A recent conversation has continued resurfacing in my mind. The short version is that someone’s reaction to meeting a younger clergy person was that they seemed kind of cynical. The person who made this comment is someone who I find to be charitable and not quick to find fault with others. So, the comment stuck with me.
Since this very brief conversation, I have found myself wondering if that is a criticism that is too often true of younger clergy. As a younger clergy person, I know it has been true of myself at times. I am not sure why this is the case, but for many of us who are in our twenties and early thirties who are seminary students and pastors, we tend to be quicker to find problems than to look for solutions. And we tend to be contemptuous or scornful of those we disagree with.
Sometimes the conversations that leave me feeling the most drained and hopeless for the future of the church are with groups of younger clergy. And this is something that too often I have found to be true of younger clergy across the theological spectrum (I am referring here primarily to the younger United Methodist clergy I have interacted with). Sometimes it seems that what we primarily have in common is our age and our ability to see the negative in nearly any situation.
In some ways, this should not be all that surprising. We are the generation that has made the Daily Show and Steven Colbert our preferred news source. Both of these shows are satires that are dripping with sarcasm, and often seem to appeal to their audience based on a kind of “inside joke” mindset. In other words, you get these jokes and understand the hypocrisy, because you are smarter than the people Stewart and Colbert are talking about. (See, there I go being cynical and quick to find fault…)
However, my experience with younger clergy is not that we are all cynical all the time. (Of course I am painting with very broad brush strokes here. There are many clergy who are younger and do not fit the stereotype I am developing here.) Cynicism, it seems to me, comes out most clearly when groups of younger clergy come together. Though we can be very cynical in groups, every younger clergy person I have talked to is passionate about the church and has ideas for how to strengthen and improve it.
Ultimately, I don’t know why cynicism tends to be particularly pronounced when younger clergy come together in groups (and I may simply be wrong about this generalization). I wonder if part of it is that it is a collective expression of frustration that the church seems to be so desperate to have younger clergy, but then does not always seem to be very good stewards of the younger clergy that they do have. In other words, there may be some reason for cynicism. It can be difficult to hear people talk about the crisis of younger clergy and at the same time feel like nobody is noticing or listening to the younger clergy who are in the church.
However, the point of this post is not to justify cynicism among younger clergy. I am writing to challenge myself and any younger clergy who might read this to consider whether cynicism is a virtue, or whether we might want to consider trying to look at things in more positive and productive ways.
Going back to the beginning of this post, I think one of the reasons my friend’s comment has stayed with me is because I suspect that cynicism amongst younger clergy is more of a hindrance than an asset. I believe the church absolutely needs us to provide leadership. However, I also believe the church needs us to have hope in what God wants to do in the places that we are called to serve. There are certainly reasons to be dissatisfied, and I am not arguing that we should ignore or overlook problems. Instead, I am arguing that noticing problems should prompt us above all else to look for solutions.
In other words, I don’t believe that the gift that God has given this generation of younger clergy for the church is the gift of being able to point out problems with the church. Rather, I believe that our gift is to boldly look for solutions, with faith that God will provide. I have seen signs of younger clergy making positive contributions to the life of the church, and I know that we are just getting started. I hope and pray we will not be distracted by the reality that the church we are serving is not perfect. Instead of diagnosing what is wrong with the last step that the church took, or is taking, perhaps we can begin to seek to discern what the next step is.
What do you think?
I don’t know if ‘cynicism’ would be the right word, and I’m speaking completely for myself.
The younger generation will always perceive that the world is not right and there are things that we need to do change it.
I’m assuming that the older clergy, when they were our age, saw things that they were not satisfied with in the world and in the churches, and sought to make changes.
It’s not that I’m cynical… it’s just that I agree with what Mike Slaughter said when “our theology is right for today, but our methodology is broken.”
However, anyone can say anything and anyone can write anything.
If we as young clergy are doing nothing but pointing out the the wrongs and faults of our institution, we’re not being helpful, and we may end up being jaded and cynical.
I think you’re right on when you say that we need to begin to discern what the next step is, instead of just complaining and pointing out the wrongs.
I am more and more aware, writing my papers for ordination, that we should just stop talking and start doing.
The old church, when someone claimed to be healers, they didn’t talk about healing people, they went and healed people. Their actions did their talking, and I think that’s a lesson that I and all clergy can learn from
Dan Elmore said:
When I have found myself getting cynical in groups of whatever age clergy, I find it to be exactly what you said, “a collective expression of frustration”. And when I’m the most frustrated, I find I’m being the most cynical, and I find that it’s a vicious cycle, because the more cynical I get the more frustrations I find.
It is quite frustrating when we say we want/need/value young clergy and then when I offered my opinion at a district clergy meeting I actually got patted on the shoulder and told, “That’s ok, you’ll learn one day.” It’s quite tempting to pursue other denominations when I get more respect from some of my baptist colleagues than I do from many UM colleagues. But I’m too thoroughly Wesleyan to be baptist. 🙂 It was REALLY frustrating to sit and listen at Annual Conference to debate on matters that would radically affect, one way or another, the future of the church to which I plan to offer the next 30+ years of ministry, but not even have the right of voice on such matters because I’m not “in” yet.
