Why millennials don’t want to be Methodist pastors

newStoleDesignC_a_1I’m three years older than Rachel Held Evans, so I really have no business speaking on behalf of millennials since I’m pretty solidly in Generation X. Labels of generations are silly anyway. I just chose the title to get hits; I have no idea what millennials think. But I saw an interesting juxtaposition of articles today that made me wonder why in the world anyone graduating from college right now would want to go into ordained ministry. Cynthia Astle reflected on a meeting of bishops to discuss the alarming decline of clergy under 35 going into the ministry. Then I saw an article by Bishop Ken Carter promoting volunteer pastoring (a.k.a. “bi-vocational ministry,” let’s call it what it really is) as a solution to the Methodist church’s financial crunch.

It seems like the closer Methodist pastors are to retirement, the less bothered they are by the future “inevitability” of “bi-vocational ministry.” It seems like a pretty nice gig for the Methodist church to continue to pay their pensions while the next generation of pastors volunteer to collect the offerings that pay them. I know that’s snarky, but think about how it would feel to be at the beginning of your career and hear glib pronouncements from people at the end of their careers about the “creative solutions” for future ministry that involve my not being able to support my family. If I were a twentysomething contemplating a call to ordained ministry, then reading most of what comes out of the Methodist blogosphere these days would completely depress me.

Now I definitely believe that a call is a call. When God calls, we don’t make our decisions based on the pros and cons of ministry as a career field. We dive in without thinking about the consequences. I went into high school teaching before I went to seminary. It didn’t pay anything; I got emotionally abused by rude 16 year olds all day; but I loved those kids; and that’s why I did it. I suppose if I am forced into the position of doing “bi-vocational ministry,” then I’ll return to the high school classroom, but good gosh, I just read today that they’re laying off half the teachers in Chicago. Is there any career field in our economy that isn’t endangered?

In any case, I want to say something a little different than what Rachel wrote that could possibly relate to millennials’ declining church attendance or pursuit of ordained ministry. I don’t know — that’s not really the point for me. The point is that American society is really not working right now, and the church doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it. We’re caught in a game of constantly dwindling musical chairs as people are becoming less and less relevant to the movement of capital. We’re all like frogs in a slowly boiling pot of water, and as long as the lawns around us stay green and well-trimmed, we can remain in the delusion of continued stability that comes from 40 years of life without any major domestic social upheaval.

The information age has completely devalued creative work, because the Internet creates the illusion that everything is free. Journalists in the future will probably have to be “bi-vocational” (since the news is supposed to be free), as will software developers (since apps are supposed to be free). This will mean a decreasing set of options for second careers for “bi-vocational” pastors to add to their volunteer church jobs. Whether this is overly hyperbolic or not, I imagine that this is what the world looks like to a 25 year old living with her parents who has only been able to secure volunteer “internships” since graduating from college.

The information age has also made us feel neurotic and time-starved even though we waste a lot of our time every day. I suspect that this is part of the reason why the “smells and bells” of liturgical church are supposedly attractive to millennials even if the regimented hierarchy and loyalty to tradition for tradition’s sake is not. I go to mass every Monday because I enter kairos time when I’m there. “Authenticity” is too vague a word for what a church needs to offer to attract millennial laity, future pastors, and actually everybody; it needs to offer a taste of eternity.

Right now, most churches are not offering a concrete alternative vision to the dystopia that is sucking our lives away. Instead, they seem to baptize the world as it is with either a reassuring “liberal” message of God’s absolution that lacks a call to repentance and discipleship (for individual believers that is, and not just the “bad guys” out there that we’re preaching “prophetically” about); or else with an equally reassuring “conservative” message about God’s hatred of (other people’s) sin and the need for everyone in the room to get saved (when most people in the room already have).

What we need to be offering is a completely different vision for how to exist together as humans. Not just “convicting” sermons that make people feel a temporary sense of catharsis that doesn’t motivate any change in their daily routine on Monday. We need to breathe kingdom air by doing things together that violate the unwritten rules of demonic normalcy that keep people on the banter level in most of their social relationships and in a perpetual state of neurosis on the inside.

