Millennials and the Church
Millennials in Leadership
Editor's Note: Why is it important to place millennials in positions of leadership and decision-making in our church? We asked three millennial leaders to share the challenges of their generation and why we need more voices like theirs to strengthen and invigorate our church and future.
Let’s talk about millennial leadership within the Anglican Communion… Can you hear the crickets chirping? Right.
Whether you pull an “I know of one” or a “what about…” comment, people are simply not aware that millennial leaders are few and far between nor are they cognizant of the impact this has on the present and forthcoming Church. Churches love to recruit millennials to fill their youth ministry positions or to run their social media platforms. But when it comes to the senior positions — those that most likely require ordination — there is a black hole where the millennial generation is concerned.
For the last several years, conversations on this topic have largely swirled around the focal point of worship style. From praise bands to traditional liturgy, assumptions have been made about millennials, who are often blamed for our lack of participation within the wider church. But can we really, honestly, leave the conversation to just liturgical affinity? Perhaps there are global events that have deeply impacted the life of the millennial, affecting their representation in the pews. It’s quite possible that what has influenced this part of creation born between 1980 and 1996, has little to do with the worn-out “Drums vs. Pipe Organ” argument.
Several stumbling blocks both within and outside of the Anglican Communion could be contributing to the black hole of millennial leadership within our worship spaces.
Stumbling Block 1: 20th century ministry training in the 21st century
The training that a millennial would need to minister to other millennials is not what many mainline denominations offer currently. What they provide are 20th century expectations for aspirants to ministry, along with 20th century training methods. Let’s start with the training requirements, which expose the underlying expectations for the type of aspirant considered a good candidate for ministry.
The requirement of a classical seminary education, a topic that has been simmering in several denominations, is up for discussion. Most mainline denominations require a candidate for ministry to get a classical seminary education which, if pursued full-time, will take three to four years to complete. On top of that, ministry candidates must take on Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training and pray that the program pays them for their time. This kind of training more or less assumes that the candidate is privileged, both economically and educationally, and has the resources to forego a fulltime job and cast numerous adult responsibilities onto others. And all while doing fieldwork that focuses on the sick and the dying and does nothing to prepare them for young movers and shakers.
Stumbling Block 2: Coming of age during economic uncertainty
Many millennials struggled to gain a career or enter the workforce during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The Pew Research Center states,
While the Great Recession affected Americans broadly, it created a particularly challenging job market for millennials entering the workforce. The unemployment rate was especially high for America’s youngest adults in the years just after the recession, a reality that would impact millennials’ future earnings and wealth.
Consequently, the costs for training for holy orders — raising funds or occurring debt to pay for three to four years of seminary, earning a living for themselves and/or family, etc… — are daunting.
Given that these stumbling blocks probably won’t go away for a few more drawn-out church conventions, how can we, as the church, help foster millennial leadership for the second largest generation on earth, after the baby boomers?
God has the answer. Knowing this, we can be blunt and honest with ourselves, with the church and with the Lord about where we see pitfalls and where we see hope amongst the church militant for the coming age.
The Rev. Nicole Foster is a Doctor of Ministry Candidate at Trinity School for Ministry, with the emphasis in preaching the Old Testament. She has a Master of Divinity from Redeemer Theological Seminary and a B.A. in History from Southern Methodist University. She serves on the board at Trinity Abbey in Houston, TX and teaches Old Testament for various organizations.
Millennials are the first generation in the church raised in an environment where our congregations have been in a state of perpetual decline. This means that the millennial perspective is not only fresh and may be in touch with a younger and larger demographic, but is also rooted in a desire to try something new. In our experience, the practices in which we were raised have not been effective for quite some time. Yet they are still in place today.
Millennials are less connected to things and traditions. More often, they have an affinity for the intention behind a practice, and the motivation that sparks a desired outcome. Millennials have respect for the past, but they also understand that the future of the Episcopal Church is not a certainty.
To understand the millennial leader, it is important to be mindful of the great societal change millennials have seen in their comparatively short lives. While previous generations may have spent their entire lives using volumes of encyclopedias to gather information, the thirty-year-old millennial has experienced hardcover encyclopedias, Encarta Interactive CD-ROMs and Wikipedia, all in the course of the last 20 years. If one feels that a millennial might be insensitive about implementing change, it’s important to remember that the world has never shown sensitivity to millennials as it rapidly changed around them.
The benefit of this upbringing is that the millennial is not afraid to try new things, or most importantly, not afraid to fail in the process.
