In the weeks following The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which I attended in late April with friends and classmates from Duke Divinity School, I began to reflect on what I had seen take place in Tampa. While there were certainly holy moments of conferencing, worship, and fellowship as well as frustrating times of politics, impasse, and general drudgery, two particular themes stood out as more troubling than most. One, as has been oft noted by recent reports and statistics, is that most of the people I saw there were…how do I say it…on the downward slope? Over the hill?
Ah, forget it. Our church is old. Our church has a median-age of 60 or somewhere thereabouts, which just so happened to be accurately reflected in the makeup of a large portion of each conference’s delegation. The most obvious remedy to this statistic is, you guessed it, to get more young people, right? However, in recent years, we have found it increasingly difficult to pull in young people to our churches, based on the evidence that the aforementioned median age keeps creeping skyward. So not only do we need young people in our churches, we desperately need young people in our pulpits, in director’s chairs, on boards and agencies, and in the lead in our efforts for evangelism. Which brings me to the next troubling thing I noticed at GC2012.
The Duke Div Crowd at General Conference 2012, Tampa, FL.
From my experience attending General Conference and watching a portion of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference this past week, young people have done a dreadful job at making our voice heard in a way in which it can be received. What do I mean by this? Let me offer three examples:
- The first night of General Conference, two young people approached our group and introduced themselves as students from other seminaries. They asked if we were required to wear something specific each day (our professor had given us guidelines on how to dress for conference). When we replied that we were, they went on to tell us that they were staging a demonstration for the next day where all young people would wear black, signifying the lack of young people in attendance at General Conference. They had made black shirts declaring, “Where are the young people?” and had chosen the first business day of conference to show them off. One of the students stated, “We’re going to wear black to show everyone how young people are underrepresented at General Conference.” I’m not completely sure what their purpose was; it was already very apparent that there were very few young people there – one only need to stand around the coffee table for five minutes during a break to see more gray hair than spiked hair. Raising awareness for the lack of young people in itself is not a bad idea, but the meaning of the use of black was lost on all of us. Furthermore, when the demonstration actually happened, it was so completely insignificant that I am not sure that anyone really noticed (probably due to the fact that there were, indeed, barely any young people there at all).
- Of all the people leading the charge to include the voices of young people and young clergy, specifically, the most visible has been Rev. Adam Hamilton, both for his notoriety across our connection and the sincerity in his actions. One afternoon during lunch at General Conference, instead of eating with any number of important people in United Methodism as he most certainly could have, Adam chose to hold a Q&A session with young people who had attended Conference. The session was designed to ask and answer questions related to the Call to Action report, which had mixed reviews over all age groups and demographics and ultimately failed later on. As we found out, many young people in the room were quite troubled by several facets of the CTA and chose to voice their opinion at Adam very strongly. I use the preposition “at” because their tone was harsh, their words were laced with anger, and their points weren’t all that strong, which is to say they didn’t seem to listen to whatever point Rev. Hamilton had just made. One person questioned where a large portion of funds that had been diverted from something was going and how that would affect young people, a valid question, no doubt. Adam seemed prepared for the question, giving sympathy for the concern followed by a well reasoned, articulate answer as to how the funds would be used. Instead of a courteous disagreement or follow-up question or concern, the young person half-stood from her chair and semi-shouted, “YOU DIDN’T EVEN ANSWER MY QUESTION” (he had) and continued to accuse the CTA and members of the committee of diverting funds for something or another away from social justice ministries (they hadn’t, as Adam had explained just three minutes prior). The most egregious example from this session was when the moderator (a fellow young person) asked for a question from an ethnic minority, in order to get a full representation of the group. This drew the ire of one person who had previously asked a question, who apparently WAS an ethnic minority, even though he was seated at the very top of the riser and possibly completely hidden from this poor guy’s line of vision. The moderator was then accused of being ageist, sexist, and racist, for which he profusely apologized. It was perhaps the most outlandish example of rudeness from all of GC, save for the fact that they never served us any breakfast at the 7 a.m. “Seminary Breakfasts,” but I digress.
