“Well, we’ll have retired by that time anyway,” they laughed. I remember the first time older clergymen joked with me about the predicted inevitable decline of our denomination, and the reality that it would not be their problem. It would be ours – my generation’s problem – and in that moment, in their joke, it would be mine. We were being handed a tattered kite, that had been held by many other hands, and told to make it fly. We gave it everything we had.
They were using humor to cope with the reality that we have been facing since we began our paths as pastors. Yet, there is a truth behind every joke, and that truth is that they did know they would retire before the hardest days came, and they were relieved. I do not think they could have known the weight they were placing on our shoulders. They could not understand, because they did not have our experience of starting out in serving the church during a time when it was no longer the center of culture, amidst a generation that was often more likely to flee away from the church than towards it.
A few months before I graduated from seminary and joined the ranks of my generation of clergy, “The Crisis of Younger Clergy,” by Dr. Lovett Weems and Dr. Ann Michel, was published. The book raised the alarm about the dramatic decrease of young clergy numbers, and increase of congregants’ ages. In a later interview, Weems called for a realignment of priorities, saying, “I am afraid that if we do not, when the death tsunami, as I call it, washes over the United Methodist Church between 2018 and 2050, it could very well wipe out the United Methodist witness in vast portions of some states.”
This is the pressure cooker into which the earliest members of my generation entered ministry. This is the pressure cooker that the generation above us – we love you Gen Xers – as well as young laity in leadership, were already navigating.
We have carried this heavy burden for the past decade. We have committed time to cohort programs like the Lewis Fellows. We have worked at Lilly Funded programs like Duke Youth Academy and Youth Theological Initiative, to try to invest in younger members of our generation. We have done extra trainings, and given our own time and money to earning DMins. We have worked hand in hand with young laity to plant churches and to make new places for new people. We have built communities and networks to support innovation, like UMC Lead. We have watched as the General Conference poured millions of dollars into helping more of us answer our calls.
This pressure, and the attention that came with it, sometimes made our beloved Gen Xers feel passed over, and our cherished Baby Boomers forgotten.
The pressure weighed on us. It cost some of us our health. It cost some of us our marriages. It cost all of us dearly. The weight of extra labor fell even heavier on young women and people of color, and heaviest on young leaders who were both.
Each year, on the day the young clergy statistics came out, I would scan them, always finding my Conference near the bottom, rotating places with a couple other Conferences for lowest percentage of clergy under 35. I clung to “The Crisis of Younger Clergy” because it was one of the few things that provided direction and understanding. I began charting trends, and mapping out the locations of young clergy in the Conference so that I could show people where there were colleagues they could reach out to for support. I wanted people to have hope and feel less alone and continue to be able to stand together.
When I was commissioned, I sat down with my new District Superintendent, the same man who had baptized me, and I told him, “These are my priorities: First, God. Second, my generation’s relationship with God. Third, the United Methodist Church. Fourth, this Conference. Fifth, this District. If any of the latter three conflict with my ability to be faithful to the first two, I will choose the first two.” I kept my word.
What does this commitment look like now? I cannot easily ignore the effect that our violence towards LGBTQIA folxs like myself is taking on my generation on the margins of this church. Neither can I easily ignore the struggle of those deeply entwined within this church, with whom I have struggled in the trenches under all this pressure as “young leaders,” spread out over the four Jurisdictions and seven Conferences where I have worked and lived.
At this moment, as the intersectional energy of UMForward goes back out across the nation, and so many are turning their attention towards Kansas City and what will happen at UMNext, I cannot help but think about the fact that it is possible that the majority of the room will more closely resemble those approaching retirement than those entering ministry.
I have to ask myself, what is true?
We have been told our whole careers that this problem was ours to solve.
We have been told that we have to stop the death of this denomination.
Yet, now as it lies here on life support, and the family is deciding whether to pull the plug, only a minority of us will be allowed in the room.
What do we make of that? Why were we so necessary before, when death seemed nigh, but less necessary when it is on the doorstep knocking. Might our presence in some way hinder the adequately financed exit that some of our colleagues have so long teased us they would be making before the end came. Might circumstances be different now that those pensions and retirement are not looking quite so secure.
Those young & youngish people who enter the UMNext space do so with the weight of a generation held on the shoulders of only a few. We all know the labored, cautious walk of those made to feel like tokens, whether for their age, race or ethnicity, gender or orientation. Simultaneously they bear the burden of representing the many who are not in the room, while also knowing how easily they can be replaced – exactly because of how many are in waiting outside the room.
Perhaps, in this moment, we can be kind to one another, my beloved generation. Perhaps we can remind those that enter as the few that we have your back. We are praying for you. So be bold. Speak up as if you have nothing to lose, because the time for caution has long since passed. The ladders some once wished to climb lead to nothing but questions and chaos. Go to the spaces you are called, but stand with us. Stand with us, here on this solid ground, your feet firmly planted, rooted, grounded. As you make choices and speak words, do nothing out of fear, beloveds. Do everything out of courage, for perfect love casts out all fear… and love is the work that has been given to us.
All our lives, all our careers, we have been told that someday, we would be the only ones left standing. Do not let the anxiety of this moment make you forget that now. We will someday soon be the only ones left standing – so make your decisions in such a manner that you will not be standing alone. Stand with us now, so that we can still be here to stand with you in the near coming future – wherever that ground may be. Nothing is worth more than us – than the community – than the people.
You know that our generation will not stay with us if we build a church with no understanding of intersectionality, still laden with white supremacy and patriarchy, continuing to allow violence against LGBTQIA folxs like myself for the sake of “unity.”
I have spent the past several years placing my life and body between weapons of destruction – both literal and figurative – and those they seek to harm. I ask you now, will you be just as uncompromising in your solidarity? Will you refuse to allow structures to continue to be constructed that permit harm and spiritual violence against myself and other members of the LGBTQIA community? Will you continue to work to dismantle the systems of white supremacy and patriarchy that do violence to people of color, Black and Indigenous leaders, and women?
Stand with us now, dear friends, so that in the time to come we can still be here to stand with you.