We need a church that breathes kingdom air both liturgically (letting God create kairos space whether it involves guitars, chants, organs, or silence) and missionally (by doing more than just “helping” people, which just becomes a further self-justification for our status quo, but instead creating encounters that tear down social walls and shatter the normal). We need to do the right way what a bunch of millennials really wanted to accomplish through the Occupy movement (I don’t claim to know what the right way is other than to say that I strongly believe that the worship of God centered around the table of God is the best foundation for radical social transformation, and that the table’s impact on the hearts of those who come to it ought to be evident in the social transformation they bring to the world).

What would be some examples of breathing kingdom air? I think violating the privatization of domestic space is a very key part of smashing the demonic normalcy that stifles the kingdom. Simply holding a Bible study in your home instead of a neutral location with plastic chairs, pastel carpeting, and buzzing fluorescent lights on the ceiling is a revolutionary act.

But to go even deeper, what about opening your home to people who need a place to live? Two families in our congregation have done this, one to a teen with family troubles and another to a man who would have otherwise been homeless. Their witness has breathed kingdom air all over me. I think I’ve written before about going to the Christian Community Development Association conference in Cincinnati in 2009 and having a complete stranger not only house and feed me, but loan me her recently deceased husband’s car to drive to the conference when I overslept. That breathed kingdom air all over me too.

Something like personal holiness would make a lot more sense to the “young people” if it were pursued in the framework of fresh kingdom air. It’s not terribly inspiring to exhort kids to stay away from porn and cigarettes so they can grow up to be yuppies who don’t really hurt anybody but aren’t contributing anything to the resistance of the life-sucking forces of our age. The reason to pursue personal holiness is so that God can make us revolutionaries, because sin is a debilitating distraction that takes us out of combat. The revolution of God’s kingdom means finding ways to meaningfully resist the assumptions of the world that are actively dehumanizing us. It means the foolishness of taking up real crosses which are the repudiation of social respectability and not just our world’s socially sanctioned expressions of charity and sacrifice.

Now maybe this is all just trendy “radical” Jesus talk that thirty-something yuppies engage in to try to prove to themselves that they aren’t really yuppies. That is at least partly true! I don’t know how to put programmatic flesh on what we need to do to make people believe in God’s economy of abundance rather than Wall Street’s economy of scarcity, but I think that cultivating the understanding that life is a gift from God and not a consumer product of the market is a challenge that the church desperately needs to pick up.

How about we evaluate each of our ministries with the question: “Does it breathe kingdom air?” Many pastors have been taught to ask whether our ministries make disciples. Well what’s a disciple? Is it somebody who gives a certain quota of their time to Bible study, prayer, and church participation, and is morally clean in a few designated areas (by which the middle-class defines and legitimates itself) like sexuality, profanity, illicit drug use, etc, but otherwise has a mind filled with worldly presumptions about “the way things just have to be”?

A disciple is someone who breathes kingdom air. It is someone who is ready for anything that the Spirit asks. It is someone who responds like Peter when Jesus asks the twelve if they’re going to ditch him like everyone else: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). A disciple is someone who would be completely screwed if it turned out this whole Jesus thing was a myth, not somebody who could calmly substitute a Sunday of massage appointments and yoga classes for church if Jesus stopped feeling like a compelling messiah. Disciples are not just trained in doctrine and Biblical literacy; they must be inspired by having the kingdom breathed into them.

We need a more imaginative vision for living than the supposedly stable suburban family lifestyle that has been the default social vision of at least the white American church, conservative and liberal alike, since at least the 50’s. So let’s breathe kingdom air ecclesially by being thoughtful about the sacredness of our worship space whether the musical genre is 21st century rock and roll or the 18th century folk tunes (the “bar song” myth has apparently been debunked) that our old hymns were made from. And let’s breathe kingdom air missionally by not only serving our neighbor in the world, but doing so in a way that doesn’t involve putting soup kitchen counters or latex gloves in between us. Then maybe more of the “young people” will want to be Methodist pastors.

43 thoughts on “Why millennials don’t want to be Methodist pastors

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  3. I dont have much time to respond but I want to say that this post is such a blessing man, thank you.