- The last example comes from Jurisdictional Conference, whose primary task is the election of bishops. During the election process, two young people stood at the microphone (at different times) and asked for a moment of personal privilege. In this moment, they each took time to make speeches centering on issues that young people have been bringing up since General Conference. One decried the lack of funds appropriated to young people in the budget (which could’ve been applied for). The other lamented the lack of diversity among elected bishops (certainly a valid point). For all the speeches’ merits (after all, the Church NEEDS to give funds to young people’s initiatives and NEEDS diversity in leadership to represent the growing diversity in our connection), neither was particularly clear in what their main point actually was and more importantly, both were spoken with the same harshness and sharp edge that I spoke of in the previous example.
Why do I mention these examples? Shouldn’t we speak truth to power? Shouldn’t we make our voice heard by any means we have necessary?
But here’s the problem: we have kind of been jerks about it. Rather than engaging in honest debate and discussion, young people have chosen to, as the kids say, RAGE, speaking harshly, yelling points rather than responding, and perhaps most concerning, not listening. More than that, often times it has sounded like we have been whining. Often, we have come across more like stomping toddlers rather than young adults.
I don’t bring up these examples to poke fun at, come down on, or belittle those young adults that I’ve mentioned, but rather am truly grateful that they have faithfully served as delegates, taking time out of their schedules to give themselves as servants of our Church. Their service cannot be understated. Their passion is apparent and they have certainly done more than I have to advance the cause of young people in the United Methodist Church.
To be sure, there are certainly moments in history in which those who truly changed the world needed a sharp edge and a hard word. If Martin Luther King, Jr. had acted nicely, then he would’ve been just another smooth-tongued preacher. If those preachers, ministers, and others in South Africa had waited for their turn to speak, then the darkness of apartheid would probably still hang over the country like a cloud. And surely if Jesus had been respectful of the religious authorities of His day, He might’ve just died of natural causes.
Some might disagree, but I cannot simply equate those situations and ours. If those who are older in the UMC cannot see the need for our participation in the structures of our denomination, then we deserve whatever painful, slow death we will surely die. However, I believe that they do see that need. I believe, though, that they need our encouragement, our reminding, our nudging to help them remember. They need us to help them see the gifts and grace that we bring to the table. They need us to hold them accountable to making sure that everyone has a seat at the table, regardless of skin color, gender, or age. When another seat is available for nomination, when another line item in the budget is up for debate, when another chair is to be elected, they need us to hold up a mirror and remind them that they cannot do it by themselves. The renewal of the United Methodist Church will take all of us, young and old. Without young people in meaningful and significant positions across the connection, though, it will certainly fail (or perhaps even worse, wallow in tepid mediocrity for many more years).
But just like they need us, we need them. We need them to show us how things work. We need their wisdom from years of ministry with the people of God. We need to hear their mistakes and failures as well as their successes and triumphs. We need them to mentor us, to guide us in leadership and ministry, and to show us with their own lives and ministries as an example, how to be effective pastors and leaders. We need them to show us how to put lofty ideals and ideas into concrete action on the ground in our local churches.
Following the ordination service in North Alabama this year, I made my way down the aisle to speak with friends. As I got closer and closer to the front of the church, I consecutively ran into four pastors from my childhood and adolescence. How different my life would be without the Brother Gary’s, the Brother Ken’s, the Max’s, the Mary’s, the Matt’s! Each had, in some capacity, shaped the arc of my journey in a way that God used to guide me to my call to God’s ministry. I, like all other young people, would not even be in these positions without the mentoring, shaping, and guidance that we received from our forerunners in the Methodist church. We need them.
At times, we need them to show us the way, but other times we need them to step aside. We need their guidance to begin our ministries, but we also need them to allow us to try new, boundary-pushing ministries that reach the margins and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We need them to keep us grounded in our tradition and discipline, but we also need them to let us reinvent the way we think about being United Methodists in the United States and around the world. In all these things, however, we ALL need to learn to be respectful towards each other and to speak truth in love. Not to be too clichéd, but Paul reminds us that when we fail to remember this, we sound a lot like gongs and cymbals. I heard a lot of clanging at General and Jurisdictional Conference.
As young people, let’s claim our rightful seat at the table by speaking the truth to our elders, but for the love of God and everybody else, can we stop being so mean?
To our older colleagues and fellow disciples: I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but you really need us. Let us have our place. We love this church, too. Teach us, guide us, and mentor us, but respect us. Listen to our ideas. Don’t treat us as tokens, but sisters and brothers who are the keys to renewal for the United Methodist Church.