The blog medium is wonderful, in many ways. But sometimes people have a bone to pick with me about something I wrote 3 months ago, and I can’t even remember what they’re talking about. Also, all writers learn to eat their words, at one time or another, but in this format, I have so many more words to eat.
I spoke to someone recently about this post. I deeply respect this pastor, and he had been a faithful part of the written ordination examination process for many years. And he wanted me to hear the other side. You know, the careful process that they go through to make sure the exams are fairly graded. He assured me that the failure of the appeal process was unique to my case.
I found myself getting a lot more heated than I should have. It started when he said, “People just need to pass. They don’t need the highest grade. They need to shoot for the lowest passing grade. Smart people get in trouble when they get too creative or start showing off.”
At that point, I protested, “What? We have enough average uncreative pastors. Why would we have a system that could possibly weed out smart, creative ones?”
We argued for a few moments, until we finally found a place where we agreed. I said, “I didn’t grow up Presbyterian, and there’s something about the way that Presbyterians do things culturally that I don’t get.”
That was it. There were certain things that I didn’t get then, and I don’t get now. But I’m not alone. There may have been a time in our country when people were born and bred into a certain religious tradition, and they stayed there for their whole lives. That time is long gone.
Many people have weighed in on the latest research tracking the fluidity of the religious landscape in our country. The migration is something that often marks adults in their 20s and 30s, but it’s not just us.
We had a new member class in our church yesterday, and as I looked around the table, there were Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, and one Episcopalian. And they varied in ages. Often they tried the churches in their own tradition, and something didn’t quite fit, so they ended up in our congregation. Anyone who’s been in a growing church in the last ten years knows the reality of people coming from other religious traditions, or from no tradition at all.
We need to encourage our pastors to be vibrant, smart, and creative. And we need to realize that a healthy, growing denomination will have very few candidates that will come from their own tradition.
That was the biggest cultural change I went through. In the Evangelical church, when someone joins from the mainline, everyone welcomes him. They figure that conversion into Evangelicalism is absolutely the most logical thing that one can do.
Entering the PCUSA was much different. There was a whole lot of skepticism. When my husband and I were examined for ordination, people asked, over and over again, “Why did you leave a growing church to be a part of a dwindling one?”
On good days, they couldn’t understand the shift. On bad days, some acted as if we had a nefarious conservative plot to take over the denomination. During a very low point, our own local congregation thought that we were trying to steal their money.
(I guess I better explain that. Our pastor promised us book money from the church when we went off the seminary. He gave us the church Cokesbury card number. When he left the congregation, the church didn’t know about the promise. We used the card. They were furious. They wanted their money back. We were shocked. And we didn’t have any money to give them. It was explained to us by an elder who said, “Well, you know, you didn’t grow up in our church….” When we finally got through the ordination process, the interim pastor preached a blistering sermon about how the church SHOULD be proud…).
As I read UnChristian, I’m struck by the radical inconsistencies between people aged 16 to 29 and the Evangelical churches that so many of them grow up in. They’re tired of people trying to convert them, they don’t understand anti-homosexual attitudes, and they appreciate diversity. Very few of them are conservative Republicans.
In the coming years, it will be the most logical thing for young Evangelicals to begin entering the mainline.
Now the question will be, can we accept them? More than that, can we welcome them? Can we appreciate their leadership in our pews and in our pulpits? Can we become aggressive about planting new churches, where new leadership can flourish? If we can somehow learn to do this, this could be a very vital time for our congregations.