    Also, regarding the millenials leaving church (it seems as though everyone is supposed to give their opinion right?;)), to me, its hardly a surprise, and Im not so sure its not a blessing.

    What are we saying? We’d rather have them be dead in church than alive outside of it?

    Think of what the common practice is in many places:

    Step 1: Sunday school that teaches kids some OT bible stories, make some crafts, throw in a few memory verses.
    Step 2: Kids now enter Youth Ministry in which a kinda goofy youngish-looking youth pastor has the task of keeping the kids coming at all costs. This inevitably leads to way more fun and games than Jesus following or Holy Spirit experience. The worst thing for many of the kids is the nights they have to go to “Big Church” with the adults and be bored trying to understand how a message thats been purchased from a company (along with neato powerpoints), and planned months in advance, is supposed to apply in their lives.
    Step 3: These kids are now too old for the fun and games of youth ministry, and we are surprised when they only stick around for maybe a few months in Big Church before deciding to leave. The sad part is, after leaving, they really dont see a difference in their lives at all. They still are fairly moral and justice-conscious, they now simply have more free time on the weekends.

    Think about this question, and the implications should scare all of us:

    What kind of person leaves the church?

    • That looks like a lot of churches I’ve seen. We’ve gone down the gimmicky route lately at my church. It’s quite unfortunate.

  4. To me this dances around the actual reason that I’m no longer a United Methodist: it’s all made up. It doesn’t really matter to me what their message is or how it’s presented. ‘Dystopia’ isn’t the reason I left. I don’t want to be mean or trollish, but I’m a millennial who left the church, and *the* reason I left is because I don’t believe in God. Everything else you discuss is incidental.

      • Never said it was – I’m just suggesting that you’re over-thinking in the wrong direction. For many young people it’s not that they have complaints about the rules of the game – it’s that they’re not playing at all. The important question might be ‘Why don’t they believe in God?’ rather than ‘Why don’t they go to church?’

          • Trying Wicca, honestly. I tried it out in high school because I was being a rebellious teenager. Lasted about 2 months, and I pretty quickly realized it was warmed-over old wives’ tales and superstitions served up for idle white people. Burn a candle and cut up sage with your silver athame to cast ‘spells!’ The whole religion doesn’t even make sense if you don’t live in a temperate zone, since it’s all built around having four seasons. So then I’m back in church, and trying to figure out how the ‘prayer requests’ were any different from the ‘spells.’ Wicca made no sense, and all I could see in the church was Wicca-but-in-different-robes. I asked myself if there was *any* religion that wasn’t essentially Wicca. I couldn’t think of any. That pretty much did it for me, as far as religion was concerned. Bart Ehrman going through all the many, many ways the Bible is totally inconsistent with itself was probably the final nail.

  5. Your post made me think about my brief time in seminary. One reason I am not interested in going back is the cost. I don’t want to take out student loans for it and that is likely the only way to pay for it. I remember when I started seminary and started pursuing the ordination process. There was this packet of information about the ordination process and all the people I would have to talk to about it through the process. It was very much understood to be a “you aren’t in this alone” type of experience. However, that idea of “community” didn’t extend to any sort of financial help. It’s like we tell people how important community is and what a great thing seminary and ordination are, and there’s all kinds of “support”–except financial support! There has GOT to be a better way of doing seminary/preparing people to be pastors, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. I have some ideas but I don’t know how feasible they really are.

    • That’s a good point. If they’re going to switch to “bi-vocational” ministry, there ought to likewise be a switch to a less expensive education option. In the Methodist church, you can do course of study which you do over an extended period of time while you’re working full-time and I think it’s a lot cheaper. Where did you go to seminary?