But lately God has helped me get perspective by realizing God is still God, Jesus is still Jesus, the Holy Spirit is still guiding me whether I’m recommended for ordination or continued, and there’s still fruitful ministry to be done where God has me for this time. That brings great peace.
I think cynicism is just half-assed criticism. What I mean by that (the half part) is that real criticism offers solutions to the problem. But cynicism is simply bitching (is swearing young clergy parlance?) without the solution, or even more so, cynicism redirects responsibility to others.
I think that’s where the rub is. I’ve encountered in my own modes of cynicism (to be sure, I am not excluded from this very real sin), that it stems from frustration of feeling like I don’t have a voice to enact change, and certainly not a vote in the matter. Of course, I’m a student local pastor and a candidate, but it does my heart little good to be told, “Wait until you’re an Elder, then you can change the way we do things.” (A near direct quote from an Elder on my DCOM.)
One one hand, I could be bold and defy that Elder’s recommendation/chastisement and continue to voice and enact change which some in power/authority may see is beyond what I am permitted and risk making the path toward ordination harder than need be (or God forbid, end). On the other hand, I can keep my mouth shut and wait till I’m in full connection to do and say that of which I am convicted.
Regardless, both of these areas are the breeding ground for discontentment and cynicism. To bring it full circle, I personally don’t know which to do, so I do nothing. Except bitch. Which makes my criticism half-assed.
matt judkins said:
Wow, I resemble this remark. I was speaking to a friend today, and he said, “man, you’re really cynical.” It was an eye-opening comment, and then I read this post. Thanks for continuing the convicting Kevin.
I tend to agree with you, but I think the cynical bug goes beyond young clergy. The least cynical people I meet in the UMC are often people who haven’t been to seminary. This makes me wonder if our education model tends toward critcism without construction. Anyone can tear something apart, but building something up takes perseverance, focus, and creativity.
Anyway, thanks for the post. It had given me much to think about.
Wow – excellent post. I recently read some sort of article or blog post about skepticism being one of the supreme virtues of our pop-culture; and very necessary for anyone attempting to be cool. Skepticism about everything: the government, the media, the church, the bankers, the American dream – we feel the collective need to be skeptical about everything.
I was thinking that it feels like when I get together with other clergy it sometimes seems as if this attitude can pop up in our conversations – skepticism about “the church” (and we aren’t usually thinking of ourselves or the people in the pews near us when we say that).
But people already have plenty of encouragement to be skeptical, and I do not believe that a presbyter or deacon in God’s holy Church should model that sort of attitude. I would much rather be known as someone who was filled with “faith hope and love” – and who was a little too prone to “always trust” – than be the wise pastor who could quckly find the fault in every aspect of the Church’s life and who was constantly talking about “what’s wrong with the church”.
to tame the tongue……..I have a lot to learn from James as my rudder is very often fighting against the direction the winds of the spirit are blowing in my life.
I am a Methodist layperson member of a royal priesthood who strives to follow my Rabbi, Jesus. Let me first say we do have plenty to be cynical about if that is our chosen response. Weather it is the lack of leadership from our elders (older) or caring more about the building the church meets in that the people who are the church there is fault to be found if I seek it out. The most popular topic of complaint is our current senior pastor. Most of the younger folk would like to see him gone, but as I struggled weather to shank him with the SPRC I think I heard something different. If we request a change then our DS must find a home for this guy, she must curse another congregation, because he is guaranteed a job. I think I heard we, our congregation, might be called to be Christ to this man. What if he was sent to us to be build up not sent to build us up. What if by building him up we are allowing the spirit to grow in us. What if our fates are inexplicably linked? Me We?
I can and often do choose to sit back and bitch, I am with you Kurt, or I can ask myself is this talk meant to “build others up”. I can seek to align my rudder to the winds of the spirit. Who did I say I was following???
BTW the formatting was stripped from my post the “Methodist layperson” was struck through:)
Smith Spencer said:
Very good, post… See, I’m not always cynical.
Ruth Atterberry said:
Criticism has its place and those of you who are young can remind us that we too easily accustom ourselves to problems that do not have ready solutions. At the risk of totally dating myself I add this link. Golding agrees with most of you when he says mid-way throug:,
I found that grade two [cynicism] was not only the power to point out contradictions. It took the swimmer some distance from the shore and left him there, out of his depth. I decided that Pontius Pilate was a typical grade-two thinker. “What is truth?” he said, a very common grade two thought, but one that is used always as the end of an argument instead of the beginning. There is still a higher grade of thought which says, “What is truth?” and sets out to find it.
John Meunier said:
he least cynical people I meet in the UMC are often people who haven’t been to seminary. This makes me wonder if our education model tends toward critcism without construction. Anyone can tear something apart, but building something up takes perseverance, focus, and creativity.
Matt Judkins’ thought here strikes me as crying out for more discussion.
