Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Unanticipated Consequences

I received word today that another annual conference is divesting from conference level youth ministry. They insist that the congregations will pick up the slack and that if it is a priority for local churches they will do what needs to be done. I have three primary concerns with such a divestiture. First, we are essentially “cashing in” our long term investments for short term savings. Secondly, we are living out one of the primary complaints I hear from young adults, a contradiction of spoken and lived values. Finally, we are saying to the next generation, you are not nearly as important as we were when we were your age. These are dangerous, and I believe eventually disastrous precedents to set that are sowing the seeds of an eventual demise of my beloved United Methodist Church.

When I was younger I began investing in my retirement plan. There are times when I could have really used those extra resources to help feed my family, pay tuition or just make ends meet but I still had it withdrawn from my income and place securely in long-term investments. It has been tempting to move my retirement to shorter term, potentially higher yielding investments but since I am for the long hall (another 25+ years I hope) it is wiser to ride out the trends and fluctuations in the markets.

In the United Methodist Church I am consistently seeing staff person after staff person in every level of the Church get the word that their position in youth and young adult ministry is being merged, refocused or simply eliminated. I have just seen an interesting graph by Craig Miller that shows that in the age group 40-69 we are approximately even with the US population but with those 18-39 we are well behind the population trends. I grew up with well staffed, well funded youth ministry (I’m 43) that will soon be a thing of the past. We have yielded to the “day trading” nature of our culture wanting microwave results. We are abandoning the long-term investment that is youth and young adult ministry and using the funds to prop up ailing programs, support special initiatives and finance the “flavor of the month” programs that we hope will fill our churches and our offering plates. What will this divestment yield? In twenty years, if trends continue, our churches will be coffee shops and pubs like they are in England and Australia. Perhaps those institutions will invest for the long-term.

Secondly, we are living out a contradiction of spoken and lived values. Every decision is a theological decision. Our words are filled with admonitions about the importance of youth and young adults. Our actions are saying that what is really important is the maintenance of the institution. We clamor to establish an Division of Ministry with Young People but do not fund it adequately to make a significant impact. We support vocal resolutions and cut positions. We turn youth ministry into a revenue stream rather than a place for investment in the future.

If there is one thing that young adults abhor, it is inconsistency between spoke and lived values. I have written about this before, but this blatant disregard is almost unfathomable. If we want to insure that the youth of today will not be United Methodist, then lets eliminate United Methodist centered youth ministry.

Now to respond to the argument that the “churches will fill in the gap if it is valuable to them.” This is absurd. Churches tend to follow the leadership of the Conference. If the bishop says its important, then it is important. The old adage still stands, “what gets measured, gets done.” The opposite is also true, what gets ignored gets eliminated. While it is true that some churches, especially those that are large and well-funded will continue to do significant ministry with you and young adults, most of our United Methodist Churches are not large or well-funded. Most struggle to pay their pastor, keep the lights on and do vital ministry in their community. Their youth leaders are part-time or volunteers who have a heart for ministry but maybe not the training and resources needed. Conference level youth and young adult ministry provides events that encourage young people and shows them that there are other faithful followers of Christ in the UMC connections. Conference ministry provides training that is affordable and accessible to those with heart that need help. Let us not fall victim to claiming that ministry with young people is important to us in one breath and eliminating it in another.

Lastly, and perhaps hardest for me understand, is why the Boomers who are making these decisions can do so when they grew up in the age of explosive youth ministry? They are essentially saying to they youth and young adults of today that they are unimportant and that other “missional priorities take precedent” to them. These men and women who grew up around camp fires de-fund camp ministry. Those who answered their call to ministry in a Wesley Foundation gathering or college chapel are advocating eliminating the line items that fund campus ministry and telling the directors to find “alternative revenue streams.” Those who gathered crossed arms with their friends and prayed the prayer of dismissal are now performing the benediction on youth and young adult ministry by draining its funding and eliminating those who would speak boldly and work tirelessly to reach the next generation.

What shall we do? I have a few suggestions (for those of you who read me often you not be surprised)…
1) Challenged your annual conference to expand your youth and young adult ministry, especially those events and training that will benefit small and mid-sized churches.
2) Support your staff person who works in these areas with your prayers, your presences as a volunteer, even if its just to stuff envelopes and make nametags, and your gifts. Provide funds directly to sponsor youth who may not be able to afford to attend events.
3) Send your United Methodist youth to United Methodist camps, youth events and activities. Help them begin to realized the power of the connections and buy into to being a part of our Church for the long-term.
4) Advocate with General Conference, Jurisdictional Conference and Annual Conference members and delegates to support youth and young adult ministry with connectional funding. After working in the connection for several years I have come to realize that there is money for whatever is deemed “vital and urgent.” If this need, that goes to the very existence of our denomination, is not “vital and urgent” then I do not know what is!

I am employed at the offices of the Southeastern Jurisdiction and am not even sure that at the end of July when our Jurisdictional Conference meets if I will have a job, but that is not why I advocate for youth and young adults. I advocate because I was a youth from a broken home that was sent by my church to camp and there, beside the popping of a roaring fire, got on my knees and bowed my head and received Christ as my Savior. I was the kid in who discovered my identity in Christ at my weekly youth group lead by good-hearted volunteers and made life changing decisions and youth events. I am the adult worker who has seen my children mature because they spend a week with other United Methodist youth getting to know Christ and each other building relationships that will last for eternity. I will, with my last breath, call for our church to reach the emerging generation no matter where they are or who they are because another generation did the same for me. I remain:

Consumed by the Call,
Gracious God, who seeks the least, the last and the lost to lead the Kingdom of God, let the voice of Your Church cry out in unison to change the world, one young person at a time. Amen

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Marty, this is a great post! You are right on!

May I have your permission to reprint this post in the General Conference section of UM NeXus, If I can reprint it now, it could be seen by many GC delegates in time to influence their coming decisions.

I notice you work with young people's ministries for the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Are you ordained?

Thanks for your truth-telling.
Cynthia B. Astle, Editor, UM NeXus