Tom Arthur: The year I became uncool

Should we focus less on funneling young people into the pastorate and focus more on nurturing them through leadership incubation roles in our churches?

Something happened to me this year. I became uninteresting to mostly everyone. I turned thirty-five. Marketers no longer put me in that all important eighteen to thirty-four-year-old category. My own denomination no longer considers me part of an age group that we especially need more of (see Lovett Weems’ research on young clergy). It hit me when I recently filled out a survey with demographic questions: I had to categorize myself with fifty-year-olds rather than twenty-year-olds. That was enough to make me feel seriously uncool -- if I ever was cool to begin with.

At the same time something else happened to me this year. I became a dad. At age thirty-five my wife and I had our first son. My six-month-old and the kink I get in my back while holding him for any extended period of time is a daily challenge to my youthful vigor and any sense left that I am still young. But I’m finding that my wife and I are a stronger team at this point in our life than we ever would have been before. If we had a child early in our marriage, it’s conceivable that we just might have killed one another. With age has come some strengths.

So here I find myself straddling these two age categories: I’m part young clergy (actually at almost all of my district clergy gatherings I am still the youngest person in the room) and part old clergy, too (I am older than Jesus after all, which I have to occasionally remind myself of this fact when a parishioner complains that I’m too young to understand something). Even though thirty-five is out of the direct spotlight of everyone, it actually feels like a pretty good place to be.

I wonder if we’re not missing something by focusing too much on our need for younger clergy. I’m not saying it’s not a problem, but I’m also realizing that other demographic shifts are taking place as well. I have a hard time imagining myself leading an entire community of people with any kind of proficiency or competency in my early twenties. I’m reminded of an article I read by Christian Smith about emerging adulthood. Twenty-eight is the new eighteen. Adolescence is extending later and later into life.

The opportunity I was given during my twenties was the chance to lead part of a community as a staff member of a church under a very competent pastor who was in his forties. It was an incubation period for both my maturity and my leadership skills. If I am a competent leader today, it has less to do with seminary, current mentoring or the ordination process, and more to do with those eight years of being a staff member of a church.

I recently hired a new worship leader. Where did I find him? He was already on my staff. Just in a different area. He was hired right out of college to help with children’s ministry. He wasn’t quite ready to lead the whole thing, but over time his competencies grew, and eventually he took over the leadership of the children’s ministry. This time period acted as an incubation period for his maturity and leadership skills. When I arrived as the pastor at my current church, he was ready to take his leadership to the next level as our worship leader.

Maybe we need to focus less on getting young people to be pastors and focus more on getting young people into these kinds of leadership incubation roles in our churches. Maybe we need less focus on young clergy and more focus on young church staff members. Maybe we need less focus on eighteen to thirty-four-year-old pastors and more focus on eighteen to thirty-four-year-old youth ministers, choir directors, children’s ministry leaders, and the like. It’s not that these roles are always stepping stones rather than vocational ends in themselves, but they do give young people more opportunities to grow in maturity and leadership for the present and future church. Or maybe all this is just a ploy to make me feel less lonely as a thirty-five-year-old pastor.

Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.