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. In the comments so far, it is fascinating to me the willingness to blame the leaders and not the system. I have met each of these people. They are among the healthiest, most visionary, most committed Chrsitian leaders of any age — making most of their elders look like pikers. If anything, the problem of these young people is that they have high expectations and believe the church should be something special, not just a mediocre mess. But it is so much easier to say, “what’s wrong with these people?” than to ask, “what’s wrong with a system that drives the brightest and best away?”

  2. As a young elder (33) who has been around for 10 years now in a variety of capacities (local pastor of a tiny church, student pastor as an associate in a downtown/inner city church, full time associate in a “successful” suburban church, and now in my second appointment as solo pastor of an average (size) church), I can sympathize a little bit with the concerns raised in your post. On the other hand, I sense two things that trouble me about their attitudes – 1) disrespect for other clergy and even laity, and 2) impatience.

    For example – to one who complained that nobody in the local church wanted to listen to what he or she had learned in seminary: What makes the things you learned in seminary right and the simple or different interpretations of the layperson wrong? Is it wrong for the layperson to question what you are teaching if it challenges what he/she has believed for many years? Is it wrong if that person never changes his or her mind? Can you still be that person’s pastor? Did that person believe you loved him/her as a pastor, in spite of disagreement? I know it is very cliche, but there is truth in it – “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care . . . ”

    I don’t mean to accuse the young pastor, because I know its not the whole story. However, maybe the young clergy could benefit from a healthy balance of humility to go with their zeal.

  3. Could part of the problem be that they’re expected to be pastors for life? In what other field is that an expectation?

    We have to expect that a person’s paradigm will change significantly from when they’re 22 and going to seminary (and probably were in some kind of ministry for years before that) and when they’re 42 and seeing the world a lot differently.

    When I talked with my pastor about her reappointment, I would think about how she was in a career where what she was doing then would be basically what she’d be doing 10, 20, 30 years later. Just in a larger church.

    Another thing is influence. In the world of tech, where my first career was, your age has little bearing on the things you can accomplish. If you’ve got the stuff, you can change the world in your 20s and no one can stop you. There are no Bishops at Google.

    Outside of your personal merits, the organization around you is constantly in flux, creating opportunities. An organization centered on God is centered on eternity and so it changes slowly. An organization centered on technology is centered on something very finite and so it changes very quickly. This creates quite a different environment for employees.

  4. If homosexuality is your big issue in the church, then the problem is with you. No matter what your perspective on the issue, it is just so small in the overall scheme of things.

    I am not sure what level of commitment your friend feels that her church needs to achieve before they pay their apportionments. She makes it sound like the money is there but she isn’t asking for it. Is the real problem that she has some pet project she wants to pursue and paying 100% of the apportionments would “get in the way?”

    Part of being in a denomination is that you don’t get to do everything you want when you want to do it. However, you also have a support system when things get dysfunctional as well.

  5. Dan,
    I’m 29 and applying for full membership.
    Do I feel like I’m being supported by our Annual Conference?
    Yes and no. But more on the no side. I feel support from certain individuals, but as the conference as a whole..? I don’t know.

    I feel like this ordination process is molding me into a pastor I don’t want to be. I feel like the hoops they make me jump through mold me into the UMC pastors of the 80s-90s where most spent locked away in their office. But every time I voice my opinion (and I’m never shy nor political about it) the BOOM and anyone in charge think I’m way off base. It’s just that not many younger clergy are refusing to voice anything so that they don’t get black-listed by the members of BOOM. To that, I say screw it. I’m going to speak my mind, because we need people to stand up and speak the truth without regards of the outcome or the consequences. And you know what, I honestly am thinking that I may not passed this year… or the years to come because the BOOM have a long memory…

    The other thing that bothers me as a young clergy is the whole notion “we want younger clergy” and “we want to affirm younger clergy” is all a BS. When I am with older clergy, and speak out about ideas and point out stuff that are wrong… they give me the look of (and even say it at times) “just wait until you are older and you’ll see that you’re young and foolish.” If I hear that one more time, I am going to explode and respond with “wait until what? I get old and ineffective like you guys are?”
    Our presence is appreciated because it makes us look younger and and maybe it makes us look like we’re doing something right.
    But the younger clergy are much like the women and children of the older days “we should be seen but not heard.”

    I’m going to fight and fight and fight for change and be the change I want to see happening in our denomination until change begins to happen or I get kicked out.

    But I believe in our denomination and in our theology. We have the right theology for the right time, but our methodology is broken. And to just walk away without giving it my all to live what I just said… I feel like, for me, that’s the cowardly way out.

    The conference is going to have to duct tape my mouth and force me out for me to stop speaking out what I feel is in my heart.
    Quoting from King Lear: “The weight of this sad time we must obey Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”

    • Good luck to you in your fight to be a young pastor, Joseph! I’ve seen too many young women and men passed over for older, second-career ministers. It’s a reality that the desire for young members of the clergy is a falsehood propogated by those who aren’t part of the commissioning process. The sad truth is that too many young men and women spend tens of thousands of dollars and years to realize their call only to watch as divorced, middle-aged women who don’t know the theology are passed before them.

      You seem extermely intelligent and outspoken. I hope you remain that way and make it into the UMC.

  6. Dan,

    Perhaps I am not the norm. I just turned 40 and have felt very supported in my Annual Conference.

    I just wonder what the difference may be?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s