Barbara and I attended a memorial service yesterday
Where Have All the Young Graduates Gone
Barbara and I attended a memorial service Sunday, July 24th, for a contemporary in Methodist ordained ministry, Richard S. Parker. He was a graduate of Brown University. The bishop read from the ritual for funerals in the United Methodist Book of Worship, a liturgy worthy of frequent use, composed by the late Jim White, seminary classmate, former professor of arts and worship at Notre Dame, an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Harvard University. Earlier in the week a death notice from the Conference (Methodist for "diocese") office reported the death of Lloyd Alvah Duren, another contemporary, an innovator in the parish, back in the 50's and 60's when innovation was a heady thing. Lloyd was also a graduate of Harvard. And Bob, your CCRWH, is a graduate of an elite New England small college which regularly leads the list of U. S. News and World Report's annual college rankings.
Where on earth and under heaven, you could and should be asking, is he going with this?
To a rueful observation, that's where. A dawning perception without citing statistical evidence, a generalization about the present state of the Protestant ministry, Methodist variety in particular. Namely, that the pastoral ministry is no longer seen by graduates of elite colleges as a viable vocational choice. Like it once was... back in the day, meaning the 1950's.
In this moment of populism's ascendancy any reference to elite schools is met with contempt, as if to say, no one, in the church especially, has any right to think they are the creme de la creme of our society. True, self-satisfaction goes hand in hand with self-righteousness, and that, self-righteousness, is sin's greatest motivation. I suspect, however, that Mr. Wesley, Methodism's founding father, who did his founding in the seat of English intellectuality, Oxford University, where he was a don, would not object to my regrets. Martin Luther nods his "Amen," understandably: he was a professor of the Bible and wore his academic robe in the pulpit. Most of the schools mentioned in the first paragraph began life in this country as places to prepare professionals, which means doctors, lawyers, and clergy. The Great Awakening of the 18th Century began with blue tongues... at Yale, led by president Timothy Dwight. The U. S.'s most prestigious theological schools, not so incidentally, belong to the faculties at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia... speaking of elite institutions.
I voiced this observation (the absence of young graduates from elite schools among the ranks of the latest ordinands in our Conference) to a current occupant of a Methodist pulpit, a woman in her second career (the first was as a military nurse). She had a ready explanation, that the pastorate is a far more difficult job now than previously, and young people were not ready to sign on to the sacrifice (money, time, and ambition) it requires. I didn't argue, despite her implicit assumption that my forty-nine and a half years in the parish were a more comfortable sinecure than anything she will experience.
But she is right about there being a change in pastoral ministry, not so much in the day-to-day labors as in its reputation beyond the confines of stained glass. Dear Dorothy DeBeauchamp, a hostess with the mostest in the church circles I ran, corrected me when I said a disparaging word about my vocation: "Why, pastor, there is no better job in the world than being a minister of the Gospel!" As I've told you, repeatedly (!), my mother also thought so. Their opinion wasn't unanimous even then when I and the world were young. A history professor at college, Bob Scott, a teacher and advisor I admired, asked me, when he heard I was going to seminary, why I would want to waste a keen intelligence. Talk about backhanded compliments! He was, however, preceded in that estimate of the pastorate by my high school steady's mother, who disapproved of me because she anticipated my career choice, and what a ruination that would be for her daughter.
On the whole, however, the 1950's witnessed a surge in seminary enrollment by recent college graduates, and their consequent applications for ordination. In 1955, the year I "joined the union" and became a full member of the aforesaid Annual Conference, 90% of the class were fresh out of seminary (directly after graduation from university) and could look forward to forty plus years of service, provided we didn't run away with the church secretary or, more likely, "burn out." Many of us did... both the former and the latter. In that special moment sixty years ago, Methodist pulpits on the eastern shore of the U.S. no longer had to depend on the influx of farm boys from Ohio (think Ralph Sockman) or Nebraska (my pastor, Loyd Worley). My college class in 1953 produced two Methodist, four Episcopal, one Lutheran, and one Roman Catholic clergymen. Not bad for a class of 250 in a secular college.
Times change and attitudes with them. The world is a fickle place; same for academia. The job of ordained ministry ranks somewhere between New Jersey schoolteacher and inner city social worker in the public estimation. With comparable pay or less. When the massacre of Norwegian campers was reported in The New York Times, the headline initially labeled the gunman, not as an ideologue or a psychopath, as a "Christian." I have never been that impressed with the Times' knowledge of the New Testament (they often quote Jesus without attribution, with "as it is said...") but identifying Anders Breivik's horrors as Christian defies elemental understanding of what the Galilean carpenter was all about. Subsequent reports have been more careful in their labeling; but the easy application of Christian to ideological misanthropy speaks volumes about our times.
Namely, that in our society "Christian" has been appropriated and now defined by fundamentalists, who apply it to every endeavor they undertake, schools, counseling services, political crusades, dating agencies, and, would you believe, plumbing (I refer to an ad on TV in the Bible Belt). Along with this appropriation come beliefs and attitudes associated with fundamentalism: creationism instead of evolution; cultural exclusiveness instead of inclusiveness; moral purity instead of compassionate understanding; fervor instead of intellectual competence. All of it tinged with a self-righteousness surpassing even that which emanates from elite colleges.
I have been asked, now nearer the end of my travels in these parts, whether or not I would do it all over again, pastoring and preaching, that is, for forty-nine years. I usually reply reflexively, "Sure." In solitary moments, like the ones which preceded the composition of this essay, I'd have to admit, were I to be honest, that I'm not so sure. I'm not so sure the culture of the moment - that is, the negative spirit of the times - would let me do it. Instead I would be pursuing the careers listed in my junior high newspaper, mechanical engineer, or high school yearbook, lawyer.
Some (besides Prof. Scott) I've met along the way have told me 'twas a pity I didn't follow my earlier ambitions.
Still I am faithful enough to believe in the eventual swing of the pendulum in the direction of ivied faithfulness. God is resourceful, even when we are not. John the Baptist has the last word, that "God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." The future belongs to Jesus, though probably not in the way his followers think it ought to be.
And, yes, I am glad, proud even, for my stint in the trenches for the kingdom of God, which, by God, will come with us or without us.