Since my youth, God, you have taught me,
and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
Even when I am old and gray,
do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
your mighty acts to all who are to come. (Psalm 71:17, 18)
As I approach the subject of ministry, I bring with me some assumptions. One of my assumptions is that people in ministry (or people who shape ministry) have a responsibility to pass on our faith to future generations.
To be sure, we share that responsibility with parents, peer groups, and the wider community of believers – but there is, I attest, a special role that ministry leaders have to play when it comes to passing the faith to future generations. Abdicating that role, easy as it is to do these days, has dire consequences for the Church.
So when I approach a proposal like the One Order of Ministry paper, issued by the United Church of Canada, I come with that focus in mind. How does the One Order proposal affect our ability to serve young people and pass on a faith to which young people might commit their lives?
There are a number of more specific questions I could ask. How does One Order encourage young people to envision themselves as ministers? How does One Order tie into the national Youth and Young Adult Strategy of the United Church of Canada? But what I want to explore briefly is how One Order envisions ministry for people with a calling to minister to (and with) young people.
First of all, we need to wonder whether or not this is a calling that has a place in our church. Do we recognize that there might be people who have a special calling, and are gifted by God with certain aptitudes, passions, and opportunities, to bring Christ-like care and nurture to young people? Our society has no problem recognizing such specialization in our education systems, in our sports organizations, in our health system, and even in particular branches of advertising, food networks, and culture-making. Our society recognizes the importance (or opportunity) of guiding young people, and so provides structures to train, accredit, and equip these specialists for success.
In the church, however, we treat people who might have a specialized calling to work with young people as an after-thought, right when our very future depends on it. This is made evident by the way in which youth ministry Staff Associates were lumped in with solo, pastoral lay ministers when the DLM category was created. It is also made evident in the One Order proposal by the way that document side-steps even having a discussion about youth ministers with specialized training.
What we need is a clearly articulated vision for how we want to the church to serve young people – both as the Whole People of God, and as paid accountable ministers.
When it comes to paid accountable ministry with young people, there has (for some decades now) been a two-tiered approach. One tier has been for very part-time positions, with a limited scope, and usually a limited duration. This is the kind of position that draws university students, or stay at home parents, or young adults who may be moving on to other forms of ministry. Some people begrudge these positions because of the high turnover rate, the lack of theological training or (in some cases) United Church pedigree, or the sense that they turn youth ministry into a stepping-stone towards other things. But the reality is, these positions are a key entry point for many ministers, and they’re realistically what most churches can afford who have any inclination to hire additional staff for young people. These people may not have a life-long calling to work with young people, but they have gifts, are willing and available, and there are congregations willing to hire them.
The second tier has been for those who have discerned a more permanent calling to work with young people. These are the folks who have done the DLM training, who bring youthful presence and energy to our presbyteries and conferences, who seek specialized training at Princeton and other places, who make national Rendez-Vous events come alive. They see themselves as “lifers”, people whose ministry isn’t from a pulpit (though they do teach and encourage and evangelize), or from the altar (though there is something sacramental about gathering around the pizza box with a confirmation class).
These two tiers have been called different things over the years, and the lines between them have shifted numerous times. But whether they were Congregational Accountable Ministers (CAM’s) and Staff Associates, or Congregational Designated Ministers (CDM’s) and Designated Lay Ministers… there have always been two kinds of paid accountable youth ministers in the United Church.
The struggle I have with One Order, is that it seems to call for a single tier approach – and places that single form of paid youth ministry leadership at the lower, more entry level tier. Even though it calls for a return to familiar Staff Associate language, what One Order seems to envision is for all paid youth ministry staff to be at what we today call the CDM level.
And while I think today’s CDM level is important and makes many things possible for ministers and congregations, there is much to be lost if there is not a place in our structure for people with a specific life-long calling to work with young people. If all youth ministry staff were at today’s CDM level, there’d be even less youth involvement in our regional and national courts. There’d be less theological insight in our work with young people. There’d be less ability to pass on a uniquely United Church vision to our youth, and fewer leadership resources to create dynamic new forms of youth ministry to our church.
I’m not sure what the best vision for a second tier of youth ministry leadership might be – whether we need to create space for specialization within the new Ordered Ministry, or whether we need to reclaim space in the Diaconate for teamed, educational ministries, or if there’s some other vision that has yet to emerge.
What I am sure of is the need for the United Church to articulate a vision for youth ministry leadership that is sustainable, faithful, and dynamic. We can no longer afford to treat youth ministry leadership as an after-thought.
Andrew Hyde is the Ecumenical Campus Minister at the University of Guelph, and has been a Staff Associate / DLM in the United Church of Canada since 2001.