Change in Church: ‘Jason, If You Were Older…’

Jason Micheli —  May 16, 2013 — 12 Comments

Bishop-Will-WillimonSome one, bless his/her heart, grumbled to me Sunday whilst leaving worship that if I were a part of the older generation I’d change my tune about what is broken and what needs to change in the church.

You only think things should change because you’re young.

Young people always want to change things.

He/she said.

Cue wag of the finger: But if you were older…

I honestly considered the possibility. Really, I did. Sans snark.

And then decided, no, I’d still be pushing the same view. Because it’s not a ‘young person’s view.’ It’s naming reality. Reality with a ticking expiration date on it.

And to prove this, I offer this snippet from Bishop Will Willimon, who will be preaching and lecturing at Aldersgate next Lent.

Willimon, as you can see by his pic, is old, put out to pasture by the mandatory retirement age. His membership in the AARP, however, does not determine what he says about his membership in the Body of Christ.

He also says exactly the same things I say:

Being bishop gave me a front row seat to observe ministry in the Protestant mainline that is being rapidly sidelined.

Pastoral leadership of a mainline congregation is no picnic.  My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them.  Now, as a seminary professor, I’m eager to do my bit in the classroom to prepare new clergy for the most demanding of vocations.

From what I saw, too many contemporary clergy limit themselves to ministries of congregational care-giving – soothing the fears of the anxiously affluent.

One of my pastors led a self-study of her congregation.  Eighty percent responded that their chief expectation of their pastor was, “Care for me and my family.”

I left seminary in the heady Sixties, eager to be on the front line in the struggle for a renaissance of the church as countercultural work of God.  By a happy confluence of events, the church was again being given the opportunity to be salt and light to the world rather than sweet syrup to enable the world’s solutions to go down easier.

Four decades later as bishop I saw too many of my fellow clergy allow congregational-caregiving and maintenance to trump other more important acts of ministry like truth-telling and mission leadership.  Lacking the theological resources to resist the relentless cloying of self-centered congregations, these tired pastors breathlessly dashed about offering their parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth.

North American parishes are in a bad neighborhood for care-giving.  Most of our people (at least those we are willing to include in mainline churches) solve biblically legitimate need (food, clothing, housing) with their check books.

Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus.  In this narcissistic environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.

A consumptive society perverts the church’s ministry into another commodity which the clergy dole out to self-centered consumers who enlist us in their attempt to cure their emptiness.

Exclusively therapeutic ministry is the result.

I saw fatigue and depression among many clergy whom I served as bishop.

Debilitation is predictable for a cleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos. 

The 12 million dollar Duke Clergy Health study implies that our biggest challenge is to drop a few pounds and take a day off.  If you can’t be faithful, be healthy and happy.

I believe that our toughest task is to love the Truth who is Jesus Christ more than we love our people who are so skillful in conning us into their idolatries.

Yet I must say that by comparison, the poor old demoralized mainline church, for all its faults, is a good deal more self-critical and boldly innovative than the seminary.  Our most effective clergy are finding creative ways to critique the practice of ministry, to start new communities of faith, to reach out to underserved and unwelcomed constituencies, and to engage the laity in something more important than themselves.  Alas, seminaries have changed less in the past one hundred years than the worship, preaching, and life of vibrant congregations have changed in the last two decades.

As bishop I served as chair of our denomination’s Theological Schools Commission. Most of our seminaries are clueless, or at least unresponsive, to the huge transformation that is sweeping through mainline Protestantism.  We have so many seminaries for one reason: the church has given seminaries a monopoly on training our clergy with no accountability for the clergy they produce.  Increasing numbers of our most vital congregations say that seminary fails to give them the leadership they now require.  Oblivious to our current crisis, seminaries continue to produce pastors for congregational care-giving and institutional preservation.

The result is another generation of pastors who know only how to be chaplains for the status quo and managers of decline rather than leaders of a movement in transformational faith.

As a fellow bishop said, “Seminaries are still cranking out pastors to serve healthy congregations, giving us new pastors who are ill equipped to serve two-thirds of my churches.”

In just a decade, United Methodists, various Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians will have half of our strength and resources – judgment upon our unfaithful limitation of ministry to a demographic (mine) that is rapidly exiting.

