Category Archives: Children, Youth, Family & Young Adult Ministry

Youthfulness & Clergy Shortages

“The numbers don’t lie, and they ain’t pretty.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Research and Evaluation conducted a study in 2016 looking at supply and demand of clergy serving in congregations.  You can get a summary and access to the full report on the Northeast Iowa Synod blog.  The bottom line is that supply will not meet demand anytime soon.  For most people, the answer is simple: recruit more people to be clergy.

I don’t disagree with that answer.  I’m a pragmatist most days, and so while I’m sure I could drum up some objection to recruitment on theological grounds, in the end we do need more pastors.  When I say “we,” I mean the world.  I don’t know about you, but we need more people these days who dedicate their lives to reminding all of us that we need to be more empathetic, humbler, and more selfless, among other things.

However, I’ve encountered an audience expressing in response to the study the sentiment that we need to increase our efforts at youth and young adult ministries as the solution.  The rationale is that if we get more young people involved in the church, identify which ones would be best suited to for leadership in congregations, and recruit them into pursuing being pastors and clergy, we will solve the clergy shortage.

Andy Root, Professor of Children, Youth, and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN (and one of my former teachers), discusses what he calls “the Church’s obsession with youthfulness.”  Discussing his most recent book, “Faith Formation in a Secular Age,” Root examines some of the trajectories that led to this obsession.  It’s a challenging, but important read. Recently in an interview, Root gave this response to the idea of attracting youth and young people to Christianity and the Church:

“I clearly want young people in the church. I am a professor of youth ministry, after all. My concern is that the youthful spirit becomes a certain form of idolatry – a way of saving ourselves without the need for God. Do they actually want to attract young people? Real young people will force them to have relational encounters that will change them and their church. Or do they like the idea of having young people as a measure of their church’s vibrancy, legitimacy, or longevity?”

You can read the rest of the interview here.

With respect to attracting youth and young adults for the purpose of recruitment to be clergy, such a movement not only raises them as some sort of “golden calf” that promises congregations a future, but it reduces their humanity to some sort of supply and demand commodity. Youth and young adults ought to be reached out to for no other reason than it is part of the church’s call to witness and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them understanding their absence, like the absence of any one person or group within the church, diminishes the life of the community of faith. A narrow focus on “young people” would mean many people who fall into other demographics would be either secondarily, or altogether dismissed as primary candidates to serve as clergy.  Such a move is a faithless one, and honestly lifts youth and young adults up at the expense of marginalizing others.

So what should we do? We should certainly be a church is constantly encouraging people to discern their baptismal calling in response to the Gospel.  Said another way, the church should include an emphasis on vocational discernment.  Communities of faith should help all people identify their God-given gifts, and affirm the vocations they choose in which they are faithfully putting those gifts to work, whether it be in service to the church or otherwise.  If that discernment leads people to explore callings to be clergy, “Amen!” If it leads them into other callings, let us say, “Amen!”

Another thing that constantly does not get mentioned is that we need to think about considering and implementing new models of what clergy and rostered leadership looks within the context of the parish. In simpler terms, congregations and those who assist congregations in calling pastors should be asking, “What exactly do we need a pastor for?”  Two things can emerge out of this question. One, we might find other congregations near also have similar needs and directions, and communities of shared ministry and resources can emerge.  Two, those individuals who may not feel called to traditional models of parish ministry and leadership may have increased opportunities to serve congregations where their needs don’t align with those models as imaginations are sparked about new possibilities.

Active discernment in community works.  When we focus on that work instead of  recruitment initiatives, ministry becomes about sharing humanity with one another instead of attracting people to serve survival interests.  Not only do we see youth and young adults as Christ sees them, human being in need of and deserving of God’s love and grace, but we actually see ALL people that way, and live with them, just as God in Christ came to live among us.


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CYF Ministry Thoughts: “Get the Grandparents to do it.”

I serve two congregations whose average age is well over 60 years, and most of them are grandparents.  While my conversations with them are laments about how there are “no kids in church,” many of them are also lamenting about the fact that their kids – particularly their grandkids – are not attending church.