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  7. I’m still not done reading all of your responses to this guy: http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/talking-about-my-generation-millennials-and-the-church/ but as someone who grew up Southern Baptist, Texan through and through, and has spent a lot of time around Brits, I’m finding this pretty f**ing intriguing. He seems to completely miss the importance of the experience growing up under such a system, in lieu of that, adopts an intellectual/systematic/outside approach to the whole thing, as if that’s how it actually works. haha… The future of the ‘evangelical’ church or whatever we want to call it belongs to people like and me, and people like him have no other real option but to add commentary. Dude is brilliant, but he kinda glosses over core points that hit people who are actually in the arena, like you said roughly “you will never know how it feels to be asked to wear this giant shirt over and already modest bathing suit” etc… fact is he wont understand that. He never will. He wasn’t raised under it, its a curiosity to him. I spent some time, a couple years, on the mission field if you will after college, but in the end run, I don’t go to church anymore, but I do like to hear voices like yours on occasion… it reminds me I am sane, and that yes, that WAS how I grew up, and Its good to see other peoples reactions as adults to some of the same stimulus’ and its not just a cut and dry leave christianity or become like them kind of thing. Probably the hardest thing to watch is the people who ‘stuck with it’ particularly a number of girls I knew from youth group back when, who clearly aren’t happy but dont seem to really have a public voice, when they talk to me confidentially it kind of breaks my heart. Idk keep it up i guess and dont get sucked dry by their game of argument and logic, those guys spend all day reading books with smart answers that dont answer any of the real questions in life. Also they don’t hold a corner market on systematic logic either, It just happens to be their drug.

    • …another thing you might notice, is that this particular breed will never react to confrontation in a straightforward way, as you are probably used to growing up southern baptist [there is a certain honesty there that I still cherish], but anytime you make a point they don’t have a prethought answer to, you will be met with silence on the topic, and more words on the things they are familiar with. Its very similar to trying to converse with ‘intellectual atheists’. just sayin.

      • on the flip side, of my tendency to respond before reading every possible thing possible, i have a gut reaction against your saying “bi vocational ministry” as a more accurate description than “volunteer pastoring” as sort of pedantic and needless parsing of words that is a liberal pitfall into the same kind of endless talk about nothing, but yeah. im still with you. 😛

          • welp, there goes about 3 hours of my day. Probably time to get back to my work as a failed, barely scraping by, web programmer. Thanks for the distraction. Maybe ill come up with a creative solution to my predicament, as I’m confident you will as well 😉

  8. Wow, again.
    I am getting a t-shirt made that says, “Violate the unwritten rules of demonic normalcy!”
    Can I attribute this commandment to you, Morgan? If it goes viral I will contribute any profits to pay for ministerial salaries.
    I want people to read this blog.
    I am sending it to my pastor. Not that she will change anything because of it. Our congregation is growing simple because the number of traditional churches in our old white world is shrinking and we remain old fashioned enough to attract the 50 to 80 crowd. I am 61, so I pass as a normalcy icon.
    I feel like someone on the fantail of the Titanic is saying, “Wow, this is a popular spot to be. I really know where the action is!”
    I know my kids get this. It’s the reason they won’t attend youth ministry at our church. It refuses to violate the unwritten rules.
    It’s the reason they worship Futerama and South Park instead of going on the youth mission trip, where plastic gloves are de-riguer, and homeless ministries are restricted to those homeless who meet all the right criteria for cleanliness and chastity, etc.
    Now, I hate to get off-track here, but doesn’t that apply extremely well to our refusal to shift on ordination of gays and gay marriage? To allow two men or two women to establish a covenant with God to love each other in our sanctuaries is a violation of the unwritten rules of demonic normalcy if ever there was one.
    We must name our demonic normalcy, the opposite of which would be divine abnormality, I guess. I think that is totally correct. It resonates with kingdom air to me.
    “I live no longer not me” divine abnormality as described by the dude from Tarsus.

  9. Great piece, Morgan! I’ve been fouling the air of my soul with blog-binging on the whole millennials topic, but I caught a whiff of kingdom air from this post. I’m pastoring a campus ministry full time now so the question of how to connect with millennials (which I am young enough to fall into) is on my mind a lot. I must confess it is a combination of wanting to serving the kingdom but also aware of the benchmarks I have to meet (some of which are numbers of students involved). In all of the “what’s the magic formula” or “silver bullet” talk, I cannot help be think that it will all come back to creating opening for people to hear the call of Jesus Christ to come and follow him. It will be as simple and complex as that.

