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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.


Bill said...

I understand the concern you have for this issue but I don’t see it as a condition specific to the church. This problem has long existed in other areas. Look how we don’t trust eighteen year olds to drink but feel perfectly correct in sending them off to war with eight weeks of basic training and a rifle. I personally knew young men who never lived long enough to order a beer at the bar. They were mature enough to die, but not to handle alcohol.

What we fail to see is that the children of today are much more mature than we were at the same age. They are exposed to so much more data. The world of knowledge and politics is at their fingertips. The competition is so much greater in graduate and post graduate work as opposed to twenty or thirty years ago. The bar really is much higher. We project a past vision of ourselves onto the youth of today. What we are saying is that we wouldn’t trust ourselves at that age so how can we trust them.

This new maturity is not something the establishment contrived to do. It was actually counter to what they intended. I seem to remember something from a sociology course which described a behavioral change in America after World War II. We started living vicariously through our children. We wanted to keep them as children. We prevented them from growing and maturing. Everything we did was designed to prolong childhood.
What we didn’t count on was the advent of new technologies and access to vast amounts of electronic information. We tried to keep them as children, but it backfired. They are probably more mature than we ever were, but we doubt that maturity. We still see them as children and find it hard to admit that they have surpassed us.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Elizabeth--this is a very timely post for me. I'm reading Nora Gallagher's book Practicing Resurrection about her discernment process, and watching as several friends go through the process to be ordained to the diaconate. I've seen very little that is holy or gracious in their "ordeals."

Earlier today, I left a comment on MoCat's blog about how I thought people at mid-life were much better suited to run a church. This post has made me think about that more deeply. I still don't know that I believe a 20-something is mature enough to run a parish, but you've raised some important points--especially about how those choosing others for the ordained ministry might not qualify for it themselves!

I'll be e-mailing the link to several folks I think need to read it...

Lauren Gough said...

Doxy, When my 20 year old brother wanted to go to Alaska during his summer vacation, my mother complained that he was too young. My father then asked "And what were you doing when you were 20?" Raising my brother.

Parents of 20 somethings don't think that 20 somethings can do anything. But we have spent much time and money making sure that they can do something. We need to allow them to show what they can do.

One of the saddest things that I see is that we put new seminary grads in small badly conflicted parishes that are designed to destroy clergy. Or we put them into large churches churches with clergy that do not understand that their job as senoir pastor is to train the new clergy.

In my diocese the Standing Committee passed 2 priests on without knowing that neither of these priests could uphold the Constitution and Canons and have led the uberright in the diocese at Stand Firm.

I am with Elizabeth. We need to have a better program for helping people discern their callings.

Bill also may be right that the children of the Baby Boomers are more mature than their parents. I have never discerned too much maturity in that group.

But maturity is not the issue here. We need to be able to support and nurture the immature so that they can be formed for the Church, not merely wait until they are all grown up. By the time they are all grown up, they have already lost the sine qua non that will make them really good in the future.

TeaBag said...

I have so many thoughts regarding the vocations process in the church. Thanks for a forum in which to express them.

1) First of all, I think the term "discernment" is a misleading one. In every place I have observed, this is a screening process. And I don't think that's necessarily wrong; I just don't think it's fair to people who enter the process thinking this is a time of mutual discernment when those with the decision-making power are sifting. I do think people need spiritual guides and mentors for discernment. I don't think COMs are those people.

2) From what I have seen, there is little clarity about the qualifications the Church seeks in its ordained. And that leads to comments like, "I just get this feeling about this person," with which it is very difficult to argue. There is a place for intuition, but it's a dangerous tool for general application, especially when other instruments are not applied.

3) I am amazed at the weight given to brief interviews or encounters with the committee. One friend of mine recently was told the COM had reservations about her because "she seemed nervous" during her final meeting with them. I would think more consideration would appropriately be given to her work history at the parish that hired her.

4) From what I have seen, after the initial hurdle of being made a postulant, much that happens afterwards is rubber-stamping. Why? What needs to happen in those steps from postulant to candidate to ordinand that will be helpful for all concerned?

5) A great deal of emphasis seems to be placed on the proper waiting times between steps. Why? In what ways can they be helpful rather than formalities? What are we to use that time for?

I do want to make it clear that I had the easiest discernment process imaginable. I have seen more people jerked around than I can remember and I really don't know why. The people involved in these COMs are all very decent, prayerful people, and Episcopalians by and large are intelligent and considerate. So why does our church structure treat its members who wish to dedicate their lives in service to the church in such a shabby way?

I wish I knew how to make it better.

muerk said...

