I am 56 years old. My retirement date is closer than my ordination date. I could no more serve as a youth group leader than I could wear a leather mini-skirt in public. Even if I could pull off the mini skirt, it would look ridiculous and be wholly inappropriate, just as it would be for me to start a church in a trendy bar.
And yet, I still remember being the 30-something pregnant pastor. I remember always being the youngest pastor – and often the only woman – in interfaith leader gatherings. I remember what it was like to work part-time in a church while raising three kids under the age of four. I have tried to stay fresh, read current books, keep informed through conferences and conversations, learn from seminarians.
But I see a trend that older pastors (meaning every pastor older than 50 and especially those over 70) and younger pastors (the 20-40 somethings) are clearly engaged in a huge mutual disconnect. I see this especially here:
- In yesterday’s news my denomination’s Board of Pensions proposed
a new health care dues structure that makes health care much more expensive for pastors with children starting in 2014 while continuing to give incentives for postponing retirement.
- In Boundary Training events when older pastors and younger pastors clearly hold different understandings of who is vulnerable in clergy-parishioner relationships and why. Say “boundary issues” in a room full of pastors and individuals have a much different idea of what this means, depending on generation. (Example: For the older generations of pastors, it was perfectly normal to marry a parishioner. For younger generations, this would be considered misconduct.)
- In preaching that finds many older pastors still proclaiming the Word with three points and a poem while younger pastors experiment with new forms of proclaiming the Good News, often involving dialogue, art, and group spiritual direction.
- In what it means to be a pastor in general. Older pastors are more likely to spend their time at their desks preparing sermons and classes, doing pastoral care, and moderating meetings while younger pastors are more likely to focus on missional outreach and equipping others to do ministry.
There are older pastors – mostly men – who have given their lives and energies to serve the institutional church during the glory days of the mainline denominations. They were respected in the community and they have been doing ministry for a long time.
There are younger pastors who are serving – or trying to serve – a church that, for many in our postmodern culture, is obsolete, flailing, and shifting. Many young pastors have school loans, and there are few possibilities in terms of available calls, especially calls that are open to creative ministry for a new season of Church.
I remember in serving my last church that it was very much like serving two different congregations. There was the church that expected ministry from me like the ministry they had experienced for the majority of their lives. And there was the church for people who had been hurt by the church, had never been part of the church, and who would never walk through the door of a traditional church. Today serving in a Middle Judicatory (in my case a Presbytery), I serve two sets of pastors and two sets of churches. There are the churches who want a pastor who preaches, teaches, baptizes, buries, and visits the sick. And there are pastors who know how to do this, both with and without enthusiasm.
And then there are the (rare) churches who want a pastor to lead them into the 21st Century, to equip them to be ministers, to teach them not so that they are smarter but so their faith is deeper, who train others to do pastoral care, and who spend more time out in the community than in their church buildings. There are especially younger pastors who long to do this usually with great passion.
So here we are.
I believe that both kinds of pastors are faithful and good. But our church has got to focus on the future. What do we imagine for our churches over the next ten to twenty years? And how might the older generations make way for the younger generations to lead?
Mosaic includes images of some of the generational rock stars of the Christian Church. (And there are countless others.)