There are a few of them who simply are interested in nothing more than keeping their congregation alive for years to come, however, many of them express their worry for more substantial reasons.  My congregants express their appreciation and love of the church as a community in which people go through life’s peaks and valleys together, and gather to worship, pray, and serve so that they might know that there is a God in Jesus Christ who is present and active with them in their lives.  They express that while saddened that their children choose not to be part of a church, at least they as parents raised them in the church and exposed them to what church is and can be for them.  Yet my congregants’ greater saddness is that their grandchildren are missing out on church as well – a community that bears the trials of life with each other and gathers to know of a God who bears life alongside all people.

One day I was listening to these laments of one of my congregants when I simply blurted out, “What if you brought your grandsons to church?”

I was initially met with silence, but over the course of the last year, this woman – well into her 70s – has been doing just that: bringing her grandsons to worship with her on Sundays.  While she is unsure if they will stay interested in church as they grow up, she has expressed that at least she knows they have been exposed to the church and to the good news about God in Jesus Christ, and that it is enough to hope and trust in that.  However, I’ve seen the transformation happening: her boys slowly but surely becoming interested in the church on their own terms and seeing it for what it is.

The AARP has conducted studies that show more than 2.5 million grandparents are taking on the responsibility of raising their grandchildren.  Furthermore, certain cultural realities are enabling grandparents to pick up and relocate closer to their grandchildren. The reality is that this generation of grandparents are often more committed to matters of Christian faith and church than their children are. In my own experience, working with parents has been the most challenging part of Children, Youth, and Family (CYF) ministry.  Their opinion (with exceptions, of course) is to leave matters of faith to the “experts”: youth ministers and youth pastors.  Yet studies show that children who are interested in religion and faith have parents who are invested in the same.  Such findings are nothing new; those working in CYF ministry have known them for years now.

Yet, if grandparents are taking on more a caregiver role in the lives of children and youth, and if they are more committed and interested in matters of church and faith overall,  shouldn’t those of us working in CYF ministry should be asking, “Are grandparents the key to successful CYF ministry?”

In other words, “Get the grandparents to do it.”

This doesn’t mean we stop working on and working with parents of the youth we minister to.  But perhaps we empower grandparents in their lament about their grandchildren by challenging them to take an active role in their grandchildren’s faith formation.  Like my 70-something congregant, maybe it starts by bringing their grandchildren to church, and see what the Holy Spirit might do from there! 

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What the 1% teaches us about the problem with the Millenial Obsession

 I am writing on my own behalf, and the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy or the Navy Chaplain Corps.

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in the Army and Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) commissioning ceremony at Old Dominion University.  69 young men and women raised their right hand and took the Oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America and defend our nation.  They were commissioned to serve as leaders, not to serve any one person or group, but to defend the principle that all are created equal and have a right to a life of freedom and liberty.  These young, newly commissioned officers made a conscious choice, pledging to place themselves in harm’s way and dedicate their lives, even die if asked, for such an idea.

They are the 1%.  And they have a lesson to teach us.

Statistics show that less than 1% of the United States’ population serves in the Armed Forces.  They are the 1% in our country, and they come from the Millennial generation.  Yet unlike their peers – the other 99% – they are not chiefly concerned with their individual entitlement to status in society or campaigning that they are bringing the gift of authenticity to the world.  Instead, they simply raise their right hand, say a few words, and pledge to live out their military service as best they can, “So help them God.”

For those who oppose war, our military, and the use of it, what I am NOT saying is that we should glorify what these young men and women will do.  They will give orders to take life; they will take life if it’s called on them to do so.  And their military actions are done in the shadow of uncertain and questionable agendas.  The sober truth is there is little glory in the reality of war.  But we should glorify their choice.  Their choice is a selfless one – it is a choice to serve, not to be served; a choice to sacrifice, not to demand; a choice for discomfort, not comfort; a choice to love others, not love themselves.  These 69 men and women – the 1% – teach us that our obsession with the Millennial generation’s needs and demands is a real problem for our society and our world.