Unsurprisingly, while millennials share an affinity for new ideas and practices, it would be inaccurate to assume that all are unified in their approach. There are certainly millennial leaders who get excited about new forms of media and communication and embrace new technologies to push evangelism forward. Just as likely, you will also find millennial leaders who see a rich benefit in our non-digital traditions of corporate prayer, classical hymnody and our affection for a physical book. No matter the approach, a millennial’s desire is rooted in one thing: integrity of mission.
What we do must be rooted first and foremost in our Gospel mission. The millennial does not suggest new forms of communication simply to look flashy, nor to promote traditional Anglican worship to highlight the past, but only because he or she truly believes (and can often articulate) that these practices, new and old, can create a larger Church and build disciples for Jesus.
The Rev. Colin Chapman is Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Londonderry, NH. He is also co-host of Priest Pulse Podcast and host of the Red Church Door Podcast.
Obviously, millennials should be considered in church decision-making, because we are adults who are a part of the church. Our desires are much like those of every generation in the Communion of Saints before us. We want community, we want to pass something on to our children and we want to grow in faith. Below are just two reasons I think millennial leadership is important for the Episcopal Church today.
Millennial leadership is relational
I consider myself a highly relational person. It’s just that my community is not necessarily geographical. For example, I talked to friends and family in four different states and three countries about their relationship to religious communities for this article. We pray and work in a church that is inherently relational. At its best, the Episcopal Church’s hierarchical polity creates opportunity for right relationship in community.
Many millennials have the ability to think simultaneously about the universal and the particular as they navigate problems and decisions. Holding the tension of how the particular informs the universal and how the universal shapes the particular can at times feel overwhelming and even paralyzing. In a non-geographically-bound community, we are forced to consider the impact of our everyday decisions on people living in a wide diversity of contexts. This type of processing can come out a bit clumsy, so hang in there with us, because it is also a gift that has allowed some young church leaders to encourage our churches and communities to try new things and welcome new people.
Millennial leadership is driven by hope
In a time of climate change, widening gaps between the rich and poor, seemingly intractable problems of racism, patriarchy and economic exploitation, millennials can’t afford to live on cheap optimism. Instead, we have to depend on hope in the face of absurd realities all around us.
I am a black woman, an Anglican and a priest. Needless to say, I live in extreme complexity and must consider how the interconnected nature of race, gender and socioeconomic status shows up in the institutions of Church and the systems of my daily existence.
Many young people my age — whether, Black, Asian, Latinx, White or multiracial — exist in a huge amount of ambiguity and flux. We know we are the first generation in this country in recent memory to have worse social, economic, political and health outlooks than our parents. Many millennials know that the American Dream, is just that: a dream. We have less equity and significantly more debt. The result is that many are financially insecure, hustling in the gig economy, scraping by on hook-ups and hand-me-downs. Yet on the whole, millennials seem to be hopeful.
There is Good News for the Church. We Christians know that hope is the foundation of faith and relationship is the life-blood of the Body of Christ. And truth be told, the Church is perfectly suited for millennials. We like old things, we like innovation, we like sad stories, we like anti-heroes and we like social consciousness and a bit of rabble-rousing. We are all called to serve an extraordinary God, through the challenges and difficulties of ordinary life, in the context of flawed systems and institutions full of manufactured obstacles, man-made suffering and oppression. I want to belong to a church that will build community and speak out against policies and corporations that make life untenable for young people or any other people. Our kids may not inherit land and fortune from us millennials. But perhaps if we are involved in decision-making now, our children and generations to come just might be endowed with a Church and reality that reflect God’s justice, love and hope in the world.
The Rev. Hershey Mallette Stephens is Associate Rector at St. John’s Norwood in Bethesda, MD. Baptized and raised at St. Ambrose Church in Raleigh, NC, she is a third-generation Episcopalian. Hershey has worked in the Presiding Bishop’s Office of Evangelism, where she was Project Lead for the Beloved Community Storysharing Campaign. She enjoys listening and learning from children and young people, and dreaming up new and fresh ways to tell the story of God in Christ. Hershey is married to Rob Stephens, Minister for Congregational Life at Middle Collegiate Church, a multicultural community in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
- Relational Matters by Greg Syler, ECF Vital Practices blog, August 14, 2013
- Building Young Adults Networks by Mary Cat Young, Vestry Papers, March 2013
- Speaking of Hope by Anna Olson, ECF Vital Practices blog, February 24, 2018
- Rethinking Clergy Education by Gary Shilling, Vestry Papers, November 2016