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The author at her ordination (left) and the older, wiser minister officiating a wedding, nearly ten years later.

Worshipping at the Fountain of Youth

The author at her ordination (left) and the older, wiser minister officiating a wedding, nearly ten years later.

The author at her ordination (left) and the older, wiser minister officiating a wedding, nearly ten years later.

It was the first viral challenge of 2019: “How hard did aging hit you?” To play, one posts the very first picture uploaded to a social media platform next to the most recent. For many Facebook users, this seems to cover somewhere around a decade, give or take a few years. I cheated and posted a precious picture of my older sister and me long before social media was a thing, and likely before Mark Zuckerberg was even born.

The challenge proved to pack a bigger punch for some than aging itself. Pulling up a snapshot of life can bring up a flood of powerful memories – some good, some not so good. Seeing the physical changes of our bodies and faces can be another mixed bag of emotions. Some friends obliged and posted their pictures, along with lists of ways that they had grown, paths their lives had taken, adversities they had faced, and their pride at the beautiful people they have become, wrinkles and all. Even those posts were painful and triggering reminders for others of dreams that had been deferred or dashed completely, painful losses, and other ways in which life just hasn’t been what they thought it would be.

Our love/hate relationship with aging is, if not peculiarly American, at least particularly so. Youth and beauty are worshiped in many ways. The industries that sell products to combat aging are expected to exceed $216 billion in revenues by 2021.[1] At the same time, younger generations are judged as lazy, irresponsible, Peter Pan-like entitled adolescents who refuse to grow up. The stereotype is also that they are more self-centered and not motivated by civic duty. They aren’t joining Rotary, Lions, golf clubs, or churches. Clearly they must not care about anyone beyond themselves!

Most churches have been experiencing this tension for years. Initiatives to encourage young adult leadership and participation in the larger church have been around for a while. Where are the young people? We must find the young people! As I approach my 40th birthday this year, my time as a “young” person is officially coming to an end, I suppose. I felt it last year as I was reviewing applications for commissioners to our biennial General Assembly. For the last number of years, going to GA hasn’t been feasible for me with young children. But if I apply in future years, I will no longer be able to check off that shiny “25-40” box. I’ll be in the 41-65 group, no longer of special interest to the Church.

As more of our congregations continue to age and see decline in both numbers and energy, the desire to bring in more young people (often young families, which is a whole other matter!) can become priority number one. I’ve heard from many church folk in many places something along the lines of: “We need young people to come in and take over… the rummage sale, lead the women’s groups, teach Sunday school, serve on governing boards….” Many are looking for their own replacements – the people who will come in and do the things they have been doing for many years. But most “young people” I know aren’t really that interested in continuing traditions or serving the church in those same ways. Even if they are, younger generations don’t have nearly the same level of time, energy, or resources to pour into volunteer service at the church as previous generations did.

At the same time, many younger folk have amazing gifts and talents and creativity that the Church desperately needs. Churches that want “young people” simply to come and take over what they have been doing will probably continue to decline. But those who provide a place for all generations to come and participate as they are called and able will be enriched in new and exciting ways as more gifts are shared and the contributions of people, great and small, are honored and celebrated. Read more

Harvey, Houses, and Hope

adult man in hat and teenagers on the roof of a one-story house with trees overhead

Youth and adults from First Christian Church in McKinney, Texas work together to replace the roof on a Harvey survivor’s home.

The congregation I serve is no stranger to hurricanes. In 2008, the roof on its education wing collapsed during Hurricane Ike. In the process of making repairs, our denomination built a mission station with camp-style bunk beds and shower facilities. For several years it housed volunteers for the recovery efforts, but then it lay dormant. We were called into action again as long-term Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts began.

Whenever natural disasters occur in the United States, people all over the country mobilize to help. Waters had not even receded when I was inundated with requests from church groups: wanting to schedule a mission trip as soon as possible, asking to be connected with families from my congregation in need, and offering donations of various kinds.

In the wake of a disaster, it’s possible to get so overwhelmed by the offers to help that a pastor might not know where to begin. Unfortunately, we must sometimes begin by saying No: No, please don’t come next week or even next month… there will be plenty of recovery work to do in six months, a year, and beyond. No, we don’t need any blankets, clothes, or toiletries – gift cards or donations to your favorite disaster response organization will have the biggest impact. Our instincts at giving and doing often run contrary to the needs on the ground.

Occasionally, a volunteer’s expectations can become incompatible with doing recovery work, where flexibility is key. In one exchange I emailed with the mission committee of a church in another state. At first, it seemed that they wanted to adopt our church, which had sustained some damage that was ultimately not covered by our insurance. It turned out that the minister emailing me and the chair of their mission committee had a miscommunication, and what they really wanted to do was adopt a family.