The problem is simply a power transfer; the power that Millennials criticize and accuse older generations (Boomers, Silent) of misusing for their own gain is simply being shifted to the Millennials to misuse just the same.  No matter how “noble” they think the cause, the problem still remains: the cancer that is individualism in our society –  but individualism gone wrong. It is individualism poisoned with egotism and self-centeredness and self-preservation. It is this individualism that corrupts the ideals and values we hold dear: liberty, freedom, prosperity, justice, community and love.  It is this individualism that causes us to demand to be heard at the expense of others and at the same time allow us to delude ourselves as pious champions in the cause for the marginalized. Individualism in this way turns us into power-seeking madmen that must destroy the opposition with that power.  It is that extreme view of individualism and our obsession with it that makes the 1% who serve in the Armed Forces necessary in the first place.  That is what is behind the Millennial Obsession leaders in every institution are desparately trying to tap into…..and that Millennial opportunists are quick to peddle to all who will listen.

I don’t discount the need for an increased sense of integrity in our society and its institutions. On that, I’ll agree with majority Millennials.  But integrity is a choice, not a set of credentials.  Integrity comes not from the acquisition of power, but rather the choice to do what is right even at the cost of oneself.   I am reminded of this passage from the Book of Romans in the Bible,

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that
suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us,” (Rom. 5:3-5a)

The 69 men and women – the 1%, and  Millennials themselves – who joined our Army, Navy, and Marine Corps teach us that the real hope for our world comes when we turn away from manic individualism and instead choose a life of service and sacrifice for something greater than ourselves.  True hope is realized only through an integrity that gives the courage to willingly suffer and endure – agenda free and with no reservation of the heart.


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Not all Millenials Want to Take Over the Church: A Letter to “Elderly” Churches

Dear “Elderly” Churches,

I know a lot has been said as of late about you needing to accept Millenials – those people 35 and younger – into your church.  You’ve been told about how fabulous and smart they are, and how they can smell the BS of your old ways of being and doing church that are disconnected from the world around you.  You’ve been told they crave authentic community and find it hard to find it in your inauthentic church club.  You’ve been told that Millenials are the future of the church – your church – and it’s a looming reality that the sooner you accept, the better.

However, all those labels like “Boomer,” “Silent,” “GenX” don’t mean a whole heck of a lot to me – titles mean nothing; the authenticity and the integrity of the person do.  And I certainly don’t care about a bunch of people who call themselves “Millenials” and think they’re entitled to something and demand you at the very least pay attention to them.  I’ve learned to mistrust such people, those who seem at the core of their integrity is this desire to “change the world” or “make their mark” on it.

I think most of us, regardless of age or generation, simply are trying to keep up with life.  Life is busy, life is uncertain, life is chaotic…and life is lonely.  So young or old, we come searching….and certainly in this present day, young people simply come searching, looking for a place where they don’t seem so alone – so distant from something that feels like home or life family.  You’d think the world is dominated by these Millenials who want to reform the church and change the world…but really, these Millenials are simply searching for something that feels like home.

An example:  The other day we had one of those “young people” meetings I’m supposed to have to get more young people involved in the church, and we introduced ourselves, including how we came to be part of the congregation. I heard this beautiful story from a “Millenial” in one of my congregations. She had grown up in the church, left like so many, and decided she needed to starting going again. So she went church shopping, and happened upon this congregation because it was nearby and she grew up “Lutheran.”  As she came up that day, she was met by an elderly lady and the pastor (at that time) sitting on a bench outside the church.  They greeted her, asked her what brought her by to which she replied, “I guess I was looking around for a church, and thought I’d check this one out.”  The elderly lady replied,

“Well girl, you just sit your butt down right here next to me, because this is your new church home.”

That was the start of something…..this elderly lady took her and her husband in, constantly telling them and everyone that they were her “spiritual” and “church” children.  And this elderly women had doted on them as such.

That was years ago….and as this “Millenial” told me this story, it was in the shadow of this elderly women’s death a week before, and funeral the next day.

I share this story with you because I want you to know there are young people out there – a lot of them, in fact – that don’t want to change your church.  They don’t want to reform it or “blow it up.”  They don’t want to demand and force their way in.  What they simply are looking for is a place to rest, a place from the chaos of life, a place where they are known and loved – a place to call home.

