Reflections of young adult clergy

May 2003: "The Box"

Several weeks ago, during our last Wednesday evening Lenten supper at the churches I'm presently serving, one of the older members said, "I feel like we're the Shakers here."

She went on to remind people about the Shakers, an American Christian group of men and women who live communally and maintained celibacy. In the 19th Century, the Shakers were a growing and thriving group. People were attracted to their simple, peaceful lifestyle. The Shakers also gained members because they took in orphaned children and raised them in the community. Often these children would themselves become Shakers as adults.

Over time, however, the Shakers had difficulty maintaining their communities as the older members died and there were fewer new members to keep things going. Today there are only a handful of Shakers; it looks as though they will be the last generation. Soon, stories will be all that is left.

Obviously, this is a sad and frightening future for church members to envision, especially since the Shakers' vow of celibacy didn't allow them to have children of their own. The folks at the churches I serve have children, but it seems that churches can no longer count on the succeeding generations to simply step into their parents' and grandparents' shoes.

Older folks have a difficult time understanding this. They come up with all kinds of different reasons and excuses for why their children and grandchildren don't support the churches that these older folks have put their lives into. They feel like they have done their duty supporting the churches of their parents. They feel betrayed that their children wouldn't do the same.

All of this, of course, is a generalization based on the observations I have made over five years of serving aging, anxious congregations. As a young pastor, I feel like I'm faced with two choices: 1) start a new church whose mission is to share the good news of God's love in Jesus, or 2) continue to help established, aging churches—of which there are many in the UCC—decide whether they want to go the way of the Shakers or reinvent themselves as missionary communities to the frightened and hurting world right outside their doors.

Each path has its risks and benefits. Many new church starts fail, and the challenge of creating a church that will eventually be able to support a pastor can seem huge, especially to a young pastor like me, with a family who depends on the church for income. On the other hand, a new church start offers the opportunity to create something new and exciting.

The fact is, older, established churches have many resources-spiritual, institutional, and financial. And, the older, established members of these older, established churches often exercise a great deal of power over these resources. The risk of serving in this setting is that the church members will not be able or willing to make the changes necessary to revitalize their ministries. Their hope is that they can hire a young pastor who will keep everything—at least all the "important" things—the same at the church and, at the same time, bring young people into the church who will want to do things "the way they've always been done." When they realize that this is not a realistic expectation, they get angry and frightened. They get stuck in what I call "the box."

"The box" is when a church realizes it can't take a time machine back to the "golden years" (back to, say, 1960, when the church was vital and full of young people), but it is too frightened to make the changes necessary to revitalize the church. Often those changes involve letting go of traditions that no longer connect with the people in the church's surrounding community. Letting go of those traditions can feel like death to some older people—whether it's a Sunday morning worship schedule or a community event that the community doesn't come to anymore. For some, the church without these traditions might as well be dead. It's just not "their church" anymore. Instead of critically assessing the usefulness of their traditions, a church in "the box" will blame young people for having their values and priorities all wrong. This, of course, is just another expression of their fear, anger, and grief. So the church is too frightened to move forward. It can't move back. It's stuck. It's in "the box." It is a very sad and frightening place to be, and it is a risk for many young pastors serving our aging churches.

The benefit of serving an aging, established church is that you put yourself in a position to see miracles happen. With God's grace, people can find their way out of "the box." And many young people long to connect with a tradition and a community with the kinds of rich histories that our older churches have.

The key is understanding—on all sides. The day after my church and I talked about the Shakers at our Lenten supper, I was in the car listening to the local college radio station. Neil Young came on the radio. He was playing his generation's plea for understanding. He sang, "Old man, look at my life. I'm a lot like you were..."

Let us look at each other-old and young, newcomers and old-timers-with understanding and love. Our churches don't have to go the way of the Shakers, but we do have to go the way of understanding.

Rev. Todd Grant Yonkman is a pastor at St. Michael's UCC and 1st Congregational UCC in West Chicago.

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