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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Letter to "your" Generation

Recently I've been trying to confront the topic of millennials and the church in my blog. Since I am a "millennial" it's much easier to speak from that perspective. That's why it came naturally for me to write a letter to "my" generation.

This one is tougher. But I'm going to confront it with a sense of earnestness and humility. Please receive it in the same fashion.

A Letter to "your" Generation

Last week a friend of mine who is a Lutheran pastor in northern Minnesota (no, not Garrison Keillor) attended her synod assembly. During synod assemblies, pastors, church members, staff people, musicians, professors, students - all those associated with the ELCA synod in that area gather together. The ideal would be that these assemblies are motivating and inspiring, a gathering of disciples that evokes comparisons to the Council of Nicaea, or the Council of Constantinople, where the Christian Church as we know it today was founded.

Unfortunately the reality is often quite different. Pastors joke amongst each other about avoiding assembly, faking sick, about how dull it can be, etc. I can't really say much because I'm a first-call pastor and I've only attended one synod assembly, while I was on internship in Las Vegas and our congregation hosted. That synod assembly was pretty disappointing, though. Our music director - a former Broadway actor and singer - attempted to plan the event with some innovative music and technological elements, and he kept running up against the synod liturgists, who seemed to turn him down and frustrate him at every turn.

I attended a couple of sessions, but it seemed a lot about politics and less about Jesus.

Maybe some of that is necessary "sausage-making," but you'd think we'd at least try to shake things up a bit.

Anyway, my friend shared this story from her synod assembly:

"I was infinitely saddened by something that happened today at our Synod Assembly. We were debating a resolution and there was one young woman, who is on the Lutheran Youth Organization (LYO), who was waiting in line to speak against the resolution. An elderly man came forward and made a motion that the question be called. He was asked if he wished to hold the motion until after the young woman had spoken, but he said no. Someone else seconded the motion for the time of debate to end and the vote to end the debate passed. And then the resolution passed without the young woman being allowed to speak. I am certain that some who voted to end the time of debate didn't realize what their vote meant to this young woman. Others just wanted us to finish up so that they could go home. But we encourage our youth to come and to speak up and cast their vote, but she was not allowed to speak. I spoke to her and she received my pastoral words as comfort, but I am still saddened that her voice was stifled."

This is what I want to say to "your" generation: things like this happen way too often. 

Especially in the church.

Stop silencing us.

Even as I in my letter to millennials last week encouraged those in my generation to return to church and participate and get involved, I worried that their efforts to join in might be thwarted.

Sometimes it seems your left and right hands are working against each other. With your right hand you're beckoning us millennials forward: "Come on in, join our church, get involved, we want YOU!"

With your left hand you're holding us off, pushing back: "You want to do what? That's not how we do things here. Maybe you should ask ___ about that, he's really in charge. I'm not sure that's right for our church."

Here's what we hear: "I'm not sure you are right for our church."

And we're effectively silenced. We back off. Drop out. Go back to critiquing from the sidelines and volunteering for causes that don't involve the church.

Here's what your attitude seems to be: "Yes, I know this isn't the best way to do it, but we had to do it that way, and now SO DO YOU."

You seem to value muddling through for muddling through's sake. 

You sometimes seem to delight in seminary debt or difficult first calls. 

You embrace schadenfreude, which serves only to discourage and mire the church in issues that should have been resolved long ago.

I know what you were thinking when you ended that debate, Mr. Moderator in Northern Minnesota. You were thinking you were tired; you were done. You wanted to go home and get exactly what you'd gotten out of this day in the past, which was mostly nothing. 

You wanted things to stay the same because you knew what to expect. You almost didn't notice the young woman from the Lutheran Youth Organization, even though the night before you'd lamented to your colleagues that: "Young people just don't get involved. They aren't committed like we were."

You didn't realize that you'd taken her enthusiasm, the same enthusiasm you once had for the church, and you squashed it.

Next year they'll ask if she wants to go to the synod assembly, and she'll say no thank you. They don't care what I think. Why waste my time?

And you'll gather with the other pastors at your lunch table with jello and casserole and lament the fact that young people just don't participate in the church. What's wrong with them?

Maybe you had to wait your turn for your voice to be heard. To put in your time. Play a few seasons in the minors and toil in no-name towns before you got your big break.

There's certainly a value to gaining experience and waiting. But I don't know that the Lutheran church has that luxury right now. Time is of the essence. If you have enthusiastic and excited young people who want to be Lutheran and want to lead in your synod or your church, you have to embrace them and give them a chance to speak. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Let them fail. Push them before you think they're ready, and the Spirit will give them wings.

Be slow to judge and quick to understand. Give that young associate pastor a chance to preach more often. Put that intern in charge for a weekend. Let the youth speak at synod assembly, even if you're dying to leave. 

Maybe something else in the program could be cut out. I'm sure some pastors would have some ideas of what to cut.

If what you're doing isn't producing the results you want, maybe you could change what you're doing.

I'd count myself as an example of someone who has been both embraced and effectively silenced by the establishment -- "your" generation.

I was given incredible mentors throughout seminary and served an internship under a pastor who gave me boundless freedom to fail, succeed, and lead. He taught me how to trust myself and how to trust God. He let the rules serve the Gospel, not the Gospel serve the rules.

Then I went through the humbling experience of assignment, effectively being told that I was being sent to rural Minnesota or the Dakotas -- whether my husband could find a job or not (his career requires him to be in an urban area).

I had to dig in, pray, and generous members of "your" generation spoke up for me and gave me a chance in Metro Chicago.

St. Philip, a congregation who has never been afraid to try something new, took a chance on me and gave me the chance to lead for real. We still face generational challenges at times, but I've been honored with the trust your generation has given mine in this congregation.

And yet still sometimes I'm "put in my place" by your generation. The most frequent comment I get when meeting older male pastors in the synod is "Well, she's much prettier than me."

Your generation was radical once, right? You believed in the power of a shared witness to change the world. We believe in that, too. We'd like to work with you. We know we haven't quite proven ourselves yet, but we're getting older - and you know the church needs us. So please let us lead - for real - and don't end the debate before we've had a chance to speak.


  1. AMEN, SISTER! I'm a millenial too and GREATLY enjoy reading posts about millenials that are actually by a millenial. I've almost gotten to a point where I hated that word because it almost seemed like an accusation rather than a description of a generation. Thank you for speaking up. I agree whole-heartedly. Blessings to you!

  2. Thank you for reading Jenna and for your kind words!

  3. Both of your generational letters are excellent. I see these tensions played out all to frequently as both a Gen X pastor and the dad of a 19 year old son who no longer has anything to do with church.

    And yeah, Synod Assemblies bore me to death.