Young People In The Church (TM)

I am a young person in the church. It is great! I love my parish, and my church community is a source of friendship, spiritual sustenance, and purpose. As should surprise no one, I have some thoughts about what being A Young Person In The Church has felt like to me, and what we might do to welcome, incorporate, respect, and learn from other Young People. (Spoiler alert: Stop thinking of us in capital letters.) Some of these ideas come from things my congregation does really well; some of them originate with frustrating or hurtful encounters I’ve had. Some of this will probably be pretty specific to the Episcopal Church, and some of it probably will not be.

(NB: For the purposes of this post, Young People = anyone under 40.)

Please don’t tell us that we’re babies.

I feel like this should be obvious, and yet it keeps happening to me: someone (usually in his or her 40s or 50s) will ask my age, and when they hear it (28), they’ll exclaim, “You’re a baby!” Or I’ll describe a troubling or distressing situation–financial instability or vocational concerns–only to have it met with, “Well, you’re SO YOUNG” (the implicit corollary being that my difficulty in making rent is therefore not a serious problem). Or someone will say in my presence, “Anyone under 40 is just a baby to me.”

People. I am a grown-ass woman. I have grey hairs and wrinkles. I pay taxes, I get drunk legally, I try to live into my wedding vows. When you tell me that I’m a baby, you dismiss my whole life, all my suffering and struggle and hard-earned wisdom. You tell me that my life doesn’t count to you. This would be equally unacceptable if I were a college student, or even a high school student. We all have wisdom to offer. We all have suffering that needs to be acknowledged. We are all very members incorporate in the mystical body of God’s Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of God’s everlasting kingdom. We all count.

Ask us to do stuff.

By which I mean: invite young people into leadership positions; not just as acolytes or youth fellowship groups, but as vestry members, as members of the committees that make the big decisions. When you’re choosing a group to think about what you want your church’s future to look like, to think big, to decide how to allocate your money and how to grow your church, ask young people to be part of making those decisions.

By which I also mean: invite us into areas of church life that don’t just have to do with worship. Ask us to help serve coffee hour, or to be on the Altar Guild, or to volunteer to help serve the homeless, or to bring the Eucharist to sick parishioners. Let us know that we’re needed, and help us feel that the church is ours, too, and we’re not simply filling a pew on someone else’s sufferance. Be our friends. My parish is particularly good at asking people to do stuff, with a fantastic ministry of hospitality and welcome to newcomers, and it’s made such a difference in my life.

Facebook is a red herring.

You guys, I have sat through so. many. sermons. about Facebook. And The World Wide Web. And the perilous allure of Technology. At best, these make me roll my eyes, and at worst, they make me furious. It’s sort of like re-watching the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where they set up Willow as the computer wizard who “surfs the net” using the wonders of dial-up: these episodes just don’t wear well, and I can’t really take them seriously. But any discussion about Young People In The Church must apparently include some reference to Facebook, which makes it hard for me to take any discussion about YPITC seriously.

Technology moves very fast, and it’s hard to keep up with (like, what is Snapchat? Is it or is it not purely for sexting? Discuss.), and I get that it’s scary to have this huge pervasive element that wasn’t so much a part of people’s lives a generation ago. And yet, no matter how fast technology changes, people don’t change. People still need the same things we have always needed: sustenance, shelter, community, God. Our tools evolve, but what we’re trying to do with those tools remains pretty stable. The fact that many young people create communities on the internet does not change the fact that we need community. Focus on that.

Spend some money on us.

Fund youth ministry programs, church summer camps, college chaplaincies. Invest in Christian formation for all ages. Ask that your youth ministers be professionals, and compensate them accordingly, both financially and with respect for their roles and gifts. This article by Frederick Schmidt says it beautifully:

Youth and campus ministry need to be treated as a vocation and destination and not as heavy lifting done by someone young enough to survive a week at camp with a hundred kids. That means paying youth ministers as if they do something critical. That means cultivating an approach to the vocation that makes it possible to continue doing the work as long as they feel called to do it. And it means eliminating structures that suggest that this is something worth doing only as long as you are young, unattached, and willing to eat pizza.

Think of us as people rather than members of a demographic. Treat us as an end rather than a means.

One thing I don’t much like in the article linked to above is that Schmidt opens by citing the (admittedly troubling) decline in Episcopal Church membership and aging of its clergy and congregations, then presents his powerful plea for good youth ministry as a solution to this problem. Personally, I don’t want to be anyone’s solution to a declining church. I don’t want to be welcomed as a Young Person; I’d prefer to be welcomed as a real person. Similarly, youth ministry is important not simply because without it the church might not survive; it’s important because young people–like all people–have pressing spiritual needs, and because every person is infinitely precious in the sight of God, and because it’s our job as Christians to spread the light of Christ in the world.