    • Right. I guess I’m just theologically invested in their not being a “silver bullet” solution that isn’t simply a faithful representation of the compelling witness of Jesus Christ.

  10. I don’t know how I ended up on this blog, but I did, and just read this piece, Amazing stuff. I’ve been looking for a church that is/does what you describe for 30 years — haven’t found it yet. But occasionally I’ll catch the scent of the real gospel “thing” and I smell it here. That it’s coming from someone apparently inside the UM system is shocking.

    But maybe that’s why I have a little problem with the basic context in which you develop your point, namely that professional Christian ministry isn’t attractive to young people, and the real gospel stuff you describe is what might attract them. I doubt that’s true. Or rather, there’s no chance the institution will allow it to be true. The UM Church (and no doubt all the other denominations as well) would rather close down every last one of its local congregations than adopt an authentically counter-cultural gospel narrative as it power source. (Side note: I’ve seen it happen: UMPH closed down Cokesbury because they couldn’t imagine a different kind of retail store; I used to work for Cokesbury.) Christianity as understood in UM institutions is a form of civil religion; it’s simply not conceivable that the people who run things would ever want to change that.

    And let’s be honest: 99% of UM Christians would never want to change it either. Want proof? Try preaching this stuff in a local congregation — in a way that makes it clear where the rubber meets the road — and see what happens. What do you think all the nice Christians whose livelihoods are based on the various manifestations of what you call “demonic normalcy” — consumerism, militarism, politics, bureaucracy, rampant corruption in all the professions, systemic contempt for the weak, the outsiders, the excluded, etc. — will say?

    But damn, it gladdens my heart to hear you saying it on this blog. I think I’ll come back.

    • I say some of these things in church. Nobody has confronted me openly about it. Maybe it’ll screw up my ordination process. We’ll see.

      • I go to a UMC where the clergy talk this way. And even in our suburban Texas congregation, people are listening. Or are beginning to listen. It may happen slowly. We’ve managed to move the flags out of the sanctuary and move all the homeless Boy Scout troops into it in the past year and the “old guard” haven’t abandoned us yet.

  11. Just one point: I happen to be a bivocational minister and I’m only a few years older than you; solidly in Generation X. I do get paid for my work, but I also work full time as a communications specialist. I don’t understand why people are so aghast at bivocational ministry. It’s not perfect and it’s not for everyone, but I would note that many African American churches have been pastored by folks who had a day job outside the church. The same goes for Latino churches. I guess I just wished full time pastors would be more open to bivocational ministry instead of seeing at a lesser ministry.

    • I hear and respect what you’re saying. And I realize that there’s a white privilege dimension to this stuff. What sets me off are older clergy close to retiring and drawing their pension who are very happy to lecture younger clergy about how we’re entitled, spoiled brats unless we’re willing to do something they didn’t have to do. If I had to be bi-vocational, I suppose I would make it work, although there’s a small part of me that wonders if ministry isn’t a professional career at all, then why not just be a lay leader among other lay leaders in a house church movement? Why have a special building at all? The original churches were all house churches. So I think if Methodism is going to go to bivocational clergy, it should also sell off its real estate.

  12. Wow. This floored me, especially this bit: “Well what’s a disciple? Is it somebody who gives a certain quota of their time to Bible study, prayer, and church participation, and is morally clean in a few designated areas?”

    I’m a Millennial, and I’ve struggled profoundly with what the organized church seems to demand of me and what it offers in return for so much sacrifice. I was discussing RHE’s article with my husband the other day, and it occurred to me that one recurring problem I have is how when you join a church, there’s an expectation that it become your primary social group and hobby.

    Now it sounds bad to call church a horrible time-waster, but we have quite a warm, close-knit group of friends here in our little college town, most of which are not Christians. Churches seem to want us to replace the time we already spend volunteering, hosting dinners, and adopting single folks and couples into our little “family” with more church activities. It’s all a demand that we give enormous time and resources to their agenda while taking from our priorities. You hit the nail on the head by pointing out that “breathing kingdom air” happens in many small ways that aren’t officially sanctioned by the church. It’s in buying the beer when someone’s had a bad day. It’s in hosting the stranger visiting from out of town. It’s in opening the spare bedroom to the guy who can’t afford to rent an apartment. And quite frankly, we (my husband and I) can’t afford the price the churches demand for us to join the clique. Still, we do the work of God anyway.

