t afford their debt, but they own lots of electronics, buy a new car immediately after seminary, and have a daily $6.00 latte, I’m doubtful.


Most pastors are not underpaid.  Yes, we have a lot of student debt. Yes, we have a lot of anticipated retirement expenses.  Is it possible to better steward our resources?  It might be Biblical, set a good example for others, and help us reach our goals.


That being said, it is always good to encourage congregations to pay synod guidelines.  They are based on good research and are in place for a reason.  If the people agree to support a pastor in order to have full-time professional ministry, then they are responsible for following through fairly.


This is an exciting time to be in pastoral ministry.  It is not secure. Security in this life is not promised to followers of Christ.  Know that even if being a pastor for life is not for you, your gifts will be used in whatever vocation to you choose.  There are many ways to proclaim and to serve, all of which give glory to God.


You are a valuable child of God, claimed and called.  Jesus died for you. The Holy Spirit works in and through you.  You are loved and you are not alone.

People tend to follow leaders.  You do not have to wait your turn; just lead somewhere worth following.  Christ has led the way already.  You don’t have to blaze the path; follow the one already in place.   What you do have to wait for is the fullness of the kingdom of God.  We all await that day together with great hope and anticipation.





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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.




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