Learning From Younger Clergy
Recently a clergy colleague posted an interesting meme on my Facebook page:
“If you are over 45 and don’t have an under-30 mentor – not mentee, mentor – then you are going to miss fundamental shifts in thinking that are happening.”
Another colleague sent me an article which describes the same idea a few days before (looking for the article now).
This started me reflecting on the younger clergy with whom we have worked in recent years. Now, more churches are calling younger clergy to serve in the role of Lead Pastor. As these younger pastors lean into these leadership opportunities, it’s clear that pastoral paradigms and roles are shifting. Most of those we are privileged to work with are doing well, experiencing a good fit between pastor and church. Certainly there’s some adjustment on the part of the church, yet the church’s appreciation for what these younger pastors bring to the mix overwhelms the minor criticisms.
So, based on what we are seeing in these younger clergy in leadership roles, there’s much we can learn from them. They are different than many clergy who were trained and acculturated into the ministerial world during the 20th century. How so?
They don’t carry (same) baggage of 20th century trained and acculturated clergy.
Every generation is shaped by the influences of the day, religious or not. Clergy models and paradigms are also shaped by the ethos and culture of their day. So, given time, these models and paradigms shift into different shapes and expressions. The following baggage is what we don’t see so much in these younger clergy who are serving in God’s vineyard.
A consistent effort to be excessively nice and overly accommodating, avoiding offending anyone in the slightest. Of course I’m exaggerating, yet if you’ve been a part of church for a while, you understand. Twentieth century formed pastors generally accommodated to the idea that niceness is better than honesty more often, since that’s what people in church expected (generalizing again). Plenty of parodies helped us endure that kind of church culture (remember SNL’s Church Lady?), demonstrating it was a real and operational dynamic in many churches. To remain and do well in certain kinds of churches, one must bow to the cultural ethos of niceness over honesty, while also working to do effective ministry. Plenty of younger pastors don’t carry this cultural tendency.
Denominational arrogance. There was a time when most denominations believed they were something like God’s gift to the world. Younger clergy were shaped during a time when denominational fluidity was rising, with less arrogance about one’s denominational brand. Sure, they are proud of their branch on the Christian family tree, yet they see the other branches as legitimate parts of the tree as well. They tend to carry less denominational arrogance as previous generations.
Rigid role identification. Where does the pastor end and the person begin? Last century, it was sometimes hard to tell. Persons called to pastoral ministry tended to over-identify with the role of pastor, losing themselves to the role. Often their personal preferences, recreational interests, and friendships were sublimated into the role of pastor. The old joke about there being three genders (female, male, and clergy) illustrated this tendency.
So then, what’s different about these younger pastors since they don’t carry the same baggage as previous generations? Again, this is only a representative sample, those clergy and churches with whom we’ve worked in recent years. Yet, here’s what we are noticing.
These younger pastors serve with less fear and more freedom. We are painting with a wide brush again, yet this seems true with those in our experiential sample group. They were formed in more diverse environments, experiencing a less homogenous world and church culture. This exposure seems to liberate them from certain anxieties of those raised up in the church of the past, equipping them with a certain liberty some other pastors envy.
Greater freedom to be themselves in worship. Having worshipped with quite a few of these pastors and their churches, it’s been fun to see them function in the worship leader and preacher roles. They do respect the approach and style of their denominations, yet in a less constrained and more free manner. They seem very comfortable bringing personality and humor to the worship experience, along with their passion. When done well like this, the worship experience is enriched.
Greater freedom to partner with other denominations and organizations in their community. These younger clergy seem to naturally engage in sacred partnering, collaborating with whoever is also working toward the transformation of our world. They don’t appear overly concerned about every denomination or organization believing everything they do, yet are able to build bridges with those who share a common desire to improve life in their communities.
Greater freedom around expressing their point of view regarding church life. I’m guessing this is a result of less baggage around the niceness issue. These younger pastors seem more free to “speak the truth in love,” when discussing issues in church meetings. They appear less hesitant and more free with their perspectives. My observation is that this is working for them so far, helping their churches make decisions more efficiently.
Like every generation, this crop of younger pastors brings their baggage (another article), yet the suitcases have become rolling carry on bags. They look and feel different. So right about now, I’m feeling encouraged. Mid-life and senior pastors are clearly learning and seeking new ways to lead churches forward, though some are finding an early out, through career changes or early retirement. For many, the retooling process involves un-learning and shedding 20th century clergy paradigms. These younger pastors begin at a different place. All of this, younger and older clergy living into new and different expressions of pastoral leadership, is so encouraging. As the church continues to shift, so is its leadership. Thanks be to God for equipping the Church for every turn in the road.