After decades of study, finger-pointing and blaming, we now know that a major factor in our rapid decline is our unwillingness to go where the people are and to plant new churches.  Yet few traditionalist mainline seminaries teach future pastors how to start new communities of faith.

My new pastors repeatedly told me: “We got out of seminary with lots of good ideas but without the ability to lead people from here to there.”  “I’ve learned enough to know that something is bad wrong with the current church but I don’t know where to begin to fix it.”

You can read the full article here.

Jason Micheli


12 responses to Change in Church: ‘Jason, If You Were Older…’

  1. Great commentary. This situation is ready made to attract new volunteers of all ages who want to make a difference in their lives and in the lives of others.

  2. Here’s what I don’t understand about this – I don’t have any idea how it works at church, so forgive the lack of appreciation for the complexities, but in every other setting, including volunteer groups, you are drafted into service and have huge projects dumped on you, with the direction simply to get it done. If pastors are overwhelmed with needy parishioners, why don’t they get more help? Aren’t there resources for things like that – Stephen Ministers, etc.?

    • Jason Micheli May 16, 2013 at 8:58 PM

      T, I think it’s less about you not getting it and WW or me maybe not being clear enough for the non-pastors et al out there. It’s less about not having enough people to do the work of the Body and more about people thinking the work of the Body is entirely the pastor’s job. It’s also that in most churches a large number of congregants have expectations shaped by an era that no longer exists. In Christendom, where everyone is X’n and knows the Gospel, you can assume the mission and instead have the pastor ‘visit’ when there’s no critical or urgent concern. The pastor is reduced to chaplain. The pastor is expected to come to meetings and baptize the agenda with prayer but not actually lead. The status quo is quo because that’s what the members want…never mind the scores who know not Christ. I don’t mean to be preachy but WW is after a recalibration of priority, focus and expectations and less about recruiting folks to pitch in. The chaplain imagery is helpful I think because in the military, hospitals or prisons you’re guaranteed your constituency. But in church, increasingly so today, you’ve got to go get the people…

      • No, it’s about me not getting it. And I don’t mean to be argumentative, but it sounds like a vicious cycle. If you continue to do everything, and not delegate, then people will continue to think that the work of the Body is entirely the pastor’s job. As far as going out and getting people – they are there, they are volunteering, they are getting their hands dirty, and they are looking for a place to belong. They’re not much interested in judgmental attitudes (see previous blog post) or fashion shows. And, once you get them, you have to keep them.

  3. In this post, the tantalizing notion of “change” hooked me. The change that I found to be the focus of this article (the notion of clergy as mostly congregational care-givers) was not what I expected. And, frankly, its not what I see my pastors doing. They do render care to those in the congregation with needs. So, even that is not a change.

    And, maybe the change envisioned is one that might see older Christians as a group not involved in service. But, again, that isn’t the case at Aldersgate. It was definitely that group of older Christians that taught me the meaning of service, and how to serve. Our pastors know well that this group has been the core of Aldersgate service for many years, and they continue to do so. So, change in the form of focusing on younger servers – though a large influx from younger folks would be very much welcomed by those who face the need to mobilize the congregation for missions and service — isn’t the story.

    So, looking further, for the change here leads me to think that what is focused upon, is the notion of “soothing the fears of the anxiously affluent.” Many things can fit into this category — and many were discussed above by Bishop Willimon. But, here again, our Pastors’ lessons on such things are certainly not new. The thread that runs true in their messages from the beginning have been about our purpose in God’s plan. They often reflect on our need to do the work of the Kingdom while also spreading His Word, and they help us to find ways to do that work. so, again, there is little here in the way of change. Though the message of rebelling against the status quo of our privilege is one that needs frequent repetition so that we can guard against that privilege becoming a barrier between us and God.

    Maybe the change that we reflect upon here is the need for us to not merely believe in the importance of serving, but for us to actually do that work. Now that’s a change that I can get behind. I’m hoping that many others will agree and will get involved as well. The many people from the Aldersgate church community that I have been privileged to work with over the years can easily attest to how their lives have been changed by serving others. Now that’s definitely a good change.

  4. I’ve wondered for years when and why Willimon started sounding so snide. I don’t honestly accept his portrait of pastoral ministry. I agree with my seminary profs, who said that well-grounded pastors tended to lose their prophetic edge — when they become aware of the humanity of their parishoners. Its hard to yell at people when you actually know who they are.