As a morally conservative Catholic, we could disagree on pretty much everything... But you hit the nail on the head with this commentary about young vocations. Thirty is the new twenty and it's ridiculous.

Jeffri said...

The whole process is flawed across the board. For years most denominations turned away the young (e.g., just out of college) folks interested in discerning ordination. "You need more life expereience." Then when these same folks return 20 years or so later, they are told they are too old, that the churches need younger priests/ministers. Yet we see the COMs in many places acting as Elizabeth describes.

And then there are those complete disasters who seem to sail through without a problem...

Frair John said...

One of the issues I've had in the "process" around here is that there is a certain "one size fits all" attitude. And a certain world view that is very generationally based. I was made to feel inadiquate because i hadn't had kids.
The entire process was designed with Late Vocation Boomers, with money to burn, in mind. The arrogant way people under 35 were treated was occasionally breath taking.

I only hope that MY generation doesn't project onto and resent those who come after us as much as Boomers do us.

Hiram said...

I entered an Episcopal seminary at the age of 32. I was younger than most of my classmates, but older than a few (and older than one of my professors). I had actually begun seminary at the age of 26, but I was not seeking ordination at that time -- some of the delay was getting through "the process" of the COM.

One of my classmates wanted to begin seminary right after college. His bishop made him wait a year, to "get some experience in the real world." He did so, but did not know how valuable a year out would be -- not much, I expect.

There is value in coming to the priesthood at 40-something -- but there is also a lot of value in having clergy in their 50's with thirty years of pastoral experience, and a reasonable expectation that they can continue as priests another 10 to 15 years. I am not sure that the learning curve is any less steep for a 40-something than it is for a 25-year-old. And a 25-yer-old may have a lot less to unlearn.

Lisa said...

Thanks for this, Elizabeth.

It occurs to me that behaviors such as you describe in this COM indicate a lack of faith in God. If we believe God has indeed called the person to a priestly or diaconal vocation, then how can we not trust God will continue to form that person to fulfill his or her vocation?

Weiwen Ng said...

hiram: "There is value in coming to the priesthood at 40-something -- but there is also a lot of value in having clergy in their 50's with thirty years of pastoral experience, and a reasonable expectation that they can continue as priests another 10 to 15 years. I am not sure that the learning curve is any less steep for a 40-something than it is for a 25-year-old. And a 25-yer-old may have a lot less to unlearn."

there is value in coming to the priesthood at any age, so long as it's between the age of majority and your deathbed. the point is to have a diversity of ages. the young ones will bring zest and the seniors will bring long life experience. it will all work synergistically.

Rev E is right: COMs better get their heads out of their rears. the Episcopal Church is NOT going to die with the older folk. it is going to be renewed, year after year.

fyi, Wendell Gibbs, Diocese of Michigan, is very supportive of student ministries, and our Diocese is getting a number of younger clergy. I might go myself, except I feel that if I go for ordination, it will be around my late 40s or early 50s (am 26 right now). it takes all sorts to make the church run: young and old, straight and not, of color and not.

AmyS said...

In Virginia we are lucky to have +Peter Lee's enthusiasm for "young vocations." We were one of the first to pilot the Young Priests Initiative, and something like half of the last few classes of deacons have been under age 35 at ordination. If one is called, one is called; age shouldn't matter... That said, I agree with those who've already said that Boomers don't seem to think their kids can do much. In my parish, it has been tough for some GenXers to get seats on the Vestry, despite involvement in other areas. Being 30-something, and/or single, and/or childless doesn't mean we can't be relied on to show up for meetings or engage in prayerful listening.

Jon said...

I'm with you amys... All of this talk reminds me of one of the lighter moments at our last diocesan convention. I was sitting on the sidelines with a friend of mine who is also "in the process" and we were joined by a young priest (wasn't ordained here). We were watching in amazement as people seemed to be arguing about things that they agreed about when the priest looked up at my friend and me and said, "Baby Boomers just ruin everything, don't they?"

Of course he was exaggerating - there are cool boomers out there: just look at our Elizabeth - but it's easy to see how the church might be viewed by GenXers as little more than a receptacle for the boomers' hot air.

emmy said...

I find this topic extremely frustrating. The part that really rubs me the wrong way is the idea that a person who has been young knows what it is like for all people to be young. If someone was young 30 years ago, that person does not necessarily know what it is like to be young now. Each person’s experience of being young is different. The assumption that an older person can know a younger person and that younger person’s experience better than that person knows herself really irks me. Actually, the assumption that any of us can know each other better than we know ourselves irks me. It is its own kind of arrogance. Certainly others can see things that we cannot and point those things out to us in ways that help us to grow. But in the end, no one else can tell you who you are. Any attempt to do so diminishes the personhood of the other.