Being a member of Generation X and serving as a pastor earns some recognition these days in church circles. Is this a good thing?
I have apprehensions about this recognition which are very typical of Generation X. The mainstream is a danger zone for my generation. We championed alternative music in our teen and young adult years, dancing and moshing to bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and an alternative life seems to be a goal for many of us, regardless of our vocational pursuits.
Mainline Protestantism is suffering a clergy shortage, and judging from the number of clergy representing Generation X—I am one of 740 in the ELCA—the shortage will probably get worse before it gets better. According to Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), the Millennial generation (born 1982-2002) may someday save the world from institutional decay. I am thankful, however, for this opportunity to share my prespective and experience as a GenX pastor regarding the current situation.
Because I Was Asked
Several groups of people concerned with the future of the Christian church have engaged in dialogue with me about my experience as a GenX pastor. To further personalize a very general question: Why would someone from a generation that generally shuns institutions want to be a part of such an established, slow-to-change, often entrenched institution as the Christian church?
I have a simple answer: because I was asked.
There is more to this answer, but when I look back on my life, I see that I was never earnestly invited to do anything else but take the path of ordained ministry. I was invited to serve Christ in the ministry by people who took the time to know me as a person. Those who invited me to the ministry walked with me and saw me (me!) as valuable.
I never received that invitation in my first two chosen vocations, journalism and Soviet/East European studies. I saw great opportunity for impact with those two vocational paths, and I enjoyed what they had to offer. No one chose to articulate my value to the mission of those vocational pursuits, though I desired (and still desire) to be a part of something that would make a difference in the world with my unique, God-given talents. This yearning for difference-making for God has put me where I am today—serving as a pastor in a Lutheran-Christian congregation.
The sense of being called to make a difference sends me back to the invitations to discipleship in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus offered his disciples a simple, personal invitation to make a difference—to fish for people. His disciples brought me into the ministry boat—hook, line, and sinker.
A Round Peg in a Square Hole
In some ways, seminary was a great place to explore the ways I could serve the Church in alternative ways, as I continually reflected on my unique gifts in the context of theological and vocational training. The numerous classes in Bible, history, theology, church and society, and missiology intrigued me and helped me ask critical questions about my desire to serve. Seminary was also a horrible place for seeking alternative service, for I was shoved like a round peg in a square hole into my present role.
The Holy Spirit and I had some choices in that process—I do not claim to be a victim. The square hole of which I speak was the seminary’s propensity to focus on the serving of pastoral-size congregations (50-150 average worship attendance). The seminary administers this kind of education well. However, the demands and expectations of a pastoral-sized congregation do not make use of most of my unique gifts as a child of God. Nor does pastoral-size congregation ministry represent a majority of opportunities for professional or ordained ministry.
My struggle with my vocational path began as I prepared for examination and interviews my final year in seminary. I saw the denomination I serve investing more resources in institutional and cultural Lutheranism than in the mission of making disciples of all nations. So what did I do with this struggle? With the encouragement of mentors and colleagues to find an alternative wya to serve Christ, I took the call to serve Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, and became one of 740 in my cohort.
I still face the struggle every day. Do I go to weekly institutional meetings? Do I attend every potluck dinner? How many pastoral care visits are appropriate? Why do Bible studies flounder without a pastor involved? Why do people say worship is not Lutheran unless we are holding a green book in our hands? Why do some members think I should be sitting in my office 30 hours per week? Help! There has to be an alternative.
Entering the Master’s Joy
Though I may be an idealist, I believe the parable of the talents conveys the expectation that good and faithful servants use all of their God-given talents, take the risks necessary, and dedicate those gifts to serving the Master. I seek to enter the Master’s joy by serving Jesus first and foremost. I am not interested in serving a denomination, nor a synod, nor any institution for its own sake. I seek to serve Christ. There is no other entity that gives life.
I think there may be a commonality in how those of Generation X might see the parable of the talents and approach the Church in general. Alternative attitudes are not about being different for the sake of being different. Rather, I see that service for Generation X is about positive impact in their own lives and the lives of others. If there is a lack of impact, it is time to change. Once alternative music was embraced by the mainstream, GenX lost interest and found other ways to express what was in their hearts.
For GenXers, there is no time to mourn over institutional failure. According to Howe and Strauss, my generation had to learn pragmatic behavior as we grew up in a society that did not value children. The church may be attractive, but if congregation’s impact drops below a certain level, the GenXer will be off to find another cause.
I have found great joy in using some of my gifts in the congregation I now serve. They have walked with me and supported me in developing many of those gifts. However, I feel a compromise in authenticity. This congregation needs and expects certain aspects of ministry that I cannot give. I do not believe I should waste resources by attempting to use gifts I do not have. I do not believe my congregation seeks a perfect pastor, but I wonder if I am the pastor they need. I wonder if there is a setting that will value my God-given talents. In the meantime, the congregation and I dance together with Christ—worshiping, studying, praying, laughing, crying, and hoping together.
I have many hopes for my life as a servant of Christ. I hope the Church can learn to value the gifts and perspectives of Generation X, Millennials, and generations to come. In the meantime, I am listening for some kind of alternative invitation from Christ to serve using all my talents, so I can enter into my Master’s joy.