We talk a lot in the church about seeing the full humanity of all people, and in the end, I think it’s as simple–and as difficult–as that. Young people are not babies. We are not alien masters of technology (I still don’t have a smartphone). We are not the holy grail sought by an aging church. We’re just people.

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Mental illness and the Body of Christ

I spent the other day at the cathedral church for my diocese, going through the required training program to become a Eucharistic Visitor. (A Eucharistic Visitor—EV—is someone who brings fellowship and the Eucharist to members of the congregation who can’t make it to church for some reason.) It was…interesting. Some of it was new; some of it was useful; some of it was infuriating. For the most part, I felt a real camaraderie develop among the 16 or so of us trainees, who came from several different area churches. As the day progressed, I was impressed by the strength of faith, theology, empathy, and openness of my fellow trainees.

A large chunk of the training involved witnessing and performing role-played scenarios of the types of visits we might encounter. We were handed slips of paper with a brief description of the visitee’s age, situation in life, and temperament: Man, 79, is recovering from knee replacement surgery at home and is in generally good spirits but lonely and desirous of company. 66-year-old woman is dying of cancer in a hospital bed and has trouble speaking or swallowing. 89-year-old woman has recently moved to an assisted care facility; she is gregarious and invites several friends to participate in communion with her. We split into pairs and took turns playing the visitor and the visited; afterward we’d gather as a group to reflect on our encounters. Emphasis was placed on developing our empathy, both through practicing active listening and through creatively imagining ourselves into the situations we were given.

Great. Good. Until one pair of trainees turned out to have had a scenario involving a 21-year-old woman who was in a psychiatric ward for suicidality. And then—and I’m not sure exactly how to describe this—the atmosphere changed palpably. There was a discussion, punctuated by furrowed brows and wise nods, of how hard and unusual and strange this situation was, how difficult to reach the woman being visited, how glad everyone else was that they hadn’t drawn that slip of paper that would require them to pretend to be a young woman in a psych ward. Perhaps the most concrete example of what I mean is that one of the training leaders said, “Well, I just can’t imagine being 21 years old.”* Someone else immediately chimed in, “Let alone being suicidal!” It felt as though the discussion had abruptly shifted from exploring how to put ourselves imaginatively into someone else’s shoes to a relieved consensus that such empathy was obviously impossible.

This description is far more nuanced than I could have given at the time. In the moment, all I was aware of was the shock of going from feeling warm, welcomed, and safe to the opposite extremes. I could feel myself shaking with anger and struggling not to cry. I excused myself to the bathroom for a few minutes. I glared at my reflection in the mirror, balled and unballed my fists, wiped my eyes, took a breath, and went back out. The conversation had moved on, and no one had noticed that anything was wrong. Our day ended shortly thereafter.

What was wrong, exactly? I’ve spent some time pondering the situation, and here’s what I’ve come up with. We had been invited—directed—to put ourselves into the situations of the people we might be called upon to visit. The leaders reminded us repeatedly that one of the purposes of the exercise was to imagine what it was like for our visitees. But no one wanted to play the young woman in the psych ward. No one wanted to imagine what her life—my life—has been. And instead of acknowledging this reluctance as coming from discomfort, they said, “oh, it’s obviously too hard. It’s impossible, really.” And all these lovely, empathetic, warm, thoughtful people pushed me away, without even realizing that they were doing it.

You know what? I can imagine what it might be like to be 89 and in an assisted living facility. To feel your body change and start to fail you, and to worry that your mind will do the same. To feel that others are beginning to see you as irrelevant, while you know that you have more to offer than ever. To lose the dignity of autonomy. I can imagine what it might be like to live with chronic physical pain, or to lose one’s spouse of many years to death or divorce. I’m sure that what I imagine is different from individual reality; and I don’t think that putting myself into someone else’s shoes gives me any kind of ownership over their situation. But I try to imagine these things, and (even if I don’t always succeed in this) I try to listen to the narratives I hear from others for whom these things are a reality. So why did it feel as though these people were unwilling to do the same for me? Why, when we talk about mental illness in community,** is it always “them,” never “us”?

A suggestion: people are scared. This seems reasonable to me. We don’t want to think about bad things happening to us; we don’t know how we’ll deal with changes that shatter our world. We do nonetheless share a cultural understanding that we might get cancer, however shocking it inevitably is when it happens. We know that our best-case scenario involves growing old and the hardships that come with that. We know that all marriages end, whether by death or divorce. (See [please!] Louis C. K. on the matter.) But it’s terrifying to imagine that the sadness and despair that we all experience at some point could balloon, could devour our lives until we actively seek death. We don’t want that to be part of the human experience. We don’t want to be able to empathize with this. Perhaps on some level we’re afraid that, if we put ourselves into a suicidal person’s shoes, we’ll never be able to take them off.

