What’s Wrong With This Picture?

One of the sidelights of the research I did into congregational vitality from 1999-2008 was the opportunity to identify and interview young pastors who were doing truly meaningful, serious, and innovative work in the church.  Many of them were not lead pastors, but those who could specialize in youth, young adult, outreach, teaching, or worship.  I met a dozen exciting, inspiring, and effective young leaders.  Today I received word of the NINTH to leave the ministry of The United Methodist Church.  Seventy-five percent of the bright young clergy under 40 that I encountered are no longer serving the church as ordained clergy, and 4-out-of-the-9 have quit the church altogether.  This is happening at a time when our denomination is making young adults a priority of the church, and when Boards of Ordained Ministry are starving for young candidates.  What’s wrong with this picture?

I have been able to talk to, or correspond with, five of those who are leaving ordained ministry.  None of them are leaving over money, benefits, or because the work is too hard.  Here are some of the things they are telling me.

I take call very seriously.  My call is to not only share the story of Jesus Christ, but to emulate the love and work of Jesus Christ.  When I try to do this, the church stops me!  In both of the churches I served, people wrote to my bishop and my DS (district superintendent) to tell them that I wasn’t serving the congregation because I was out in the community.  And did I get support from the conference?  No, I was told to “rein in my enthusiasm” and “tend to the needs of the church I am appointed to.”  I have tried so hard to get others to work with me, to really be disciples, and I couldn’t find ANYONE interested.  They exerted more energy stopping me than they would have if they worked with me.  I have prayed about this for months.  My husband and I have talked to each other, and we have gone to counseling.  The way we made peace with this is to realize that the only way I am going to be able to answer my call to God is to leave the church.

This will sound so hard and judgmental, but it is what I am feeling right now.  The United Methodist Church has no use for smart people.  If you have a brain and you use it to think, the church won’t support you.  How can we hold the attitudes we do about stem cell research, for example?  How can we waffle over what science has proven?  How can we uphold the anti-intellectual bias we do?  Why are we allowing the superstitious and credulous to call the shots.  When I saw those Maxie Dunnam videos before Annual Conference — I thought they were jokes.  There was no way an enlightened person in the 21st century could take those things seriously.  I can’t go to workshops and conferences any more because they make me sick.  Rah-rah speeches and sermons about how much the world needs us, then we act like belligerent morons whenever we disagree with each other.  Homosexuality and abortion are only smokescreens; the real issue is that we are an anti-intellectual faith pretending to be modern.  We are so out of step with reality that we have no credibility.  I have tried to teach what I learned in seminary and no one in my churches want to learn it.  I try to apply basic common sense and reason to Bible study, and people call me a blasphemer.  I brought this up at a clergy gathering and it broke my heart.  One person told me that as a pastor my job is to tend the flock and remember that they are just sheep, and I shouldn’t expect so much.  Another told me that I would be happier if I understood that my job is not to change people.  Well, I am done trying to change them.  I refuse to delude myself, and I sure as hell am not going to pretend to be stupid just to keep my job.

I feel so betrayed.  I thought this was what God wanted me to do.  I have been affirmed all my life.  All my friends and family tell me this is what I was born to do.  My colleagues say I have all the gifts for ministry.  But to be honest, I am very bored.  I got the book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations because I liked the concept and I was intrigued by the five focuses.  Then I read the book and thought, ‘O God, this is just more we-did-it-you-can-do-it-too prescriptive build-up-the-church doo-doo.’  I went to my study group ready to share my disappointment, but everyone else in the group just simpered over what a wonderful book it was, how inspirational, how deep — and that was when I started feeling like I didn’t belong anymore.  Everywhere I turn the church looks so cheap and tawdry.  The gospel is so high quality, but The (United) Methodist Church is like Dollar General — no quality whatsoever.  But we live in a Wal-Mart, McDonalds world.  Why should I be surprised that the “successful” churches look and act just like they do.  But, oh my God, what a boring church.  I believe God wants us to change the world.  I believe God wants us to be passionate.  I believe God wants us up off our asses and out touching lives.  You can’t do that well in the church.  Most of your energy is required to attend meetings, raise money, and put out fires.  Well, I’m going to run a crisis intervention center and women’s shelter.  I cannot look myself in the eye in the mirror anymore and feel like my gifts and call are being wasted by a church that could care less.

