My post yesterday generated some push back in various online forums. (Click here to read it)
There is also a class issue involved and perhaps a racial one as well. Middle class white people of all ages can tend to have a sense of entitlement. The truth is that most of our younger ministers grew up as Unitarian Universalists, most commonly in white middle class liberal suburbs of major metropolitan areas . It makes sense that those are the kind of places they would expect to serve. It is what they have known after all.
But if we are to grow this faith, to reach out to diverse communities that are yearning for our message, we have to move out of the suburbs and stop catering exclusively to the white middle class intellectuals that make up the bulk of those suburban churches. It isn’t our history, and it may be a cultural death trap that we have fallen into. The very nature of suburbia is a lack of diversity. They were designed to be that way. People of color could be and were unable to legally purchase homes in most of them. (read Sundown Towns by James Loewen for more information on this.) The price of the homes meant that everyone one buying in to a subdivision had virtually the same income level.
Why are we now a largely suburban faith? We didn’t start out that way. The Unitarians were in cities and tended to attract the educated urban elite. The Universalists, on the other hand, were more likely to be found in rural communities and their congregations were composed of farmers and working class people.
We can be a faith that engages a whole lot more people that we are not reaching now.
We have done a lot of work on racism within the Unitarian Universalist Association. There is more to do, but in an increasing multicultural world we at least know we need to do more of this.
We also need to work on classism. It is also interwoven with racism and ageism. It is diametrically opposed to all of our religious values. That conversation has barely begun.
I said above that most of our newer younger minsters tend to come from white middle class communities, The same is not as true about those of us that found this faith as adults and answered the call to ministry later in life. Many of us grew up poor or working class. In my own case, neither of my parents graduated from high school. My mother worked in low paying service industry jobs her entire life, primarily as a waitress. My father, who only had an 8th grade education, was able to land a job as a small town automobile painter and body man.
I got a full scholarship for a university education, back when such things were possible, and have led a relatively middle class existence since. I have not forgotten my roots, however, and it is very easy for me to relate to the working class folks that are now coming to our church. Drive a truck for a living? I have 3 cousins that do that. I know in my gut that the amount of education one has has zero to do with how smart you are, or how compassionate, or even how generous. The job you do and the amount you are paid is irrelevant to whether or not you might be attracted to a free and empowering faith such as ours.
(As a side note, we also, as a faith, need to stress our values more around the issues of economic justice. How many people in our congregations are working in retail or in the fast food industry? Check it out, I suspect it is more than you might think. Are we supportive of the fast food worker’s strike?)
When our church let the local Occupy Group camp on our lawn, it was a challenge in many ways, but much of the support for doing so came from the members of our church who themselves had been homeless, who had lost their homes in the mortgage crises, who were struggling financially. Folks that had little money for themselves were preparing meals for the campers and attending endless meetings.
I have gone off the topic of ageism a bit, but our younger more class privileged ministers need to get out and get their hands dirty right here in this country not on exotic mission trips where they can feel righteous about how much they have accomplished. I am not up for mission trips anymore. I did go to Biloxi with the UUSC back in 2007. We did some good, but there was still a disconnect. On that trip, it was interesting how only a few of us understood any of the class issues. The middle class people complained about the quality of the food. It was “welfare” food, government surplus, the stuff I grew up eating at my own and my friends houses.
So to end this (for now) my response to the new ministers looking for pulpits and complaining that older ministers need to retire is much the same as that given by Olympia Brown:
“Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it.”
And, as John Murray is said to have said, “Go into the highways and byways.”
Don’t look to do ministry only in Massachusetts, Florida, or California. Go where you are scared to go. That is where people need you the most. That is where the real ministry is.
The fabulous church I now serve had a very hard time attracting a minister – even though it was a full-time fair compensation position and a healthy vibrant social justice oriented congregation. It doesn’t pay big bucks but the cost of living is low. It wasn’t about the money but was instead I believe more of a reluctance to move to a place like Utah. It is a challenge at times. My closest UU colleagues in the state are miles away and there are only 3 of them. It is a conservative state. My marriage is not valid here. I could make a long list but I won’t. Because this is what ministry is: ministry should be, heart and soul, about service.
Your age doesn’t matter. Just your willingness to serve, wherever you happen to be called. Open your ears.
I posted an old poem today. (click) I did it because of an online conversation where some folks seemed to be suggesting that getting a younger minister will attract more young people to church. That is just wrong and it makes me grumpy. Yeah, I am a grumpy old woman and proud of it.
I wrote the poem after an incident at the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s Institute for Excellence in Florida last January. I was at a large table for a meal, and overheard several young ministers complaining that more older ministers needed to retire so they could find churches to serve. They obviously felt they could do a much better job.
I did go back after awhile and speak with one of them. She “hadn’t meant to be offensive.” But she was clueless. I too am a fairly new minister. I have only been ordained for seven years, even though I easily had 25 more years of life experience than she did. Ministers of all ages and experience do need to keep themselves fresh by attending things like the institute. Age alone is not a predictor of competence in the ministry OR in attracting new and younger members.
Fresh out of seminary, I certainly did not expect, as they apparently did, to be called to serve a largish congregation in a fun metropolitan area. I ended up at a relatively small church in Ogden, Utah and what a blessing it has been despite the challenges of this very conservtive state. We are making a real difference here, however. There are plenty of pulpits available at small relatively isolated UU churches all over the country. I doubt that these complainers were even looking outside of their dream locations.
At age 63, I am also serving one of the UUA’s more youthful congregations. The average age of the adults is somewhere in the 40’s to early 50’s I would guess. We have quite a few young adults that attend frequently. Children and youth participate fully in our worship services. (click to see article on this) We do not “sing them out” and then proceed with a boring lecture type sermon as happens in too many of our churches. Our worship and music is lively and varied. (We also have a fabulous music director and a talented pianist.) Many churches are worried that they are dying, because everyone in the pews has grey hair. They may in fact be dying, but it is not because they have old people. It is because they are resistant to change and are doing almost everything the way they did 20, 30, or even 50 years ago. They have also forgotten about any mission outside of their church walls. New members bring change. They bring theological and other types of diversity. Mission related activities particularly in the area of social justice also bring change. Worship styles change. Change is good. It means you are alive. It means the church is alive. Young people can get stuck in ruts too. Anyone can. What we need to do as a religious movement is let the spirit in, let it move us to the next level. Try different things. Do things. It almost doesn’t matter what, as long as the heart is the motivation. People in my church (including some quite a bit older than me) often refer to me a “Mother Theresa,” not a title that would make sense if I was in my 30’s. But it doesn’t matter. Chronological age shouldn’t matter. If we are true to this faith and the promise of a beloved community, then what will matter is how much and how strongly we love – each other and the world that needs us. Ok, I am not so grumpy anymore.
The music is different
But the words are the same
Move over make room
Let me in let me play.
You’re young you’re strong
You’ve something to say
The fire in your belly
Urges you on.
My hair may be grey
My body a wreck
I’m still not afraid
To stick out my neck.
Don’t limit the vision
There’s plenty of room
Pulpits abound if you
Know how to preach
The message has meaning
Wherever you are
Love shows the way
If your ears hear the call.
The wisdom is God’s
The glory is giving
It’s not about you
Even less about me
The fire burns within me
I’m trying to last
Speak truth as I know it
Live life as I must
Don’t push me aside
I’m not holding you back
You can run up the stairs
We can preach in the street
I’ll lend you a hand
Can you steady my step
Walk with with the Spirit
This faith needs us all.