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?