I’m not a babysitter, and that is what the churches I am appointed to want.  Okay, I know I am young and I don’t get to start out in a larger, healthier church.  I get that.  But I am doing no good for God here.  I’m serving the needs of the church.  I want to motivate people to be in ministry.  My focus is on making disciples.  I have my charge conference and have to sit through a thirty minute slap on the wrists because we haven’t paid our apportionments.  I told my DS, ‘first I get people fired up for Christ, then they’ll pay the apportionments.”  She looked me in the eye and said to me like I was five years old, “No.  First you’ll pay your apportionments!”  This is crazy.  I feel like The (United) Methodist Church is forcing me to make a choice between serving Christ or serving the denomination — and that I can’t do both.  I have to follow my heart.  They forced the choice once too often.  I’m choosing Christ.

I can’t even talk about this without crying.  I’ve given my life to this.  This is everything to me.  There isn’t anything else I want to do.  But I can’t stay in The United Methodist Church.  Everyone doesn’t have to agree about homosexuality — but we’re talking hatred and violence and pure bigotry.  It was discovered that someone in our congregation had a serious problem.  Was he surrounded by love and forgiveness?  He was attacked in the most vile and hateful ways.  We’re spending millions of dollars on ads.  We’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for corporate consultants.  We’re trying to build hundreds of new churches when a significant number of existing churches are not merely dysfunctional, but some are downright destructive.  I put a “Clergy” sticker on my car, and since doing it I have had the car egged three times — and I don’t blame people.  I am embarrassed by every Open Hearts, Open MInds, Open Doors banner and sign I see.  After <my annual conference this year > I knew I couldn’t continue as a pastor.  How can I?  How can I lead in an institution I’m ashamed of?”

Now, some might think “Oh, boo hoo.  So you got into the wrong line of work…,” but there are some common themes here (and in many other portions I’m not sharing) that have some validity and are at least worth reflecting upon:

First, the young pastors feel unsupported by their system.  I know of hundreds of young pastors who DO fell supported, and it makes all the difference in the world.

Second, many of these young leaders are thrown into decaying, dysfunctional systems with no real authority to make changes.  Pit a newbie pastor against an entrenched matriarch or patriarch of a small church and I’ll put my money on the church pillar every time.

Third, these are people honestly trying to “ReThink Church” in places where thinking of any kind is discouraged.

Fourth, the driving values of tolerance, acceptance, diversity, justice, and compassion of the under 40s are not always in step with institutional values of comfort, security, success, righteousness, and purity.

Fifth, for younger leaders actions speak louder than words, and active ministry is a huge threat to passive consumerism. 

Six, the Mac/iPod/iPhone generation expects Apple quality everywhere, and a cheap knock-off PC/MP3/cellphone just doesn’t cut it.  Christ is high quality, and anything that cheapens the faith is unacceptable.  Criticisms about our denominational websites, programs, and presentations are predominantly about quality.  One of the pastors I talked to just got back from Leawood, Kansas and his impression of church there was “kind of like a trip to the mall, but not a good mall — a strip mall.”

So, perhaps the young clergy expect too much and have unrealistically high expectations.  But is there any merit to their disillusionment?  Are our values at all screwed up?  Are we in any way dumbing down our faith?  Do we let too many United Methodists off with little or no accountability?  Are we a passive denomination?  Are we placing our treasure in places that the heart cares to follow?  Not every criticism or impression should be taken at face value, but neither should they be casually dismissed.  If these are the reasons being given by young clergy leaving our denomination — even if they are little more than excuses — it behooves us to listen, to pay attention, and to assess just how legitimate they might be.  We can’t keep saying that young leaders are important to us then act in ways that prove they’re not.  If these things turn off young leaders who are already in the system, you can bet they will turn away many who are outside it.

22 replies

  1. Its not either the system or the individuals you referenced in the post – its a both/and. Sure the system is imperfect, and I think everyone wants to help it be better. However, you highlighted the individuals who left, it made me wonder about common elements of their stories. The comments you quoted struck me as slightly arrogant, but speaking to very real frustration. Obviously, I do not know them, and it remains just an impression. I wonder, was the “system” the only reason they left? For that matter, why have the others stayed? What impact for Christ’s kingdom are the ones who stayed having today?

