Young and Restless

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.

Image

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

Absolutely.

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.

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Young and Restless

  1. Hear, hear! I love this, John Carl. Several times I have been in discussion with older church leaders (usually my dad) who have lamented the lack of respect and abundance of arrogance that the newest generation of church leaders displays at times. I usually claim that it is just the stage of life that we are in; we think we have the only solution to all problems, and we haven’t yet learned the art of diplomacy (at this point, my mother usually chimes in to remind him of his own youthful incidents). But lately I’m getting tired of making excuses for my peers. Why should we throw away all of the wisdom of the more experienced leaders just because we are younger and more energetic? Imagine what we could do if we worked together!

  2. Interesting and thought provoking. As we older folks get older there is a natural unwillingness, even sadness, in the passing of our time and letting go of the reins as we regret unreached goals and unrealized dreams. That makes us a bit cranky. And though we also went through it, we forget the frustration of our younger years when it seemed our voices were not heard by the ancient ones. It seems the Church cannot resist mirroring society, and right now, division and harshness rule the day. But, it will be better. Good writing J.C.

    bob

  3. lead the way brother

  4. Robert Sparkman

    GREAT post, John Carl,

    Since Rachel mentioned me, I might as well comment…

    It is only to Rachel that I have commented negatively on some of the speeches and it has not been our North ALabama young people.

    The worst thing about the second young person’s comment at Jurisdictional Conference was the timing. She said, “… look around we are a diverse group, and we are not electing a group of bishops that show our true diversity as a church”, in such an emotional tone. Well, we had elected an African-American, a woman, (I voted for both of them and am so happy with Debbie Wallace-Padgett as our new bishop), a white male progressive, and a white male moderate- all of whom were very different people. Tim McClendon is my friend and had been maxed out and was falling, and it hurt a great deal to see this very good man not getting elected. The one who was running highest for that final spot, who was gaining on Tim, was Sharma Lewis. So her comment was seen (by some) as a campaign speech, which was against our rules. I looked up at Bishop Gwinn to see if he was going to call her on it, but he was not going to do it, he was going to treat her gently. it may have hurt Sharma, anyway, because Young Jin Cho was elected, (but not another white male).

    Does anyone think this is the best way to vote for bishops? we got some great bishops, but are these the criterias we need to be majoring on?

    The d—-est thing is that Tim is partly Native American. I had told him he needed to make that known, but he did not. I think he thought that was not enough of his identity. Also, Tim has been one of the most outspoken people on race relations, leading the charge to take the confederate flag off the state capital in SC, and receiving threats and hate mail for it. So it still stings a little bit? Maybe especially since I am one of those white males she was speaking against.

    Here is the point no one is talking about. Is this representation helping young people? Is the Division on Ministries with Young People doing anything besides organizing young people to represent their views on social issues at these conferences? Someone told me that the group doing things like representing the UMC at Youth Specialties conferences had lost out and was no longer getting funding. Why did the Division on Min with Young People oppose the Call to Action reforms? Was it because they would lose their autonomy and have someone holding them accountable?

    I would love fo someone to tell us how to do youth ministry better, but that is not happening from this typ of representation. So what is the purpose?

    All that sounds like the rant of a curmudgeon, and it isn’t- I am trying to get a handle on how we can turn this around, and your article was very very good. Blessings!
    Robert

    Robert

    • Thanks for the comment, Robert. I can’t really speak to any of the Division on Ministry with Young People politics, because I am simply just not informed enough to comment intelligently. A problem that I probably didn’t address enough in my post, though, is that too often, young people are simply treated like tokens in these discussions. “Oh well we need a (one) young person on here…” My plea was that young people be included as real conversation partners rather than just being included for diversity’s sake. However, we won’t accomplish that without respect for those who are older. I know if I had given 30 years of faithful service to the UMC and some punk kid started yelling at me about not being diverse enough, I sure wouldn’t give him or her any credence. We have to be respectful, but we need the respect we deserve as well. Thanks so much for a great comment.

      JC

  5. ttennheat

    I believe young people have been hearing there need to be more young people, but they’ve not thought about why or they believe we should take over. We come across as whiners. I was at SEJ and was frustrated with the young persons who spoke, but I understand there is a vast difference between an 18 year old and 35 year old. The lower side of age seem to think they don’t need the older or they know better. The higher end of the age realize we need all ages, experiences, etc.

    When people begin to see the value of what we offer we will be invited and gladly given a seat as partners. Until then, the whining pushes us further from the table. No one wants to sit with a whiner or someone who presents themselves as better than the rest.

    Perhaps it is time for us to stop telling them they need us and begin reaching out to our elders with humility and ask that they mentor, teach and pray for us. We’re not asking they step aside. We’re asking them to take our hand and then we can reach the hand of another.

    • I think you make a great point in regards to differentiating between those who are 18 and those who are 25-30. When we speak at large gatherings like GC and JC, we HAVE to be well spoken and articulate. We can’t just get up there and ramble on about nothing while being angry and/or emotional. The main point of my thoughts were that in order to be heard at all, we must have respect for those who are older than we are, as you state so well. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      -JC

  6. JC,
    This blog post clearly shows that you’ve sold out to the man and that you can’t see the oppression that young people experience in the church on a daily basis.

    Just kidding. Great thoughts.

    I loved the story about the black shirts. Reminds me of when young people at GC would go to the mic and speak on behalf of all the young people, somehow thinking that we all think alike.

  7. Richard Harrison

    This is an excellent set of observations. How can you best make your point to other young adults? I think it’s better to refer to young adults, not young people. A small point. I am 65 – I did civil rights in Alabama, worked for the NCC out of NY, lived the anti-Vietnam protests. Much of the rhetoric then was not just useless, it was counter-productive. There is an old book – Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, by Wayne Booth. I used it when I was at Luther Seminary. It analyzes quite well the rhetoric of aimless rage. I strongly recommend you find a copy, read it, and incorporate its ideas in your efforts. What you are after is not just important, it’s vital to the future of the church. Thanks. Richard Harrison

  8. One brief additional insight, as someone nearing the end of my stint as “young people.” In the North Central Jurisdiction, we shared frustrations about how our time could have been better used and reflected on other concerns. When it came time to discuss implementing our ideas in future JCs, nobody really knew where to start. Young people would find far more appropriate ways to speak up, I wager, if they found the agenda-setting and other decision-making processes to be more transparent or, indeed, inclusive.

    It’s great that some young people feel they are already sufficiently aware of the power levers and advance leadership opportunities. But even those already-connected folks must surely agree that having so many others remaining ignorant of where to plug in and how change can occur is not simply a problem belonging to those who desire, but lack, the appropriate knowledge.

  9. Great post & observations JC! Thx for writing a post that points out the mutuality of the church (that we ALL need each other) while also ‘pushing’ or ‘reminding’ those in power that they need to be inclusive of young people and not simply in a ‘tokenistic’ kind of way. Thanks again for your writing! (also, an awesome side note: my mom forwarded me your post and I was happy to reply back saying ‘I know that guy!’) grace & peace JC!

  10. Good work there brother. I need a good reminder and I may have to call you every time I want to throw things during ordination.

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