What Young Clergy Need to Know – Redefining what it means to be “Peers”

I’ve been meaning to reflect on a blog post I read this past summer.  It lifts up the concerns of young clergy, people entering into the ministry in a world much different from those a good 15,20 or more years into it.  The basic message is that in short, young clergy are feeling and experiencing that their entry and contribution to pastoral ministry is being dismissed, and that their lack of experience and youth is a hinderance.  The author makes the case that it’s quite the opposite, and that we need to take them seriously in a church that is dying.  The blog post is worth a read. (Yes, I put it in there twice, it’s that important).

A couple things first: I fit into this “young clergy” category.  Or, I am about to, as I’m still have a half year of seminary left to complete.  I get the point he is making in this article.  I want to lead and take on the challenges of the church in today’s world just as much as the next person getting into this.  But I do have a few things to say to my “peers” and in response to the blog.

Young clergy/seminarians/leaders/pastors:

  • I get that you care deeply about the church, are committed to it, and that you are creative and offer a much as a leader.  You should be thinking that way.  Be confident in that.
  • I also get that you want to be heard and understood, are frustrated at the hyprocracy of standards among younger and older pastors, feel they can’t challenge people on existing understandings and expressions of church because their job depends on it, and want to be respected for their own authentic style of leadership.  Stop it; get over it.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh – yeah, I probably am being very harsh.  But such a mindset, and the response is that the older establishment simply should put us in positions of influence and voice, doesn’t solve the issue.  Moreover, if you seek out persons who only affirm and make you feel comfortable, and expect them to be the voice of change you desire, that doesn’t solve the issue either.  It just puts you more at odds with the people you’re frustrated with – namely older leaders who hold “power.”  And being at odds with them inwardly while trying to “play the game” and be cordial outwardly doesn’t help either.

So is there another way?

I think there is – and that’s working to create a “peer relationship” with those you feel at odds with, namely older clergy and lay leaders.  We often look at peers as only those of the same relative age or experience.  But, peer relationships are really ones of mutuality – mutual respect.  There’s a saying, “In order to get respect, you have to give respect.  Respect is earned, not granted.”  And I 100% agree with that statement.  One has to see older folks as possible peers, and vice versa.  And that’s not easy by any means.  It takes work and time.  But it can be done – because I served in an organization that has been doing it since its existance.

The United States military has a system in which its commissioned junior officers are usually in their early to mid 20’s, straight out of college and an indoctrination school to get them ready for the environment they enter into.  They are given responsibility in the form of positional authority right away, with little experience on the job.  However, when they come to their commands, they are often taking charge of platoons and divisions in which there are senior enlisted personnel, lower ranking, who have more experience doing the job, and often have more technical knowledge and leadership ability then the junior officer coming in.

It’s a tough situation for everyone; a young junior officer is expected to lead, but with little experience.  The senior and more experienced enlisted person is expected to take direction and orders from this person.  Seems like a disaster waiting to happen.  And in some circumstances, it is a disaster.  When the junior officer sees their position as an entitlement, or the senior enlisted views the junior officer as unnecessary, the whole division or platoon breaks down.  Basically, there’s no sense that either sees the other as “peer.”

However, the beauty of this system is that what the junior officer brings is a set of fresh ideas and eyes to the unit.  They bring their creativity and innovation, and critical thinking skills gained through academic study (hopefully).  The senior enlisted person brings their wealth of experience, their technical knowledge, and own leadership experience to the table.  What happens when this system works is that the junior officer understands they cannot hope to lead without the knowledge and experience of the senior enlisted person.  The senior enlisted person sees their role in not only offering their knowledge and experience to the junior officer, but also seeing the benefit of a new perspective.  In a sense, they become “peers.”  They learn to respect what each has to offer.  The unit starts to then run better than it ever could without one or the other.

So what does this have to do with young clergy and leadership??  I agree with the author of the blog on some points, and you probably can see where this military model has some parallels with his thoughts.  But I think he missed one important element in this thoughts:  Young clergy must begin to respect the experience and knowledge that older clergy and laypersons possess through their years of ministry.  Maybe they are outdated; maybe church decline is happening because they failed to understand and adapt to changes in culture over time.  But they care just as much about this church too.  There is much young clergy can learn from their experiences in ministry.  They have much to offer you, young clergy, you just have to see it that way.  And it is those who may not accept you upfront, especially those folks, that you need to foster a peer relationship with.

That’s probably not the answer you were looking for.  And I agree, there are times when you come across some folks who simply don’t want to ever see you as a peer – and that is going to happen.  But if that results because of your failure to respect their years in ministry, then that’s on you.  There is a time to challenge and question thoughts and ways of doing ministry – but first, take time to give them respect they have earned through their years of ministry.

Back to the model above – I think for the church leaders, it’s understanding what each brings to the table that’s beneficial.  The difference is that as young clergy, we don’t have positional authority right away.  But I don’t see that changing – so we have to deal with it.  Be firm on your commitments on your sitness to the gospel, ministry, and leadership.  But seek to create a genuine peer relationship with those who have positional power; earn their respect.  I think you can do it without having to compromise your own commitments; in fact, I’m sure of it.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “What Young Clergy Need to Know – Redefining what it means to be “Peers”

  1. Matt

    Totally agree. One thing we young bucks do not do enough is give respect to our “elders”/peers. I would also add that we need to have the faith that God is in charge of the church and it is after all God’s church; He has been doing pretty good without us for quite a while. So although we have a very important role to play we also have an incredible God who is ultimately in charge and we can rest in that. We don’t need to fix everything and have our way immediately. It makes ministry more fun and relaxing when we remember that and just trust God.

  2. Matt

    I read some of the comments in the blog you reference and I had one more thought to add. One of the main things I hear from the blog and the comments coming out loud and clear is that many young pastors/interns simply need someone to listen to them. That might be the most frustrating thing of all, that very few people listen to their “new” thoughts and ideas or frustrations and simply expect a certain role to be fulfilled and job to be completed. Sometimes I think for all the listening we do we just want to have someone listen to us for a while.

    • I agree having someone to simply listen is always good….I get the author’s sentiment in that respect. However, there’s the sentiment imbedded in the blog post that young clergy ought to and are entitled to be heard because of the list he presents, and implying we are inheriting an older generation of clergy’s mess that they created.

      I guess my bottom line is: young clergy, stop seeing yourself as a victims. Because that’s how you will be treated. Prophets spoke even when no one listened, because they were empowered by God. Like you said, are we trusting God in all we do?

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