    In my AC, while we don’t have a large number of young elders/deacons, so far all of us who were commissioned together (2002) / ordained together (2005) are still in UM ministry, and the other young ones commissioned and ordained in the years since me have stayed to my knowledge. What common elements do the people have who stay? Do they have low expectations? Are they without vision? Have they caved into some system that promotes mediocrity and lethargy?

    Or is the “system” a mixed bag of results, some good and some bad? What do we even mean by “the system?” Some of the complaints they listed were about conference/district gatherings, others about the experience of pastoring in the local church. Is this so-called system one or the other, or just the totality of United Methodism? I think the system is made up of individuals in many different contexts, and not every young leader’s experience of this system (people) is negative. The system may drive people some crazy and drive some people away, including some of the best brightest, but it’s not the whole story. The personalities of both those who leave and those who stay interact with the “system” in their own unique ways. Let’s not make the system bear the whole blame either.

    • Basic systems-theory: the system is designed for the results it is getting. A system cannot produce that which is beyond its capacity or control. Systems, by definition, are not just a collection of parts — any part of the system that is broken means the system is broken. And the people are a part of the system, so yes, it is about people, too. You would not have our system apart from the people in it. In The United Methodist Church we are expecting our system to produce results it is not currently designed to produce, and it has become easier to blame the people (variables) instead of the system (constant and within control).

      • So my question is this – since some people do well within the system and some young leaders have positive experiences within it, what is working in those circumstances? Or are those instances entirely in spite of the system? The results it is getting according to your informal collection of data regarding young pastors is that a small percentage of them are still pastoring in the UMC. Why? How are they dong? What can learn from them to improve our retention of all younger leaders? Or are the remaining ones terrible failures who stay because they have nothing else they can do?

        I am just saying that while it helpful to hear from those who have left, and heartbreaking, the results are what they are. What do the 25% (3 out of 12) have to say about all this? There is a missing part of the whole here.

      • We have parallel problems: fewer young people showing any interest in coming into the ministry; the highest attrition rate in history of under-40 seminary graduates leaving the ministry within their first five years; more under-40 pastors are leaving than are coming in or staying; more young pastors are seeking counseling; more young clergy are being treated for depression; and a growing number of young people deciding to pursue a life of Christian service outside the institutional church. Any analysis into the situation needs to take these factors into account as well as the diminishing number choosing to stay. I proposed such a study when I worked for the national church, but there was no interest in it.

      • There’s another phenomenon here that needs to be addressed.

        In a number of our seminaries, nearly half of the student body have ZERO interest in serving as pastors of local congregations. One of the folks I was with this past weekend is part of Garrett-Evangelical’s response to this phenomenon– because he was part of the phenomenon himself. He came in actually intending to do the pastor thing with the UMC, but found himself so disillusioned and at odds with the reality of the system for folks his age and with his interests (making and living as disciples of Jesus!) that he decided he could actually do far better in a non-ordained role outside the system. My point– he’s far from alone.

        Fundamentally, though, I don’t see this whole issue as being about not caring about the needs or interests of younger clergy who might enter our system of clergy formation and deployment. I see it being about the realization that there is a strong disconnect between the actual roles required of leadership in our congregations (and, really, most congregations everywhere) and a life of radical discipleship to Jesus. Those who leave aren’t any less disciples of Jesus (or any more, for that matter) than those who stay. But what they are– and their tribe continues to grow, not just among United Methodists!– are folks who see that disconnect clearly, perhaps more clearly than previous generations have done– and are discerning that God’s call for them as disciples and leaders in the community called church is other than in the format of Christian community called a congregation.

        Barna’s book, Revolution, is I think overly ambitious in its claim that in 30 years or so the congregational format of Christianity as we now know it will cease to exist, or at least be only a minor current of Christianity in North America. But it’s dead on in describing why more and more people are opting out of the vision that the congregational format lies at the gravitational center of discipleship to Jesus.

        And that’s no new insight. It’s exactly what the early Methodists knew and lived by as well.