And I think, perhaps you feel like you have so little to offer, the thing you have to offer that you regard as simplistic is really the most important thing of all.  Beyond the popular, idealistic Millenial cry for “meaningful everything” is the need for a home.  You can provide that; in fact, you might be the best group to offer that because as the years wane on and everything seems to disappear around you, your years of experience tell you to be known and to be loved in the end is really the most important thing. Experience has taught you the great lie about human achievement. You have learned through years of experience of a God in Christ who knows you and loves you….and the humble act of living that out is really the one thing that draws us and all people closer to God.

God gives us the gift of each other, so that we might know we’re not alone.  You know that, and you can offer that to the mass of other Millenials who simply want, and need, a home.

A concerned “30-something” pastor

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No Choice is Giving Them a Choice: Parents, Youth, & Church

I had lunch the other day with one of the 80 year-old “shut-ins” in one of my congregations.  It was a routine visit, primarily just to check up on her since I hadn’t seen her in a while.  She sweetly asked if I could bring over a pizza because she had been “craving it for a couple of weeks now.”  That probably gives you an indication of the kind of person she is; needless to say, I really enjoy our visits and I often walk away with little nuggets of wisdom.

As what typically happens with all my visits to my older congregations, the topic of conversation wandered towards the lack of young people in the church, and their reflection on their own children and grandchildren’s journey back to the church….or distance from it.  In the midst of our conversation, this wonderful, sweet lady reported to me her son and his family finally had found a church they were comfortable in, after years of searching.  “I’m happy for them,” she said.

And then she offered one of those nuggets of wisdom I so value, “My son always told me when he was growing up and even into adulthood how I never gave him the choice to go to church or not.  But I told him, how could you ever make a choice if you didn’t have a reference to choose from?  By making you go and participate in the church, I was giving you that reference…so you knew what you’d be choosing later on.”

By not giving her son a choice….she gave him a gift –  the freedom to make an informed choice later on.

As someone who’s worked with youth and families, I see this desire to give their kids choice play out with parents.  They let their kids decide if they want to participate or not – which is just the notion of faith being a personal choice being played out between parents and their kids.  It was a personal choice for them… it stands it should be for their kids.

Parents, in case you didn’t know, you are the most influential persons when it comes to your son or daughter’s faith life.  The NSYR, the largest study done on youth and faith, says this.  There are lots of articles like this that reinforce that finding.  And, there are Youth Ministry consultants like Rich Melheim at Faith Incubators that will tell you the same thing.  Shoot, even ask your local youth director or youth pastor.  You get the point: you have influence over your kids’ faith formation.  If it’s important to you, then it will be important to them.

But I think most parents still want their kids to choose.  Parents these days don’t want to be those overbearing figures in their kids’ lives, making their kids do something that actually is only important to them.  No parent wants to be that psycho parent that we often see in the stands and sidelines of sporting events, pushing their kid the whole time while their kid simply hates it and goes through the motion – only to quit once they have the freedom to do so.  Parents think the same about their kids and church too, I believe.

Yet, what if parents understood, like this 80 year-old congregant of mine, that not giving their kid the choice to attend church now actually will equip them to make an informed, intelligent choice later on?  For her, it wasn’t an imposition on her son; it was exposing him to the witness and testimony of what the church is and can be for his life.  Through the church, she hoped her son would see the role the church plays in testifying and embodying God’s presence and ongoing work in his life.  By insisting her son be exposed to the church, he would know what church was all about, so that he could make that choice for himself and for his family later on.

I think such a message to parents does two things: one, it empowers them to make a choice for their children while still maintaining that freedom of choice for them.  It empowers them to live into what all the studies and experts tell us about parents’ importance in the faith formation of their kids.  Yet there is also another message, one I think that might be more powerful: two, it demands that the church’s role in youth ministry is primarily about testimony and witness rather than assimilating youth into the beliefs, rituals, and practices of the church in order to gain their loyalty later on.  Think about it: if youth and family ministry is about the latter, then we actually end up not giving our kids a choice at all…..and in a culture where choice is valued by parents and kids alike – they might just walk away for good.

The former, however, becomes and invitation to come and see.  We don’t know how and if their experience of church will take hold in their lives at the present, but we trust the Holy Spirit to work in them, and when the moment happens, in that prior experience of witness and testimony…….they will be equipped to make a choice.