I identified a lovely family in my congregation who needed help and asked permission to share their information with the church that had contacted me. After a few more email exchanges, both the pastor and the mission chair ghosted me, and I never heard from them again. It was apparent to me that our real needs didn’t meet with their expectations of what helping us would look like.

As Christians, we certainly struggle with our understanding of mission. As a pastor, I have wrestled with the Church’s shortcomings in mission, and I am aware of the other-izing that can happen when churches engage in mission. However, it was not until Hurricane Harvey that I experienced what it means to be on the receiving end of an unbalanced system. Often, when groups engage in mission, those with resources and privilege go to help in places where people may have less access to resources and have less privilege. This can create all sorts of problems.

The gospel itself stands in tension with privilege, and in recovery work this is not just a theological issue. There are some problematic practical implications for those being helped. My county’s long-term recovery group has a “do no harm” approach to the services that we provide each Harvey survivor. Unfortunately, the un-checked privilege of volunteer groups can do harm to the people who are most vulnerable. Read more

The Story Bible That Made Me Cry: A Review of Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible

Confession – I’m a pastor, but I’m not great about reading the Bible with my kids. Maybe it’s because it feels a little bit like work. Maybe it’s because I’m just too tired at the end of the day. Maybe it’s because my kids whine, “Ugh, it’s not even SUNDAY.” Maybe I just know too much about the Bible so when I read the stories I can’t just let them lie – I have to explain and give context. I want to emphasize certain plot points and draw out the untold stories of women and girls. I hope to ask good questions that help them hear the overarching story: God loves us. God loves all creation. God is faithful, even we are not.

I know too well that many of the classic children’s stories can be – or should be – quite disturbing. In “Noah’s Ark” everybody on earth dies in a flood. In the story of Joseph, his brothers sell him into slavery for being a brat. Even the central story of our faith – the cross and resurrection – can be traumatic for young ears and needs to be handled carefully.

As a church professional I own a LOT of story bibles. The Spark Story Bible is my favorite for reading in worship because it’s close to the text of the NRSV but tells stories in an engaging way and has (non-Eurocentric) illustrations which add feeling, meaning, and depth to the words. The Deep Blue Bible Storybook is my favorite bible for parents because it has great study notes that will help parents as they read to their kids. It’s kind of like a parent study bible. The Jesus Storybook Bible is lovely for weaving the scriptures into an overarching narrative which can be really powerful for adults and older children. While these are all excellent works that I highly recommend, they still leave me wanting – especially for a story bible for young children (their intended audience).

Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible is the Bible I want to read to my children because it feels like it’s written in my voice. The authors of these re-tellings are my colleagues, trusted pastors, chaplains, educators, and even a rabbi. These faithful practitioners of children’s ministry tell the story for kids, offering context and language that suits their understanding. Each story ends with questions and encouragement to Hear, See, and Act in a way that deepens understanding for childrenAnd, sure, adults can get a lot from reading this bible to their little ones, but it’s written perfectly for preschool and early elementary kids who think concretely and struggle to understand metaphor and symbolism.

In order to help parents choose a story that might be helpful or interesting for a particular child or situation, the editors chose to forgo the traditional order of the books of the Bible and group the texts thematically with headings like Beginnings, Prophets, and Listening for God. For example, the Rivalries section has the stories of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham as “A Family With a Big Disagreement” (Gen. 16:1-16) and “A Family Changes Its Shape” (Gen 21:8-21). While this may throw the biblically literate a bit off-kilter, it is still grouped into the two testaments and follows the basic flow (with a helpful scripture index in the back). The illustrations vary in style, but all are beautiful, and the majority are non-Eurocentric.

But what really makes this bible unique– what brought tears to my eyes– is how it lifts up the stories and points of view of female characters in a way that istrue to the text and to women’s lives. The first eighteen stories in the Strong Women and Men section have women as central characters. With titles like “God Made Sarah Laugh,” “Miriam Hides Moses,” “Queen Vashti Says ‘No!’” and “Nabal, Abigail, and David” the traditional stories gain a fresh and faithful perspective. Read more

Re-Imagining Youth Ministry

When I was in high school, I quit my church’s youth group. All the activities they hosted were social events with no spiritual component. They didn’t even pray before meals. If the only reason to go to church youth group was to hang out with my peers, I didn’t want to be there. I had nothing in common with the other kids in the group. We weren’t friends outside of church. Our faith was the only thing that tied us together, and youth group events didn’t address that faith.

What I experienced is symptomatic of a trend that has prevailed in youth ministry for several decades now. Churches often try to provide a youth group experience that is entertaining and provides a parallel experience to what young people could find in the secular world. There are two primary problems with this approach, as I see it. First, the world will always win. Secular groups will always be able to provide something flashier, more adventurous, more well-organized and better funded. Eventually the church will fail at this model of youth ministry, because there is simply no way for the church to provide parallel experiences for all the opportunities available in the world. Second – and this is very important – kids don’t want a church that only offers them lip-service. Young people typically want to know that their lives make a difference in the world. It’s what keeps them engaged in church if they are there already, and what attracts them if they are newcomers. Helping kids find ways to share their spiritual gifts with the world in a way that matters is perhaps the most important part of youth ministry.