    Let me introduce you to my suburban community. The four families who had a child threaten or attempt suicide before the 5th grade. The others who are taking care of elderly parents while looking for work and battling cancer. The ones who were so deeply wounded as children I wonder how they get out of bed everyday. If you wanna call it “handholding” — what we do when we care for these people– go ahead. But it hardly feels indulgent. Because the next day there they stand, ready to teach Sunday School. Maybe I’m lucky — the people I know aren’t a particularly racist or homophobic pack. And they don’t own vacation homes in any greater number than, say, some seminary professors do.

    I don’t know these people Willimon talks about — the people who take care of all their needs with a checkbook. I think that is a caricature. I don’t know parishioners — who are really any different from pastors. Warts, yes. Coupled with breathtaking earnestness about serving God and others. In fact, sometimes when I stand back and think — “here they are, and they aren’t being PAID to be here,” I’m amazed. Here’s what I think. I think when you can’t find it easy, most days anyway, to love the people you are called to serve, when you can’t find yourself at least sympathetic to their plight, if not completely in agreement with everything they think and do, then you should find another job. The last thing I want to become is an old and embittered pastor.

  5. I’m in the Northeast. I don’t want to say people are perfect here, but perhaps we are further out from the sort of cultural Christianity that might still be more a factor in the south. People don’t remember the last generation in their family who regularly attended church –and while young clergy could go hang out in bars, they’d be sitting next to everybody else who wants a piece of the souls of young people.

    And honestly, I fail to see how “planting new churches” is the answer to our problems. Same people, same clergy.

    Do I see problems, yes. I think people are poorly educated as Christians, and not helped much by our churches. That I see as the failure of both clergy and people themselves, although there are pressures that partly explain this. I see clergy not doing their part to explain, winsomely, how faith is much more than a boost to get you to being a nice person, albeit one who volunteers with Habitat and with the youth group, “because we need you!” Let’s face it, clergy are as dedicated to institutional Christianity as our people, if not more so. And people yes, not always choosing a life of discipleship, which is equal parts their own misplaced priorities, the inability of clergy to represent that (when was the last time you hear a clergyperson talk about their own prayer life, for example), and largely about not having the time. Because they are watching Downton Abbey? — sure, but also working 60+ hours a week, and/or trying to address all the other things I noted above. Willimon says this with a sneer — but why is this something we resent people for? Their volunteer hours are also not merely at church, but coaching kids’ teams, tutoring, etc. This they see as a way to serve their communities, and I don’t disagree.

    Jason, near as I can tell, you are doing a fantastic job. I’d like to think the odd unsigned complaint is not the rule. I can also tell you the “you’re too young” thing will pass quickly. Way too quickly. And its also worth following up with that fellow. What did that mean? Its annoying, but what is he attached to? What does he miss, and why? Remember how in Matthew 2, “all of Jerusalem” were frightened, right alone with Herod, likely because they too were afraid of change. So afraid they didn’t even want to see an oppressive despot go. And maybe our oldsters do pick up on the vague cultural resentment of them — and offer pushback at church. I don’t know, but I think maybe we could spend at least as much time exegeting that as snidely dismissiong them as Willimon does.

    I’ve got a problem with Willimon, no doubt. I used to love his sermons and his writing — (I don’t know the guy) but he took a turn. The guy who used to write movingly about gauche weddings is suddenly clobbering people left and right for not being committed, or not working hard enough, or whatever. Tell me how that ever works.

    I’d like to be one of those pastors, one of those people, — there are people like this in my life — who make me want to be better, who inspire me to rearrange my priorities — and they don’t do that by yelling at me and insulting me for my “cloying self-centeredness.” Because that’s really only part of the story for every single one of us.

  6. Yikes, sorry that was so long!

  7. Oh what the heck. One more thing. I found myself agreeing with the 80 percent of that woman’s church who said the responsibility of the clergy is “to care for me and my family.” Because, you know, if clergy would “tend the roots,” that might make it possible for people to serve their communities with more courage and commitment. What if we told people that is what we were going to do, and that is why we were going to do it. Sounds right to me.

  8. Tanya, as a very old member of Jason’s church, I must tell you that you’re right, he is doing a great job. He makes us think, and of course that is very inconvenient. I appreciate your remarks as well.

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