We’re now knee-deep in 2016. This year I will turn 32. This year marks a decade in pastoral ministry for me. Over these past ten years, I have served three congregations: three years (while in seminary) at a small, rural church founded in the 1800s; nearly four years at an established congregation on the urban/suburban fringe of a small city; and I just began my fourth year at a 165-year old, moderate-sized congregation in a rural community about five miles from a university.
I’m a pastor, and I’m a “millennial” (if you’re unsure of what I mean by “millennial,” take a moment or two to Google it; you’ll find more than you’ll need). Many of my millennial peers in ministry have taken less traditional routes for kingdom service: some have started their own congregations on more post-modern foundations, with innovative worship practices and hands-on service projects; some have abandoned the idea of organized, congregational ministry altogether opting instead to hold small-group conversations in coffee shops and bars; and still others have taken to the web with online “congregations” following blogs, webcasts, or “hangouts.” Some have walked away from ministry altogether having been discouraged or hurt by an institution that seems antagonistic towards youth, progress, and change. I can certainly sympathize with my friends and colleagues who have opted for a path away from traditional, congregational ministry, yet I still feel called to serve these congregations, and I have hope that those of us who stick it out will be able to lead these institutions out of growing irrelevance and into a bright future of bringing God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”
In light of these past ten years, my quasi-academic research, and my present position with all of its joys, frustrations, and challenges, I wish to make a few observations (and a few predictions) about what it means to be a millennial pastor in a traditional, institutional congregation.
As a millennial pastor, I am in the demographic minority. In the three congregations I have served, my wife and I have been a part of the smallest peer group in each, and we were often the youngest adults in the church. Every church wants more young adults in the pews (especially if they have children and disposable income), but as so many studies (like those from the Pew Research Center) show, millennials are less likely to be religious than previous generations, which means they’re less likely to show up for church services (especially the “extra” services like those on Sunday and Wednesday evenings). Maybe this trend will change, but the research so far seems to suggest it will continue.
As a millennial pastor, I am often expected to do things simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Now, I know this has always been an issue for ministers, regardless of their age or generation, but for me as a millennial, I have often been expected to do things that seemingly serve no ministerial purpose outside of habit or institutional preservation, things that have no meaning or purpose for me or those in my generation. These sorts of “sacred cows” for previous generations have no appeal to millennials (and other unchurched folks), and can serve to only distract from the real needs of the community and innovative ministry.
As a millennial pastor, patience is a necessity. My generation lives at a breakneck pace, with a short attention span. Waiting can prove difficult, but it is necessary when leading a generationally diverse group of people, especially when you are leading that group through institutional transitions in the midst of cultural change. However…
As a millennial pastor, too much patience can lead to falling into a rut. One of the most frequent pieces of advice I got when I entered ministry was something along the lines of “Don’t try to change anything for the first six months/year/two years of your ministry.” The idea was that a pastor has to get to know her/his congregation and build trust before trying new things. The reality is, however, that the pace of change is only quickening, and the “honeymoon” months of a new pastorate is valuable time to be used to set the pace for those transitions needed in order to bring a congregation out of a dangerous rut. With the reality of a quickening pace of change, waiting for six months or more before doing anything new could result in missed opportunities that come with the energy of a new pastor.
As a millennial pastor, it is important to understand I can’t do it all—and I’m going to need help. As church staffs get smaller and the days of specialized ministry are mostly behind us, pastors will be expected to take on more responsibilities, to give more of their time—time that’s mostly already taken by the work of the church. That means some of those responsibilities that were once considered the sole responsibility of the pastor will need to be taken on by the congregation. Pastoral care will need to transition into congregational care, that is to say that congregations will need to share the load of care as pastor’s schedules can’t allow for constant hospital calls, home visits, and attendance at community functions.
As a millennial pastor, my vocational future isn’t so clear. As church budgets get tighter and more and more people seem to be finding their spiritual lives outside of the institutional church, a seminary-trained minister in search of a full-time pastorate may struggle to find such a position. This means that there will be a need for vocational flexibility in the years ahead, and churches must be aware that if ministers have to take on second jobs the congregation is going to have to take on many of the tasks formerly reserved for the pastor.
These are just a few of my observations about congregational ministry as a millennial pastor and just a few of my own predictions about the future of congregational ministry. The truth is, pastoral ministry will only see more difficulties in the days ahead as we are tasked with guiding an ancient institution through the tumultuous waters of contemporary change, and these difficulties will be compounded as many congregations become safe harbors for those wishing to resist change. My prayer is that my friends (my millennial peers) will remember their calling, because it will be millennial pastors who will lead the Church into the future.
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