The glorious trouble with young clergy

September 9th, 2015

Once upon a time, I was a young clergy person. I was full of passion and verve, hope and vision. My call was fresh. My courage was strong. The first church I served, an African-American congregation, was every bit as exciting as I’d hoped it would be. But as I continued on in ministry, I seemed to meet with more resistance. Was it me? Or was it them?

In hindsight, I think it was a little bit of both, with a large portion of rapid culture shift thrown in for good measure. I had a chance to test my assumptions last week when I with a baker’s dozen of young clergy from around the country. They’re part of a select group I have the privilege of mentoring in how to create a culture of renewal. While we were together, I figured out the trouble, the glorious trouble, with young clergy.

Young clergy around the country are doing amazing ministry. There’s the Minnesotan who launched a worshipping community that embraces earth care as a de facto matter of Christian stewardship. I think of the bright visionary in my own region, Rev. Stephanie Price, who is starting a new congregation with a piece of land. Then there’s the pastor who is organizing a congregation around food and table fellowship.

But it’s not just avant garde ministries that attract talented young clergy. At last week’s retreat, I met high church aficionados, deeply earnest pastoral caregivers, culturally savvy leaders who welcome otherwise marginalized GBLTQ folks, and disciples who have had unforgettable spiritual awakenings. Their ministries are all taking place within established congregations.

Yes, they are up against shifting cultural expectations, a rapidly moving world and a certain measure of resistance to change. But for all the talk of decline in the local church, these young men and women are signs of local church vitality, denominational structures that functioned well, the enduring power of Jesus’ vision, and the insistent, cajoling voice of God which got through to them.

No, they’re not perfect. Who is? But they are awesome; the future is in good hands. Here’s why I think so. In other words, here is the glorious trouble with young clergy:

  1. They refuse to stay down. As a young clergy person, I got into stinking thinking, convinced that church decline was somehow my problem. If I could do more and more, and get better and better at it, the church would magically turn around. That line of thinking got me down, and wore me out. These young clergy understand the problems with denominational church in the 21st century; they’re not in denial. But they stay inspired by their call, signs of the Kingdom, and the small wins that lead to larger wins. 
  2. They network. I participated in coaching groups and regular continuing education events, but these clergy have so many more options than I did when I was starting out. More than ever, denominations are inventing life-giving ways to help new clergy stay connected. These clergy are taking advantage of those connections.They know how to establish life-giving connections — virtual and face to face — that keep them grounded. 
  3. They are culturally savvy. Because they are products of the very culture we are seeking to reach, they are not afraid to draw upon this inventiveness in their own ministries. They are crafting creative ways to pay the bills, keep the lights on, do missional ministry and manifest the Kingdom. They are looking for creative ways to grow their churches, not playing into the larger narrative that might have them looking for ways to shut them down. 
  4. They know how to play. A playful attitude goes a long way toward creating breakthroughs. Keeping it serious and keeping it real all the time can drain the joy out of ministry. 
  5. They are experienced. They may be young in age, but many of them have been at it for years. Some have come up through the ranks, serving every local church position before responding to the call to ministry. Others have been serving as pastor for many years already. They’ve got a lot of time with boots on the ground. 

What can the rest of us … young and young at heart … learn from our newer brothers and sisters in the ministry?

Crowdsource community. Put away the Lone Ranger outfit. Creative engagement with colleagues and community leads to creative engagement with the church. The options for growth are endless. But creating new kinds of conversation is what brings the new realities about. Dialogue, not monologue is the answer.

Rule #62. (Go ahead, Google it!) Don’t take yourself so damn seriously! Laughter and playfulness can go a long way toward generating new creativity. And for lightening the occasional load of worry.

Get a mentor. It’s never too late to enter a discipling relationship. Drawing upon the strength and fellowship of a colleague who is standing with and for you is invaluable! Plus it gives you the chance to personally experience what it is you may be trying to draw others into.

Cross-disciplinary approach. Look to the nonprofit world, and even the business world to discover creative engagement with the ever-changing world around us.

Exegete the culture. Barth said to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today, we might exchange the newspaper for a movie pass or the remote. The cultural conversation is full of Christ references and Gospel attributions.

Trust the movement of the Holy Spirit. Announcing and manifesting the Kingdom was Jesus’ purpose in life. He is continuing to call new disciples and recruit new believers. Trust the process and where it leads.

Finally, there is one thing that we all need to focus on — whether you’re 22 or 72. It’s this: Increase your emotional intelligence. Creative conversations, inventive visions and social capital are our primary resources for ministry. Everything else follows. More on this next time. But in the meantime, let me leave you with this thought: learn how to apply the Platinum Rule, and not just the Golden Rule.

If you’d like to find out how to master this key learning the 21st century, please reach out. I’d be happy to talk with you!


Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at rebekahsimonpeter.com. She is the author of "The Jew Named Jesus" and "Green Church."

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