Young Adult Clergy: Called Beyond the Church

February 8th, 2011

Not long ago, some friends and I watched as our denomination laid the mantle of ordination on thirty-three would-be pastors. We arrived at the service half an hour early, yet Central United Methodist Church was already filled to overflowing. Hundreds of people had gathered in their Sunday best, and hundreds more were wearing black clergy robes with red stoles, signs of education and separation and privilege. My friends and I – three from Gen X and one born just two years after the “cutoff” – were clearly underdressed. Will and I were in blue jeans with our shirts untucked, a look which made him seem casually stylish, but gave me the appearance of having rolled out of bed just ten minutes before. At least Jason wore khakis, and Matthew even sported a suit. But since none of us had brought our robes or stoles, we would all have to walk in like commoners.

Before we could get through the sanctuary doors, however, an usher stopped us. He politely informed us that all the remaining seats were reserved for clergy. When we told him that we were, in fact, ordained pastors, he explained that only properly attired clergy would be allowed in the reserved area. We would have to wait in the lobby to see if anything was still available once our colleagues were seated.

            Organ music bellowed from inside the sanctuary, and the processional began. Jason, Matthew, Will, and I crowded around an eighteen-by-eighteen inch window in one of the side doors to watch. One by one, our brothers and sisters marched past us. Some joked at how typical it was, that we young guys would forget to dress like “real pastors.” Others smiled, most in amusement, a few in condescension. The bishop’s expression was completely unreadable, but we didn’t dare get within reach of his shepherd’s crook.

            At last, everyone had taken their places. As the congregation responded during the call to worship, we snuck down the aisle to a row of empty seats between the clergy and the laity. To those in front of us, we were pastors who had not conformed to code. To those behind us, we were four guys who needed a watch, or at least a fashion advisor. We were sentinels of a border country, set apart from one world, but not quite incorporated into the other.

For many young pastors, that’s an all too familiar position. We are born into a “post” culture (post-Enlightenment, postmodern, post-denominational, post-Christendom, etc.), only to have our churches invest a ghastly amount of time and resources to train that culture out of us. We are drawn into our vocation by the power of the Jesus stories, but we cast a sidelong glance at professional colleagues who suggest we fix our sights on the successful management of competing interests within the walls of the church.

Those of us in Generation X have grown up in a world saturated with alternatives. Our life has been an all-you-can-eat buffet of information and entertainment. Countless options clamor for our attention and our dollars, but all these choices do little more than send us spiraling into confusion. As one of our better poets (Dave Matthews) puts it, “it all comes down to nothing.”

We hear God’s call to a different posture toward God and the world, and we dedicate ourselves to sorting out the rest of our lives around this posture. Still, that basic commitment only sets us at the trailhead. We get to choose our particular path, and for us that still means myriad options. For us, ordination has always been only one of many options for full-time Christian service.

Socks and Boots

In stereotypical American consumer fashion, I think of it like shopping. My wife and I lived for two years in Rapid City, South Dakota, at the foot of the Black Hills. Hiking in the late fall or early spring meant wool socks and good boots. The socks were easy to find, a one-size-fits-all item at any discount retailer. But the boots required a much greater search investment. They had to be durable, yet also lightweight and comfortable over miles of rocky terrain. Finding a good boot in the right size was hard enough, but that task only narrowed our options. We still had to choose the one that best fit our feet – at a price we could afford, of course.

The Church has traditionally viewed pastors like socks: one size fits all. There are certain tasks that most churches expect of a pastor: preach, teach, marry, bury, lead meetings, etc. If a pastor begins to wear out in this role, he will most likely move (or be moved) to another location, where he will be asked to perform the same tasks among different people.

Same foot, same sock. Different trail.

My generation, on the other hand, experiences vocation as more of a hiking boot. We may try several on before we settle on one that fits. Even then, many of us fully expect the boots of one job to wear out at some point before retirement, and are not surprised when we feel the urge to change careers.

My friend Billy is the epitome of our generation’s vocational unrest. In the fourteen years since he graduated college, he has been a police officer, furniture salesman, annual conference communications director, Internet entrepreneur, worship leader, consultant, and college professor. The last time I visited him, he said, “I’ve been at this teaching gig for three years now. I’m starting to think it’s time to move on.”

Billy has been accused by more than one person of lacking commitment, a label applied to Generation X and the Millennial Generation alike. But it’s a caricature, not a portrait. The fact is that many of us—Billy included—are quite committed to living as followers of Jesus in a world where the lines of secular and sacred are not always clear. We want to act in good faith, to share a positive, hope-filled life with the people around us. But we recognize that the contexts in which we do that may change. This may not be The One Right Answer for how to approach Christian vocation (if such a singularity even exists). But it’s an accurate description of my generation’s experience of ministry.

Elders in my denomination are ordained to Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service. We have to realize that the sacred work of Word and Sacrament extends far beyond our church walls, and that Order is only valuable insofar as it extends and enables Word and Sacrament. We have to learn Service not as marketing piece that might lure new people to our congregations, but as a natural pathway along Jesus’ selfless footsteps. We have to recognize that Christian vocation can mean more than just local church ministry, and that our clergy are ordained not to a position of middle management within an impenetrable hierarchy, but to a sacred office that participates in God’s gracious activity among all people.

Fellow Travelers

So what if we expanded our notion of ordination, and altered our practices to better fit that thinking? For example, what if we expanded our notion of ordination to include not only those who serve as local church pastors, but those whose training and desire line up with our missional priorities? Appointing ordained clergy to fundraising for mosquito nets or to studying unfair economic systems, for example. A bright young pastor might reach every American measure of success in a suburban congregation, but might be a more important part of our larger mission as a pastor in a homeless shelter downtown. Or a chaplain at a VA hospital. Or a college minister on a university campus. Clergy would become missionaries who embed ourselves in something other than American church culture, whether a far-away tribe in Africa or a group of postmoderns in our own city.

Ordained and sent in such a way, we would not be curators of the divine in museums to holiness, but living sacraments among God’s lesser-served people. We would not need a program to “connect” church and world, because for us, the two have always been connected in a profound way. They are as inextricable as ocean and water, as the God who is at once Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

When the ordination service at Central UMC ended, the rows of clergy men and women filed out behind the bishop and the crop of new pastors. My three friends and I decided among ourselves that we would walk out with them at the end of the line. We had no particular axe to grind or statement to make; we simply wanted to signal our participation in the work of the ordained.

As we turned to leave, however, we found that the last row of pastors had slipped out from behind us while we were watching the others. We hesitated just a moment to look for them, and by the time we figured out what had happened, it was too late. The organ blasted the postlude, and a throng of friends and family members pushed toward the exit to congratulate the newly commissioned and ordained. Once again, we were caught in the no man’s land between our clergy colleagues and lay parishioners.

In a way, however, the scene could not have been more appropriate. All four of us feel the investment that our Lord and our church have made in us through ordination, but are not separated priests. We are integrated fellow travelers with the privilege of inviting others to join us in the passionate pursuit of full life in Jesus Christ.


Eric Van Meter is a campus minister at Arkansas State University. Excerpted and adapted from Generation Rising: A Future with Hope for the United Methodist Church, coming April 2011 from Abingdon Press.

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