  2. The sad part is that this isn’t really a new thing. I posted some similarly comments on my blog a few years ago and not much has changed in the 20 years or so that I have been in lay ministry.

    The only thing that keeps my wife and I as active members of our local church is that our ministries are independent of the church. If we wanted on the local church to support what we do, then we would get nothing done.

    As I noted in my own blog this weekend, we know what the problem is but we are unwilling to face it and offer true and meaningful solutions.

  3. Make it ten of twelve, bro. People saying you need to stay in the system to change it obviously believe this system is worth fixing. I gave it up. Too many lazy people happy with too little good result, too many people satisfied to talk about change with too few people willing to change. Too much work to accomplish for God to waste by trying to build the next Willow Creek. The values are all screwed up. I got lifted from a “vital” church (your description, not mine) to plant a new church — but all the focus was on numbers, and there was no valuable help from our national church. The only way I could keep my integrity as a follower of Jesus Christ and a minister of the gospel was to become a Congregationalist. I love God, and I still love the United Methodist Church — but like anyone you love who is abusive and unwilling to change, you have to make hard decisions. I made mine, and I am happier now than I was in my fifteen years as a UM pastor.

    • Man, I am really sorry to hear you left, too. You are an amazing, spiritual, inspirational, and transformative leader. We will miss your leadership GREATLY.

  4. I was privileged to spend the past weekend with several of our younger clergy.

    What they know and experience all the time is our congregations are generally not designed to be compatible with discipleship per se. They can provide some elements necessary for discipleship, but not sufficient. So they seek discipleship and to be part of making discipleship in venues other than the programming of the congregation… and they are finding it.

    If a a system we’re leading any preparatory clergy of whatever age to believe their role as pastor is primarily discipleship we are misleading them. zthey should work at this too… but the pastoral role for congregations per se isn’t and won’t soon likely be primarily about that.

  5. OMG I feel her comments reflect my experience as well!!! It has taken a very long time to get past the disillusionment of the institution versus my faith in Christ. I used to love the UMC and saw as a reflection of Christ in the world. I am now very aware of how earthy it is and in need of daily grace. I love God…distrust the Church in that order. That being said. I intend to finish seminary, however I am very leery about doing anything formal within the UMC after an assignment within the district that went very badly. I have instead served where I feel my passion for kids and for technology and preaching meets a congregations mission and I don’t stay long to avoid getting beaten up again.
    Many times this mean serving outside of the UMC and that is fine with me. I long though to be part of a startup with a group x’ers like gal that you highlighted! I think a church like that although small could really do something.

  6. Dan, you wrote: “Basic systems-theory: the system is designed for the results it is getting.” While I’m not clear about that, I do observe that in our present apparent institutional crisis (members, dollars), we are getting negative results, in that people are not coming (around where I’ve been) and dollars are disappearing. Time after time, folks think they are “being church” (let alone rethinking it) when to me it appears what we are doing is trying another new trick to keep the boat afloat.

    One of my contentions along the way has been that we seem to have abandoned having opportunities for pastors to talk with one another. No talk leads to less or less effective communication, which leads to increased isolation, which leads to increased desperation/loneliness and decreased vitality. The congregation picks up on the attitude of the pastor. Efforts focus often on the self-identity of the congregation (we need to build or add on or try that program that worked over there or…), and the ministry that might arise from within the lives of the members/friends is not recognized. Etc. Perhaps I’m overly pessimistic….

    • You actually get the systems theory quote very well. If what we are getting from the current system is decline and crisis, it means we have created a decline and crisis system. If we want different results, we need a radically different system. In our modernday United Methodist Church, we have only about 9% that are truly designed to “make disciples.” Most are focused on survival, providing services and programs, growth, expansion, buildings, money, reputation, popular worship, or a dozen other things. If your system is a wood-chipper, there are only a limited number of things you will receive as outputs from the system. If your system is an assembly line, it will produce what it is designed to produce. With an organic system, the result is similar — it can only produce what it is designed to produce. A human body will not begin laying duck eggs or grow gills in adulthood. The United Methodist Church walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, has feathers and a beak — and we keep wanting it to be a dolphin, then we shake our heads in dismay and wonder why our duck is failing so badly to be a dolphin!

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