Thursday, May 10, 2007
"Youth may be wasted on the young . . . .
. . .but are 'young vocations' wasted in the church?"
While there are those whose breath is hot with the word “schism” in the church, there is yet another phrase that is all the rage: “Young vocations.”
We say we want them. We say we need them. But, do we?
My experience is that Commissions on Ministry – and many bishops – are ambivalent if not deeply conflicted about the issue.
For the past three years, I have had the pleasure of having three young people under the age of thirty discerning a vocation to the priesthood here at St. Paul’s. I love their energy, their enthusiasm, their theology and Christology, and their understanding of the role and mission and ministry of the church in this still-brand-new millennium.
They have knowledge and skills and talents I know I did not have at their age. And, they can preach! They have something – often, some very important things – to say about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they articulate them with creativity and innovation, occasionally with a post-modern poetic eloquence all its own.
And, they are young. Meaning, not quite fully matured. Meaning, that their confidence can often feel like arrogance – and, occasionally is. The ‘underside’ of their gifts and graces is often exposed in ways that can raise an eyebrow – as well as some concern.
Their creativity can feel irreverent. Their boldness can feel like unnecessary risk-taking. Their enthusiastic, headlong embrace of the task at hand without careful attention to detail can feel like disobedience to systems of accountability. Their penchant for a more casual dress can feel disrespectful. Their youthful energy and enthusiasm can feel challenging to the “more mature” adult clergy person.
I could go on, but anyone who has worked with folks in this age group gets the picture.
Oh, perhaps I didn't mention this: They can be very, very threatening – especially to those whose career path has veered off in a direction which has led to disappointment or whose present situation is not as satisfying as it once might have been. This can lead to an undiagnosed but nonetheless virulent case of the ‘Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas’.
Suddenly, and without any warning, a dreadful monster appears where there once was a mild-mannered priest. The monster sits with flashing green eyes, arms crossed and locked firmly across the chest, saying “Harumph!” quite a bit, when not saying things like, “There’s something about him/her that makes me feel, oh, I don't know, ‘uneasy.’”
As a member of the Standing Committee, I am invited to attend Commission on Ministry meetings. I attended one a year or so ago and sat in on a small group interview of a young man who had been one of my seminarians. He was twenty-six years old at the time, bright, articulate, creative, funny, and wise beyond his years. He also happens to be one of the best preachers I've ever heard. It’s not hard to imagine a miter on his head one day.
Raised in a non-denominational, evangelical church in the Midwest, he became a Methodist while in college, proving correct the predictions made about him by his local pastor who said, “Son, if you go off to college and get an education, you'll lose your religion.”
He had entered theological school directly after college graduation but fell in love with the Episcopal Church and was received during his first year of seminary. He also met and fell in love with the woman who would soon become his wife, who had been raised and remained a Methodist and was also pursuing the ordination tract.
The day he came before the COM, he had completed three years of seminary, having graduated with awards for liturgics and preaching. He had also completed a year of Anglican studies at an Episcopal Seminary as well as two years of therapy which the COM had required of him, and was excitedly preparing for his soon-to-be wife’s graduation from seminary and ordination in the Methodist church.
They were planning to return to the Midwest where they would be married and live in the Parsonage provided by his wife’s church while he worked with his new bishop to find a community to serve.
He had no sooner left our small group interview when the leader of the group, a thoughtful, middle-aged ordained woman, sighed deeply and said, “Oh, I just wish that his first big disappointment, his first big ‘No’, was going to come from any institution other than the church. He’s so wonderful, but he’s so young. I really want him to marinate a bit longer in Anglican juices.”
When I found the strength to pick my jaw up off my chest, I tried to reign in my astonishment and said, “But, you can't have it both ways. You can't, on the one hand, ask for and actively promote ‘young vocations’ and on the other hand, expect him to come with ten years of mature experience from another institution.”
“Oh, I know,” she said, as other members of the COM nodded their heads in agreement with her, “but he’s going to be moving soon, settling into a new home, getting married, his wife is going to be ordained and starting a new job, and he'll be looking for and starting a new job in the church. It’s all too much all at once. Another year of waiting won't hurt him and it will certainly be a great benefit to him.”