I have been there, and I understand it. I find that even among the narratives of those who have been hospitalized for depression, there’s a curious desire to distinguish between the ones who are “really” crazy and the ones who just, you know, happen to be there. Between them and us. But there is no them; there’s only us.

Afterward, I wondered why this small incident of alienation had stung so much. It’s not as though something similar doesn’t happen pretty much every time mental illness comes up in pretty much any group I happen to be in. It’s not as though this was in any way unique or drastic in the annals of people alienating one another. What I kept thinking of was 1 Corinthians 12:21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” This was a Christian context, and I had felt safe as a member of the Body of Christ. Until I didn’t.

*I should note that I appeared to be the youngest person in the room by perhaps 15-20 years.

**”In community” is important. One-on-one, I’ve found people to be remarkably sympathetic and usually eager to share stories of their own encounters with mental illness, either personally or in someone close to them. When I tell one person about my hospitalizations, I actually often have the opposite problem (though I suspect it comes from the same emotional place): they want to assure me that they know exactly how I feel, and they often have trouble listening to me because they’re filling the space with their own stories of depression. This bugs me, but I’ve certainly done precisely the same thing to other people more than I’d care to admit.

The Ministry of Availability

I took a day off work today.  Yes, I am “sick.”  My minor medical condition could justify a day off.*  But more than “sick,” I am tired.  My work exhausts me in a way that it really hasn’t for the last two years.

This year, I have moved into a direct ministry role.  For the past two years I have done some combination of teaching and service learning and saw my role as ministerial, as I firmly believe that teaching is a ministry.  But this year, I am The Campus Minister of the school.  I coordinate the retreats, I stock the Campus Ministry candy bowl, I am the supplier of tissues for those who come into my office crying.  I did not think this transition from ministerial to minister would be so challenging.  After all, it’s the same school, same students, same colleagues.  But what I’m finding at the end of each day is that I am exhausted mentally, emotionally, to a deeper level than I have been by any other work.

Beyond the retreats, liturgies, and service work, ministry taxes me so much because how available I have to be.  What I didn’t know before I started is that being a minister means being available to whoever drops by my office and to chat, or discuss a problem, or find advice and encouragement.  Students and staff alike come into my office seeking something–they flop down on my couch and start talking and I have to turn away from my computer and listen.

At first I was annoyed.  I thought, “I don’t have time for this!”  (Especially since it happens approximately 200 times a day)  “This work is really important!  Do you think retreats plan themselves?” I thought self-righteously.  And I began to worry a lot about being able to get everything done–every time I had to stop working, I grew anxious or preoccupied and I couldn’t focus on the person in front of me.

But somewhere after I directed my first major retreat, I realized that listening and being available everyday in my office doesn’t take me away from my work as a minister–it is my work as a minister.  I can’t be a good minister unless I listen to my community, even in the most casual and mundane ways.  By stopping to chat with a student on her way to lunch, or a test, I became a little more attuned to what students worry about and how to best reach them spiritually.

And beyond my students and my work, as I listened more and more, theology came pouring out of me.  In the years since grad school, I have not picked up a theology book once; being in grad school just seemed so disconnected from the life of the Church and by the end, I mostly felt that I was done talking about theology and ready to start doing theology.  But as I listen to students’ questions and problems, I suddenly have so many ideas swirling around in my head.  With my ministerial experiences as my foundation, I see so many connections to what I’ve studied and want to develop those ideas into theology.  Being a minister has breathed life into those ideas I spent two years discussing in grad school and reinforced to me the importance of doing good theology.

So that is what I have been thinking about lately.  What if we made ourselves more available to each other?  What if the leadership and theologians of the Church made itself more available to the faithful?  If listening makes us better ministers, and being ministers makes us better theologians, shouldn’t we intentionally seek out opportunities to listen?**   I understand specialization makes ministry and theology more sophisticated, but in the process, we also divorce theology and ministry and prevent the kind of good theology that flows from ministry and good ministry that is rooted in theology.

The importance of availability not a novel idea, but I’m not referring to the kind of instant availability smart phones and the internet give us.  I can tweet at the Pope now, but I know he is not truly available to me.  I’m talking about availability on a person to person basis, built into the schedules and training of Church leaders and theologians.  To academics, this might seem outrageous; I know most academics would give me the standard answer–specialization gives academic theologians the freedom and time to produce good theology.  But I honestly think that specialization comes at the cost of theology rooted in the actual experience of the Church.  Given the rate at which Catholics are leaving or disengaging the Church, it seems that one of the highest priorities of those interested in the Church’s future should be to understand and respond to the needs of the faithful.  Being available ministers is the first step in that process.  

 

*Psst!  Don’t tattle on me!
**I won’t make the mistake of assuming my experience should apply to absolutely everyone, but I think in general, better connections between theologians, Church leadership, and the faithful is a good goal we ought to pursue.