    • You’re being church already with what you’re doing. I don’t think you need to go join a community that is less organically ecclesial than what God has already created in your group of friends. Here’s my challenge to you though. Do you feel like this family that God has given you would benefit from discovering the beauty of worshiping Him? Are you willing to pray for God to create opportunities for you to share testimony about what He’s done for you however slowly and cautiously you feel like you need to move to not be contrived? I do really feel like worship is the essential center of kingdom life — our delight in God is critical to empowering and invigorating our zeal for hospitality to others — but worship sure as hell doesn’t need to happen any place other than your living room. So what happens if you think of you and your husband as already being de-facto house church co-pastors in a community of people with varying degrees of awareness of God’s breath within their lives even if they don’t identify as Christian? Maybe you start off by just making a covenant to pray for all of them every night for a month and see what happens. I wish we had community like you’ve got in my church.

  13. Right there with you, bro. To answer your question: Is there any career field that’s not endangered in this economy? Yes… Senators and Congresspeople. Sorry, moment of cynicism over.
    I’ve been bi-vocational in ordained ministry (first Free Episcopal then Presbyterian… long story) for the last 5 years. In addition to pastoring, I also teach philosophy on the college level. Speaking from experience, I can guarantee: tentmaking sucks. I have a toddler and a preschooler who I barely see. I was sleeping an average of 2-3 hours a night last fall when my body finally gave out and I was incapacitated by a respiratory infection for the better part of a month. I’m happy to say that things are finally looking up as I’m about to begin my first full-time call at a new congregation in Michigan.
    My opinion is that tentmaking is utterly unsustainable for first-career clergy. I only see it as a viable option for second-career or retired lay pastors who are locally trained. It is total BS to expect someone to obtain a seminary degree (with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt) and tell them they can never expect a full-time job with benefits. During the ordination/installation service in my denomination, the pastor makes several vows, but so does the church. The church agrees to “respect her leadership, support her in prayer, and pay her fairly”. Expecting young candidates to start entry-level in two careers at once is a direct violation of that promise, if you ask me (especially if the church continues to parade itself around as the champion of “family values”).
    I agree with what you said about calling. God makes a way, and she certainly has for me these past 5 years. I wouldn’t trade this ministry or my experience in it for the world, but that’s no excuse for our denominations to heap unjust and unsustainable burdens upon the backs of pastors who respond to God’s call. That’s just like Pharaoh ordering the Hebrews to make bricks without straw.
    On a lighter note, it’s thrilling to encounter a fellow Githens Middle School classmate who also became a pastor! Right on, bro. Glad to be back in touch.

    • Thanks so much for your testimony. Githens Middle School? What?!!! I actually didn’t go there for middle school. I moved to Durham in 9th grade and went to DA for a year before going to Jordan, but I chilled with a lot of Githens kids in 9th grade because I was kind of a loser.

      • Say what? I must be remembering wrong. I definitely knew you from somewhere. I went to Jordan thru 9th grade, then transferred to Cresset. However, I kept doing Young Life at Jordan. Were you part of that group?

        • Yeah I was definitely part of Jordan Young Life. I did La Vida and the campaigners Bible study with them. I hung out with the YL leader Phil Weeber a whole lot. He was with me when I got saved the second time at Windy Gap. Also there was a dude named Dan Allred and another guy named Ian.

          • That’s got to be it. Phil and Dan were both big parts of my life too. They were the guys who I first opened up to about my suicidal tendencies in 1995. It’s not too much to say that they saved my life.

  14. Freaking this:

    “It’s not terribly inspiring to exhort kids to stay away from porn and cigarettes so they can grow up to be yuppies who don’t really hurt anybody but aren’t contributing anything to the resistance of the life-sucking forces of our age.”

    I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard most of the time growing up.

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