Eye to eye across a restaurant table laden with plates of oysters and wine goblets brimming with fine German Riesling, a young candidate for ministry and the more experienced clergyman who had nominated him for a first pastorate met to discuss a just-preached trial sermon. The young pastor waited with foreboding as his patron searched for a way to break the bad news. Then Martin Niemöller, eventual founder of the German Confessing Church, said to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, eventual martyr in Hitler’s death camps, “The written evaluation of the search committee states that your preaching style was too demanding, and your message depressing.”
Niemöller went on to tell Bonhoeffer that his message was too challenging for most congregations in Germany, leaving the young pastor with dwindling hopes for a first call. Then Niemöller turned the topic to church politics, proposing a strategy of accommodation with Hitler and his new-to-power Nazis. Bonhoeffer replied, “You can’t be serious.” Niemöller, after attempting to persuade his inexperienced but immovable conversational partner, concluded, “Let me warn you, no church in Germany will have you with your present opinions. There is a vacancy in London which has been open for more than a year, because it’s a dreary low-paying position and few clergymen want to leave the country now, not with the excitement here. But if you persist in isolating yourself, it’s the only type of position you’ll be able to find, now or in the future.”1
The riveting historical novel this conversation is taken from reconstructs Bonhoeffer’s life for our imaginations. As part of a work of fiction, the conversation may or may not have happened the way Giardina tells it. But regardless of its historical accuracy, it tells the truth. It tells the truth about Bonhoeffer’s lonely resistance to the Nazis, about what that resistance cost him over more than a decade of protest, and about how an encounter with this young minister shaped the future of the eventually imprisoned Niemöller. In addition, it tells an important truth about our need for young ministers. Twenty-seven years of age when he was exiled to London, Bonhoeffer sopke truth to power, first as he opposed the church body he depended upon for employment, then later in his life when he was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
As I considered the shrinking pool of young ministers in America (the special focus of this issue of CONGREGATIONS), I found myself returning to this portrait of Bonhoeffer, the troubled, lonely prophet who, while still in his thirties, dared to participate in the immoral act of an assassination attempt because of the danger of the greater evil of the Holocaust. The young, flawed, but unflinchingly moral cleric challenged the Christian community of his time to grapple with its complicity in the processes of death and destruction. That youthful challenge became the raw material of an argument that spanned the world for several generations, an argument that called many to think about the meaning—and the cost!—of discipleship in the modern world.
Remembering Bonhoeffer led me to recall other young Turks, inexperienced but often transformative leaders who led their religious communities into controversies that changed reality. Staying for a moment in German soil, I remembered Martin Luther, who posted his 95 Theses at age 34 and rocked the Roman Catholic world. As I mused about this, my colleagues at the Institute joined me in a parlor game. Who were the leaders who changed their religious communities and the world around them, and how old were they? We developed quite a list.
John Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes when he was 27. Ignatius of Loyola started to write his Spiritual Exercises at 31. Julian of Norwich wrote the first account of her mystical experiences at age 30. Jonathan Edwards, the first great American theologian, was 31 when he led his first revival. George Whitfield led the Great Awakening while in his twenties. Angelina Grimke began to radicalize women of the South against slavery at age 31. Elizabeth Bailey Seton founded the Sisters of Charity in Baltimore at age 35. Jane Addams opened Hull House at age 29. Billy Graham preached his first great revival at age 30. Martin Luther King, Jr., was 28 when he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at 34. And of course there are Moses, Jesus, Muhammed, and Buddha, all traditionally understood to have been in their thirties when they moved to their foundational leadership roles.
I do not recount that list because I want to practice a reverse ageism, which assumes that all great leaders are young when they make their marks. Nor do I assume that all leadership should be measured against those who have made large historical contributions. A closer look at the list will quickly disabuse us of many generalizations about leadership. Some of those mentioned defied nations and empires. Others wrote great books. Still others built institutions. Some mesmerized crowds as preachers. Others frequently stood alone or led with the power of quiet suffering or contemplation. Moreover, the list spans centuries and wide differences in social circumstances, so we should be careful about sweeping assertions. But the tantalizing fact remains: young leaders play an indispensable role in the unfolding and reforming of our faith traditions.
Losing Our Edge?
I ponder the list because during this time when many of our faith communities seem to be unable to attract the younger generation or call young people into leadership roles, something very important is at stake. If the statisticians are corrent that the average age of entering seminary students is over 34—past the age when most of the folks on my list had made their first major waves—and if they are correct when they point to the small (and shrinking) percentages of clergy under the age of 40 in our denominations, then we are running the risk of losing our edge. To stay vital, religious communities and traditions need the pressure of the next generation. They need the moral challenge of conviction that comes with the idealism of youth and the lack of countless qualifications that come with middle and old age. They need the outrage at hypocrisy, the naive questions, and the freshness of not having done it that way before. The wisdom of the elders needs the stirring, shaking questions of the younger to stretch beyond smugness, weariness, or limited imagination.
There are many reasons for concern when we are confronted by declining numbers of young clergy. We can worry about filling all the pulpits that will empty as the boomers retire. We can wonder who will staff the youth groups or what will happen to our pension plans as the pool of clergy dwindles. But for me the greater concern has to do with the dynamism of our traditions themselves. There is something about the young person asking the old person why, about the challenge of emerging leaders, that quickens our faith communities. Even more, there is the new power of a rising generation that dares to believe in fresh ways—the marvel of new faith—that lifts our vision and inspires new commitments. Our failure to recruit people who, to find their treasure, will challenge us and test our traditions is a warning sign. To let this failure continue is to risk losing our vitality and our future.
1. Denise Giardina, Saints and Villains (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), pp. 152-53.