By Pat Trask, GCSRW Seminary Intern
I am a Baby Boomer. I didn’t ask to be born during that generation. It just happened. My mother was the youngest of a large family that spanned 18 years. She and my father, the oldest of two sons, raised my brothers and I with values more like our oldest aunt than like our classmates’ families. Just at the time when I fit into the paradigm (minus the gender aspect) of parish ministry candidate, the paradigm seems to be shifting to a younger, sexier model.
If you tap into blogs, you might be noticing that ministry is becoming the domain of the under-35 crowd. While I think it is good to recruit and encourage people at that stage of life to enter ministry, does the language of this discussion push a generation of people to the side to clear the way for the young messiahs? I was 35 once. I was married, raised a child, and had a satisfying career. I come to set-apart ministry later in life, and am now working toward graduation and eventual ordination as an elder in The United Methodist Church. I didn’t ask for the call to come at this stage of my life. It just happened. I could probably argue that the call came when I was 17, or 30, or a number of other years, and that I resisted the call. I don’t think that matters as much as the fact that I finally responded.
I haven’t taken a lot of time to consider what the term really means, but I was part of the sandwich generation for a short time. My parents were aging and I was raising a child. I now think of myself as part of the ‘open faced sandwich generation’ perhaps—both of my parents died in the last two years. Or maybe I am not part of a familial sandwich at all—as I mentioned, my ‘child’ is a beautiful young woman. There’s still parenting, but not so much raising.
I find that I am enwrapped, due to my age, in a new kind of sandwich. On the one hand are the aging pastors. These are almost all Baby Boomers, too, like I am. Regardless of our denomination, we can all see a face and recite a name or two when we think of these experienced pastors. On the other hand are the young people entering ministry, who are often held up by bishops and others as the ‘future’ of our church or the ‘now’ generation. Depending on who you listen to on this topic, the young people are the people who will save our local churches, our denomination, our country, and our world from the decay of religion and faith communities over time. It is unfortunate that we place so much pressure on a single generation to solve all the problems of our collective past.
In the middle of this are ‘my people’—the “generation Jones”, according to William J. Schroer. Let’s just say, for conversations’ sake, that we are born between 1960 and 1979. If you do the math, you might see the logic behind the statement that says we are the parents of the young people who will be saving not only the rest of us that remain on the assembly line floor after the wave of retirements coming along, but also will save the generation of children that they will bring into this world.
What’s special about this generation in the middle—‘my people’? I think there is a lot to be said about us. First of all, those of us who are entering ministry at our ‘age’ come to the table with a lot of experience. It is difficult to identify what this experience is, but some of the things that this includes, although not an exhaustive list, is that we probably have a good idea on 1) how to wake up and get to work; 2) how to balance multiple priorities; 3) how to deal with difficult people; 4) how to deal with disappointment; 5) how to deal with loss; 6) how to comprehend difficult material; and 7) how to love God ‘with all our heart, with all our being, with all our strength’. (Common English Bible) This means we can go from seminary to congregational crisis much faster. (This is not an invitation to test us on this theory. I have done no scientific testing, after all.)
Second of all, we have a lot of courage. Some of us step away from a fair amount of security, including prestige within our profession or incomes that will sustain our families or familiar routines, to begin a journey that is not always friendly. Case in point: the two sides of the sandwich.
Third, but certainly not the last but I will end with this, we tend to be women, though not all of us are. Brothers, I know you are out there, too. In my own experience, and from anecdotal evidence, I can say that the call to ministry has probably come to many of us in this age group more than once. God is a persistent leader, after all. We have been busy baking cookies, washing clothes, organizing excursions, supporting (and being) titans of industry, loving our families, holding hands with people who were hurting, pulling water out of the well and quietly buying bread for the feast for so long that it has become a natural and familiar lifestyle. But God has continued to speak to our hearts and call us out to be courageous and speak our truth in a new way, and we finally have lifted our heads to answer the call, only to find we are too often dis-affirmed by the very institution that has been the paradigm of Christianity in our lives—the church.
How should we respond to this rapidly changing world where our generation in particular is often invisible and ignored? We are no less affected by comments such as mentioned in Emmy Kegler’s recent post: “Early on, Bishop Barrow notes that he will soon be retiring the “All-Star team” from his synod,” referring to the wave of Baby Boomers who will be retiring from the ministry in the near future. (Note: Bishop Barrow is in the ELCA, but this phenomenon is not limited to the Lutheran experience.) We in the middle generation can compare the Biblical messages with the institutional realities as well as our children (the 35-and-unders) can—after all, many of us were around in the 1960s when packet network systems, such as ARPANET (think: Internet), were developed. Many of us were alive in 1963, when Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, and in 1968, when women were first able to be ordained in the newly formed United Methodist Church. Most of us were alive in 1973, when Roe v. Wade was argued in the Supreme Court of the United States. We were all alive in 1980, when The United Methodist Church consecrated its first woman bishop, Marjorie Matthews. We were all alive in 1993, when Madeline Albright became America’s first woman Secretary of State. We are not the ones who made these other achievements possible, but they became possible for the first time during our youth and young adulthood.
Those of us in this middle position are uniquely situated to celebrate the idea of the 35-and-younger becoming clergy, because that is how it used to be in the faith communities of our youth. People (men, as it happens, then), were born and raised in the church and groomed to be leaders. The youthful vibrancy of those men, along with a strong and healthy faith community, kept the church vital. Another view from this middle position is that all people should be celebrated who seek to serve God through set-apart ministry and who have or could attain the skills to do so, regardless of age, disability, race/color, gender, or social status. Just as Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs, we need to mimic that in this important work by not ignoring entire sections of our faith communities in order to lift up others.
Pat Trask is a former lawyer and a second-year student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She is working this year as GCSRW’s seminary intern.