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The 4 Most Important Words Kids Must Learn About Their Parents

Two years ago today, my mom passed away.  Remembering her death is a mix of emotions for me because of a couple reasons.  One, her death falls so close to my dad’s (2 days apart).  Two, my relationship with my mom is drastically different than my dad’s.

If you read my post from Feb. 1st, my dad was a good man, not perfect, but everything a son or daughter would want their father to be in their life.  My dad not only treated us right, but gave us an example of how to treat others and live in integrity.  My mom on the other hand, was an alcoholic for most of my conscious life.  She fought with it, and lost – her family, her mental capacity to take care of her self, her emotional stability, her very life.  Her end is a sobering one: she died, struggling because she thought she was going to hell, holding on while literally being starved to death while on hospice.  And she died alone.

I will admit that I was bitter about her reality and its affect on my life for a long time.  In some ways, I still am.  But the real transformation for me came when I was able to say these words to myself:

Mom is not perfect.

A lot of people assume that “I forgive you” might be the more appropriate response, but the thing about forgiveness is, the person on the receiving end of those words might not care, or strangely, might be offended by them because they don’t think they’ve done anything that warrants needing forgiveness.  That was true about my mom at times…..and I was reminded of this fact by someone in my congregations last night.  While my mom did seek forgiveness later on in her life…I am reminded that there were plenty of years – her more mentally and emotionally competent ones – where that wasn’t the case.

Our parents are not perfect.  Even my dad, who I look up to dearly even today, was not perfect.  When you’re young, mom and dad are superheroes, and that’s ok to do that…..if you’re a little kid.  But as you grow up, and realize your parents aren’t perfect, I don’t think it’s helpful to continue to hold on to that image.  You’ll just be disappointed, maybe bitter…..but you’ll fail to see the beauty that can emerge from your parents’ flaws and brokenness.  And if you fail in that, you’ll fail so often to see the beauty that emerges from your own flaws and brokenness.  I know that’s been true for me.

My mom was a broken person.  She wasn’t perfect.  But none of us are.  And even though our parents aren’t perfect, that doesn’t mean they aren’t deserving of love and being valued – even though that might look differently than it might with others.  Perhaps…..this is the realization we need to live into with all our relationships.

It’s starts with our parents.  They are not perfect.  And that’s ok.

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The 5 Most Important Words Parents Should Say to Their Kids

Today is the 9th year anniversary of my dad’s death.  In a lot of ways, it’s hard to believe, because he died well before his time at age 55.  There are a lot of memories I don’t get to share with him, things I often wonder how he would react, what he would think, and generally what he would be doing with his life, likely retired from dairy-farming.  I’d imagine he’d be spending a ton of time with his grandkids, my older sister’s little boys…….

I think the hardest thing for me is, I wonder what my dad would be thinking of the life I’m living now.  What would he think of my choices, decisions, how I invest my life, my work?  I think that is what I miss the most, because whenever I would question any of those things about my life, my dad always responded with 5 little words, at just the right time:

I am proud of you.

I know in today’s world, every one says it’s the “three words” that matter (I love you, in case you were wondering).  Yet I think in a world where people move in and out of love so easily and so often, where love is just this very fluid thing, I don’t think it holds as much power as these 5 words.  Because while love expresses how you may feel about someone in that moment, and it feels good for a bit, saying “I am proud of you” means something entirely more profound:

I am paying attention to you and your life.

I am not ashamed of you.

I am willing to claim you as one of mine.

I really see goodness and potential in you.

In our shame-based world, a world where we’re compared, in competition, having to perform, needing to succeed and produce……much of what we do often leads to the self view that we’re failures, we’re worthless, and what we do and we ourselves are meaningless.  Nothing we do is seen, or matters.  I see that with a lot with my wrestlers….and I try to say it to them as much as I can.  When I do, I see how it changes them, just as it changed me when my dad said them.  I was seen; I was known; and I was not alone.  I had worth.

So parents, uncles, aunts, any adult who spends time with kids in their lives:

5 little words….but perhaps the most important ones we can say to them.  Words that change lives; words that matter.

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