On my thirtieth birthday, I interviewed by conference call for my current position as minister of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Terre Haute, Indiana. The interview went well, I thought. They asked good questions about my theological perspective and my biblical training. They wanted to know about my recent experience developing Christian education programs in a medium-size church. Then one brave soul finally asked the question I had been dreading: How would I respond to the objection that I was too young to pastor a church of 400-plus members?
The muscles in my jaw tightened. Defensiveness and fear ran through me. Doubt soon followed. “Can I do the job? Who am I fooling?” I thought. “How WILL I minister at such a young age?” In seminary, I may have aced my Bible and theology classes, may have completely understood systems theory, may have studied the polity of three different denominations. But I lacked experience—life experience and church experience—and the maturity that comes with it. At that time, I especially lacked experience ministering to people who were much older than I.
In the few moments after the dreaded question, memories of my grandfather flashed before my eyes. He was one of the few elders in my childhood with whom I had a significant relationship, and he was not a very nice man. Part of me still despised him for his abusive behavior. Another part of me continued to fear him, even though he had died years before. I often worried that my feelings about him might threaten my relationships with older people in the congregations I would serve. What if I couldn’t minister to these people? What if I found myself afraid of them? Worse, what if I couldn’t bring myself to like them?
Suddenly, out popped my answer to the search committee’s question. I felt like a comic strip character looking at the bubble above his head and wondering how those words got there. I said, “Remember that Jesus was only 30 when he began his public ministry. I’m certainly not Jesus, and I understand your concern about my credibility as a young pastor. But I hope the church won’t dismiss a candidate for ministry just because she happens to be Jesus’ age.” The silence on the other end of the line lasted only a few seconds. Then the chuckles began, and a few “amens” drifted over the line. By the end of the interview, the search committee was singing “Happy Birthday” to me.
All Kinds of People
After four years of serving this Indiana church and six years in ordained ministry, I have come to understand that pews are filled with all kinds of people—old and young, gentle and strident, hurtful and kindhearted. Not surprisingly, I have found that the most challenging people do not all come from one generation. I have also discovered ways to minister genuinely and compassionately to those with difficult and even abusive personalities. In Christ, God heals wounds. God mends relationships and brings together new families in Christ. I have seen God’s reconciliation at work in my life through my ministry.
I have learned to be humble in ministry, especially with regard to my elders. I have learned to honor their experience and yet not let their perspective govern everything I do. Many people in my church expected that because I was so young, I would make numerous changes. Of course, many hoped for the changes I could bring—a new perspective, fresh ideas, and the kind of energy that might spark renewal. But most people, I think, feared that the church and I would simply leave them behind, along with the old way of doing things.
Certainly, I do things differently than my predecessor—everything from administration to worship to mission to my personal involvement in the church. When I began my maternity leave this past year (a completely new experience for all involved!) I remember Jack, a gentleman in his seventies, gently testing me on my ability to care for him once the baby was born. “I wonder who will bury me now,” he said wistfully one morning. My response, I hope, honored his fear and his importance in my life and yet challenged him to accept a little change, too. I said, “Jack, I am your pastor. I love this church. I may be a new mother with new responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean I leave behind all my former relationships. God has called me to be a pastor and a mother, and I do not believe that God calls people to ministries that are in conflict with each other. I need to find the balance, and you can bet I will look to experienced grandparents like you to help me figure it out!”
Raised in a Postmodern World
One of the joys in ministry for me has been the discovery of my affinity with those in older generations, especially with people over 70. I believe that this affinity has its roots in certain influences that my generation has experienced.
As a member of Generation X, I have been raised in a postmodern world. Like many others my age, I do not hold as sacred the tenets of modernity—the centrality of the individual; the superiority of objective, verifiable truth claims; the finality of absolute standards of moral and ethical behavior; and the uncertainty of subjective belief systems. I came of age during a period of radical deconstruction of language and meaning. I was taught that nothing was objective verifiable, given the subjectivity of all thought. In fact, I learned to be skeptical of absolutes of any kind, for absolute standards tend to benefit those with enough social power to establish the standards in the first place.
The individual, therefore, has become a questionable source of enduring truth for me—he’s much too subjective and self-interested to be trusted on his own. A character in the movie The Last Days of Disco summarized the waning of modernity when he responded to the old truism, “To thine own self be true.” He wondered out loud to his friends how this could be good advice if he didn’t really like himself. What if his self is a cheat, a jerk, someone who would hurt a friend just for a buck? Who wants to be true to that?
Also, the rising dominance of television and film in the last half century, the development of the World Wide Web, and the increase of global travel have all exposed my generation to a diversity of cultures and belief systems at a young age. Unlike many of our elders, we tend to take this diversity for granted.
I find that GenXers tend to be more comfortable with paradox than many of our predecessors. We often seek truth outside the realm of science and research, and yet we are more technologically savvy than older generations. We yearn for the rituals, stories, and songs that tell us who we are and whence we come, yet we are tolerant of a surprisingly wide range of behaviors and belief systems. We like traditions and history, and yet, I find, we are generally more liberal on social issues than older Americans.
All this had led some people my age to look for truth and meaning in decidedly unmodern places. Like many GenXers, I search for communities and relationships that can give meaning and accountability to my life and help me set standards for behavior and morality. Many GenXers have looked for this kind of support in gangs or Internet chat rooms. But young people are also finding their way to churches and service organizations in record numbers these days. The return of young professionals to urban neighborhoods is yet another sign of my generation’s yearning for community.
Connected to the Past
So what is it about my postmodern perspective that fosters the affinity I feel with people over 70? Many GenXers yearn for the connections to the past that their Baby Boomer parents may have abandoned as too old-fashioned. I yearn, for example, for the kind of communities built in the post-World War II years—neighborhoods with sidewalks and common fences,
not suburban subdivisions with acres between houses. I like ritual. I find it illuminating, not confining. I love stories of the old days; they tell us who we are, shape our identity. I have discovered that many people my age want to know the Bible stories they failed to learn as children. They want to search the pages of the Bible for some kind of truth that matters to them. They find the mysteries of faith interesting and inspiring, not superstitious and empty.
Two of my favorite people in the world are over 85 years of age. Martha and Ted welcomed me into my new church with the kind of gracious hospitality that would put anyone at ease. But it is not just their kindness I admire. It’s their ability to live faithfully with contradictions. Ted and Martha fought the civil rights battle in predominately white Midwestern churches. They’ve recently learned how to e-mail their granddaughter, who is on mission in South Africa. They invite openly gay men and lesbians into the church. And yet they are sticklers for the old ways—the old hymns, the King James Version of the Bible, grape juice instead of wine in the cup! Their witness has been a bridge between young and old; it has healed wounds, built new relationships, and helped to break the hold of my grandfather’s memory over me.
One Sunday, a visitor introduced himself to Martha: “My name is Terry and I’m new.” Martha answered, “Well, I’m new, too! We’ll get along just fine!” When the fellow eventually joined the church, he discovered that Martha was not new at all. She was everyone’s grandmother, loved by all, the unofficial matriarch of the church. He asked Martha one day why she lied to him when she told him she was new. “I didn’t lie,” she said. “I AM new. Every day, just like you, I am made new in Christ.”
No matter what our age, young or old, we are made new in Christ. Perhaps young and old can learn a new or perhaps very old truth from this testimony of faith.