Young people are very discerning. They’re smarter than many adults give them credit. They know the gist of the Christian message, even if they’ve only learned the basics from secular media, and they expect the church to live up to what it claims to be. They don’t expect to be entertained at their youth group events. If they are going to church, they expect to learn about God. They hope that they will be welcomed in the radical way that Jesus welcomed people.

One of the most effective ways to do ministry with young people, in my experience, is to treat them like you would any other member of your congregation. Why should youth be the only group to be segregated because of their age? (Yes, I’m well aware of age-based groups for older folks… but these are usually open to anyone post-retirement, meaning there is often a 30-year age range in these groups, spanning two generations!) Here I use the term “youth” very broadly. The examples below come from my experience with middle and high school youth (roughly age 10-18), but I have used this same basic idea with younger children and with young adults.

  • When you serve Communion in worship, ask any worshiper who has already received her first Communion to be the server alongside the pastor. The 5th-grader doesn’t have to be relegated to collecting the empty cups used when serving individual portions of wine (at one church I served, kids called this the Communion “garbage can”). Let the 5th-grader serve the wine. Or even the bread, if your tradition allows for such a thing! In your denomination, is any adult member allowed to help serve Communion? Then as soon as a child begins to commune, invite her to join the ranks of server.
  • When you ask a high school student who is recently confirmed to be a Sunday School teacher – let him teach the class! Don’t make him be the assistant. He probably has more biblical knowledge in his short-term memory than most of the adult members. Isn’t that why we put kids through confirmation in the first place? Once he is confirmed, help him keep that knowledge fresh in his mind by teaching it to others. Give the younger students a role model closer to their age than than their parents. And maybe encourage that high schooler to work at a church camp in the summer, too.
  • Resist the tendency to force all young people into one particular type of service to the church — instead, match their service to their God-given gifts. In my tradition, it is typical to require confirmation students (age 10-14) to serve as acolytes in worship. Why anyone thought it was a good idea to let the children play with fire in the Sanctuary is beyond me! I am not a fan of this requirement, and it actually goes much deeper than the fire risk. Some students are self-consciously short, and can’t reach the tall candles. Some are afraid of fire. Some are not well-coordinated (seriously, who was at 13?) and get nervous about being the acolyte. We don’t expect all adult churchgoers to serve as ushers or lectors or bake sale coordinators as a requirement of their membership to the congregation. Why should we expect something similar of our youth? It is crucial to get to know our members – ALL our members – and offer them ways to serve that match their spiritual gifts. If a person is bad at reading in public, don’t ask them to be a lector. But when you discover that one of your 6th-graders could be a professional storyteller, by all means, give her the chance to read in worship! Don’t make her the “child lector” on a special youth Sunday. She is important enough to be considered for leadership in the church 52 Sundays a year, and on any of the other 365 days that the church offers programming.
  • Follow through with the promises we make and inspire them to do the same.  Young people often see the world in black-and-white. They know that Jesus said to love their neighbor, so they expect to be loved by their church… and they expect the church to give them opportunities to love others in return. They expect the church to follow through on the promises that were made to them at their baptism or dedication or confirmation or at whatever other rituals the congregation took vows to pray and care for the children. Youth take these promises seriously — when they see that they are not fulfilled by adult members of the congregation, they see no reason to follow through for themselves.

Ironically, while in college, I served as a high school youth director for three years. I can’t say that I avoided all the pitfalls my home congregation had discovered, but I was able to lead differently after having the experience of seeing things done poorly. I have learned a lot since those days, and there is so much left to learn; but my basic recommendation to those interested in re-imagining a way of ministering with youth is simple: treat the young people like members of your church. Help them find their spiritual gifts and create ways for them to share those gifts with the community. When you do that, and believe it, then there’s a chance to expand that practice to the staff and members. When all churchgoers are given the opportunity to share their God-given gifts with the world in ways that matter, we will finally be the church that our youth believe we already are.

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Youth Ministry Edition

Dear Askie,13937947100_3ba7d5dbcd_z

I’m a recent seminary graduate, and still looking for my first call. I know I want to serve as an assistant minster for a few years, but the reality of my denomination is that most churches that can afford to call an assistant are looking for a youth pastor. I think I’m the only young clergy woman who didn’t grow up actively participating in a youth group, or ever working as a camp counselor or youth minister before seminary. I’ve never worked with youth in this formal sense, but I am feeling God pulling me towards one of these positions, and want to be as prepared as possible. Any advice?

Accidental Energizer (and what’s an Energizer?)

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