Michael Smith ~ Reflections of a Young Pastor

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Most days I feel like the disappointing grandson. I am a young (is 34 still considered young?) clergy person. So far, my journey has not really been unique or different. Life is life and ministry is ministry. My current appointment is similar to my previous one. I’m viewed as inexperienced because I followed someone older than me. The problem is that it’s very rare these days, in the United Methodist Church, to find clergy younger than me to follow. So, I guess I’d better get used to it. The truth is – I am inexperienced, I am young, and part of me doesn’t have a clue what I am doing. Welcome to the local church, young person.

Like many in my generation I went to church as a child. Many of us left when we went to college; I barely made it into the high school years. Church wasn’t the place for me – so I left. After several years away, I came back to Jesus through friends inviting me to youth group and a new style of church. This was the time the contemporary service movement was hitting local Methodist churches. (Yes, we do things about 15 years behind everyone else.) But, for me it was refreshing, new, musically engaging, and even though I don’t like to use this word – relevant. So I came back. And then a few years later, at the end of my college years, I accepted that God was calling me to ministry and I submitted to following him.

I know I’m young, but I also know I am undeniably called into ministry. I just didn’t know that I was called to pastor a church like the one I left all those years ago. I genuinely love people; but it takes a lot of work for them to believe it. I try to convince the senior members that I am there for the whole church, but they tend to view me as the person who is there for the young people and young families – to reach the “lost generation” in our churches. What’s funny is that this is what folks say they want me to do – it’s an “I want to see my grandchildren in church” sort of thing. But I only need to make one change and they are convinced I must not really be there for them. It’s hard to know exactly where things go wrong. What is wrong is me – or so they tell me, every chance they get.

It seems as though effectiveness in connecting with nominally or nonreligious people has become my scarlet letter. On one hand my members say they want me to reach their grandchildren, but when I do it in an unconventional or different way, they view it as a compromising of the gospel and in their eyes the ultimate death of the church. There is nothing like pastoring a church whose glory days were 30 years ago. There is mourning for the church that used to be. Each year that passes is a reminder that what they had is gone and the end is near. My baby face in the pulpit every Sunday is the physical reminder that their faces don’t look the same anymore. I feel like the ‘someone else’ Jesus talks about in John 21:18.

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

I was a rambunctious child in the church and they loved me through it. But ultimately church became an experience that pushed me away. Those people are still there. They just have different names and live in a different town.

Pain is a clutching or grasping of that which was. No one wants to lose what has been of great value for so long; and truthfully, I don’t want to take anything away. But time is taking it away. I am not changing the church; the future is changing the church. The culture of today has broken the hourglass and the sand is pouring out quickly. As a pastor I cup my hands underneath the hands of my parishioners in love, to help them try to save some of it. I know we can’t capture it all. Some days I even want to let the sand pour out quicker.

It seems my congregation is on a journey, trying to navigate what to do – with the loss of time, the loss of church, and this new kid they call pastor.

 

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