Do our seminaries train people to be constructive?
I had this conversation with someone.
This person was asked by a youth pastor who had a student who was interested in ministry, which seminary should the pastor recommend..
The person replied, i wouldn’t recommend seminary at all. If your student really wants to learn about God and ministry, tell him to go to Africa or Israel or the Middle East.
Which is rather controversial, because 1) this person holds a conference level position and 2) seminary education is required for ordination in the UMC.
But, John’s right, Matt’s response does need more discussion.
What does seminary prepare us for…?
Kevin Watson said:
Wow, great conversation! Thanks to all of you for taking time to share your thoughts!
I agree with John, Matt’s comment on seminary particularly made me go “hmm…” and I have continued chewing on it. My initial reaction is that I think there may be a helpful connection betweent Kurt’s comment and Matt’s. If Kurt is right, then it would not be a weakness for seminary to teach students to think critically… because thinking critically on Kurt’s definition would involve honest evaluations of various theologies or ways that the church has been, or has not been faithful in history (as if these are obvious and easy to make distinctions!) but it would also involve a way forward, an alternative improved vision.
Whether this is what actually happens in seminaries is perhaps a different question. Initially, I would say that I see signs that many seminaries are moving in a more critical and less cynical direction. I am increasingly hearing seminaries, such as my alma matter – Wesley Theological Seminary, talking about being “church based seminaries.” This sort of description I would imagine serves as a reminder that the church needs leaders who have a vision for what the church should be and do… and a sense of what steps to take in order to help lead the people of God toward this vision.
Finally, it is a hopeful sign to me that so many of you have read this and weighed in in a non-defensive manner. This serves to strengthen my sense that younger clergy have an abundance of gifts to offer the church and that the tendency towards cynicism is something to be aware of, but is not by any means the final word on the up and coming generation of leaders of the church.
I look forward to hearing more from you all.
As a lay person on a BOM, I have heard the charge of “cynicism” leveled more often on our older clergy. They were in their 20s and 30s once and saw themselves as the generation that would turn around Methodism. Now in their 50s and 60s, many look back at an institution that has drastically shrunk under their leadership and feel conflicted about their legacy. This has manifested, in my conversations with them, as a mix of cynicism and careerist self-preservation.
When cynical-seeming comments come from other folks my age (20s-low 30s), those, too, seem intermixed with a career-oriented perspective. The institutional mechanisms of the UMC are seen as obstacles to career advancement. While a certain analytical cynicism is part of our generation, as you mention (and Stewart and Colbert are great examples), I think a mental framework of full-time ministry as a job with institutional levels of advancement and certain entitlements, rather than (the older generations’) backward-glancing ambivalence, is to blame.
But then, the pastors my age who seem least cynical are also the ones who don’t own televisions, so maybe this analysis does undervalue the role of culture.
matt judkins said:
I don’t have much more to add to the question I brought up, but I had another thought when checking back in this morning.
While cynicism is often global (or denominational), I can’t help but think that most hope is local (hope and cynicism are then ends of the two poles, aren’t they?). My least cynical times have came in conversations with people who are experiencing God’s transforming grace, or times when small communities of believers are experiencing renewal in profound ways.
great thoughts; cynicism knows no age; we are serving God in a broken system.
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David Quillin--lamont umc said:
Just reread your article: couldn’t let it go.
Just reread your article; couldn’t let it go. jeanette is correct. cycinism knows no age. recently attended the church that my son and his family regularly attend . it is a nondenominational start up. a real eye opener. nothing but a positive, upbeat entity. spent over an hour after services just talking with the members of the congregation. nobody wanted to leave. we could learn much from them. this is somewhat of a digression from your thoughts, but was a real vacation from the cynical environment which all of us are familiar. our best to you.
I read your blog in the United Methodist Reporter. I am shocked that your experience is that your generation’s preferred NEWS sources are The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. These are entertainment programs! This explains a lot. It’s no wonder that our church is leaning more and more left and that we in the congregation are more and more disappointed in our young pastors. As a member of an older generation who reads a daily newspaper, watches TV news, and searches the Internet for more information, I find this lack of interest in what’s going on in our country and the world very disturbing.
Perhaps the cynicism explains why our United Methodist pastor is only seen on Sunday mornings for the twelve minutes his sermon lasts. He cynically says no one listens after twelve minutes and others are in charge of the rest of the service.
it’s interesting to see that cynicism bridges the generation gap…
gingerC – I wrote a long response, but then thought about it and realized it would not be beneficial to the ongoing dialogue.
But, let it be said, I’d rather hear from Jon Stewart than anyone on CNN or Fox News. That’s not to say I don’t go also check out LA times and other local news papers and broadcasts.
And, your comments about your pastor does not reflect all young clergy. Just like my comments about older congregation often behave like ostrich with its head in the sand applies to all congregations.
There are serious flaws in both younger and older clergy, but the great news is that God still chooses to use everyone and anyone to get God’s message across. And we need to figure out how to work together and work through our differences and realize that we are out there to serve one purpose…
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