To my utter distress, I looked around the room and saw heads nodding in agreement with her. “But, what kind of job do you think he'll get without ordination? Have you any idea how much debt from student loans both these young people might be carrying? How is he to be expected to begin paying them off? He'll have to look for work outside the church in order to earn a living and what good would that do his vocation?”
“Well,” she huffed, now obviously annoyed with my position, “perhaps in that year he'll get that first big institutional disappointment and it won't be with the church.” Before I could say anything more, she quickly changed the subject.
His ordination was, indeed, delayed. Six months. Which, no doubt, made a HUGE difference in his maturity and ability to be more thoroughly Anglican. (Not!)Thankfully, the bishop in his new diocese saw right through the problem and found him part time work in a local church working with a seasoned priest who desperately needed his help.
I wish I could tell you that he is the only one to be treated this way. He is decidedly not. Indeed, the young theological students with whom I have spoken say things like, “You know, I am really thinking of transferring to another diocese/other denomination that really means what it says about young vocations.”
Oh, there are those who are young who sail right through the ordination process. They are the “good candidates” – the ones who don’t raise any red flags, who do every exactly as they are told, who are perfect in every way. Frankly, those kids give me the willies. I think they are precisely the ones who are at risk for future clergy boundary violations.
Of course, African American and Hispanic men and women in the ordination process have been complaining about their own process for years. Oh, we say we welcome ‘diversity’ but when people of various ethnicities walk in our door, they do not see that diversity reflected in the ordained leadership.
Women – especially ‘women of a certain age’ – have also heard the great institutional lies about what the church thinks it needs. Over and over again, organizational studies indicate that if you want diversity in your ‘audience’ (congregation), you must have diversity in your leadership.
I must confess, however, that as distressing as both these situations are, I am absolutely flummoxed about what I'm seeing in my own diocese as well as hearing how diocesan COM’s and some bishops are handling ‘young vocations.’
I'm wondering if the problem doesn't lie in the very nature of COM. In good Episcopal fashion, our canon law regarding the ordination process has an organic interdependence and mutual accountability that some refer to as “checks and balances.” The bishop “presents” the person for ordination, the COM “recommends” and the Standing Committee “certifies” and “consents.”
I'm wondering if therein lies the rub. Members of the COM are appointed by the bishop, not elected by convention. Clearly, they are an advisory body to the bishop, not a representative constituency of the diocese. There are usually no criteria for appointment to the COM and rarely any training for the enormity and sacredness of their task.
COM members are never, to my knowledge, examined in the same way that aspirants, postulants and candidates are to determine their theology, Christology or ecclesiology. They are not required to submit to a background check for past brushes with the law much less personal indiscretions, misconduct or boundary violations. Laity are never questioned as to their understanding of the role and function of clergy or asked to share stories of their relationships with their previous or present rectors.
Finally, as corporate members as well as individuals, they have no institutional power other than the power of their own personal influence and persuasion or that which the bishop delegates to them.
I don't know how you read that, but that seems to me like a set up for disaster. I suppose, then, that we shouldn't be surprised that there are as many COM disasters as have become customary in so many dioceses.
The pendulum in The Episcopal Church is notorious for swinging back and forth with amazing speed. Some of this is good as a self-corrective impulse, but without a careful analysis of the role and function of the COM, I am concerned that we are raising up a new generation of leaders who are entering their roles with a bad taste in their mouths for the workings of the institutional church. Despite what they learn in seminary, what, by our behavior, are we teaching and modeling for them concerning Christian leadership?
Our last General Convention approved major revisions to Title III Canons about the ordination process. I believe it is now time to turn our attention to a more careful analysis of the role and function of the COM in priestly formation. Indeed, I think this piece of analysis is critically important.
Based on my experience over the past twenty years of ordained ministry, and my observation of the way ethnic minorities, women, and young vocations are treated and managed in the ordination process, I am strongly persuaded to believe that nothing less than the future of our church is at stake.