Passing on the Faith
Raising Church Leaders: What I Did This Summer
This summer, on a picket line for hotel workers, I got to introduce our summer intern to our former seminary intern Waltrina Middleton. She is now the Minister for Youth Advocacy and Leadership Formation for our denomination. She knows much more about youth leadership than I do. But she might not be in her current role if it were not for our work as a teaching church.
I know, I know. The cynical people who just read the memo about the decline of the church will tell me I am being irresponsible to ask these bright young people to consider the ministry. But I would argue that some of those decline statistics relate to the fact that the church stopped asking.
We stopped expecting excellent candidates for the ministry. We told them they could practice their faith just as well as lawyers. Some depressed pastors even told them to only consider the ministry if they could consider nothing else. Such soft sell modesty got us exactly what we asked for. It's time to ask for more.
Yes, of course you can practice your faith as a lawyer. But you can also practice your faith as a minister. And it's a rare minister these days who will make that claim.
Perhaps I'm just selfish. I want to make sure I have interesting people to sit next to at clergy meetings.
And I can't bear to sit through one more clergy meeting listening to older ministers wring their hands about "how to attract the missing young people." I am passionate about young leaders in the church but I am bored by the conversation about what "we have to do about it."
It is not my job to produce a church to appeal to all future generations. It is my job to produce leaders for the church from those future generations. It is also my job to teach my church that this is our job.
It is God's job to do the calling, into pulpits, pews, prayer rugs, or temples. But once God calls, the church needs to back it up. We need to make the case for leadership to our own church members when they are young enough to hear it.
When I was in high school and college, nobody mentored me into the ministry. Sure, I taught Sunday school, but not once did anyone suggest that I had the gifts for Christian leadership.
Now, let me be clear. I am not sure that I had those gifts at that time. I was sullen, troubled, and cynical. In other words, I was seventeen. But I took things a little further than your average teen. Let's just say that as an underachiever, I overachieved.
So much so that when I announced my plans to become a minister in my early twenties, my high school friends thought it was a practical joke.
No one else saw this in me. In fact, even after college, I would go on to be officially rejected in the ordination process by the Episcopal Church.
Perhaps it was that rejection that makes me so passionate about mentoring future leaders. They don't have to get ordained. But we ask them to explore a future as ministers or as lay leaders who have to work with ministers. We take them to visit seminaries, we teach them about pastoral care, and we expect them to lead worship and preach. We workshop their sermons and sometimes they cry. They have theological crises. As a result of this summer internship, I now have two groups of families that can potentially hate me: those whose children are not selected and those whose children are.
Most of those former interns are now in college. Some have changed majors as a result of that summer experience, or taken classes in religion "just for fun."
That's what I did back in college. I took religion courses "just for fun." I had no vocabulary for a calling. I had never met a woman minister. I did not know how any of this worked. I told my friends that I wanted to be a professor, because I didn't have the words to articulate that what I really wanted to be was a preacher.
Years later, our punk rock band ended when I went to divinity school on a hunch that, having been rejected by the Episcopalians, I might still be called.
Would you have looked at this kid at age seventeen and told her she had the gifts for Christian leadership?
I'd like to think that today, in my church, we would.
So that's how I spent my summer.
Lillian Daniel is the Senior Minister of First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, and the author of When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough.