Future Leaders

A week ago I was invited to an “ask the pastor” time with our Grace United Methodist Youth or GUMY as we like to say. I love the opportunity and I am always humbled by the adult volunteers and by those whose vocation calls them to this uniquely vital work in the days in which we live. Jeff Milton, Stacy Guerrero, Mona Candea, and the team of volunteer adults whose hearts have been moved and called and sent by God to our teens are capable, gifted, and have a courage to look to envision a future that happens in faith through those who will live the faith that we pass on as a legacy. The question is always how effectively and how passionately and how urgently we are willing to witness to that faith. It requires both a commitment to our past tradition and the courage to risk living toward a future whose answers are beyond what we probably can imagine or envision.

I’m currently engaged in reading a book that both disturbs and invigorates my unsettledness about the future of our denomination, our local church, and my call as an ordained clergy in this vocation to serve both a polity and doctrine as well as a foundation in social justice for all God’s children. Someone asked if it was a good book, and my response almost without thinking was that it is an important book for me, though not exactly enjoyable. It challenges what we have “always known” to explain the unique differences that we now face that suggests that the strategy we must have to move into the future is to understand the goal is to learn as opposed to answering all questions and resolving all disagreements. The author calls it a “fluid future” where the thought of a solid foundation is no longer the way of living communities of faith.

It’s both an intellectual exercise as well as a challenge to how I understand the practical reality of the times in which we now live. Every generation changes our understanding of how to communicate and witness to our faith most effectively. What doesn’t change is the intrigue and questions each generation has about what it is God is doing, how it is God’s calling, and how we understand God’s vision for our lives and the lives of our world. This generation of teens is no different. They are facing their own set of challenges that absolutely amaze me at the complexity, AND they still are most interested in how it is God is active in their lives and the lives of those around them who struggle with all kinds of issues that make them feel as outsiders or alienated from the perceived norm. I’m always humbled by the hearts of compassion, the intensity of the questions, the depth of a desire to understand how scripture is relevant to daily life, and their hope to see great possibilities for the world through the adults who lead.

I have been privileged for many years to lead confirmation classes – about the only concentrated time I have with our youth that allows me to know them and them to know and have access to me. I value that time as much as I value any of the work I do. To get a sense of what parents face in providing support, structure, instruction, and a way of helping their children become resilient and adaptable to such a quickly changing world astounds me. And then to see what our early teens are living into in a world where social media is as natural a part of the world as breathing, and where the amount of information at their fingertips to try and sift through without being damaged or damaging others is overwhelming. And yet, and yet, their essential nature is consistent with all the generations who have come before. What does it mean to live a life of meaning? Where does that meaning extend beyond the self to a community? How do we find a way to lift others up even as we ourselves are lifted toward our best selves? And how do we both live our purpose and deal with the challenges of those who would pull us down toward a lack of civility in the persuasion that looking out only for the self is the way to success?

It sounds overwhelming and so we back away and hope that someone else – their teachers, coaches, youth pastors, confirmation mentors, guidance counselors will find a way to reach the most difficult so that the sometimes bent toward self-destruction or the destruction of others will be caught and stemmed before anything bad happens. Given all of that, what I will tell you is that I’ve never had more hope for our future given the students I know and the questions they ask, and the passion with which they give themselves to a cause. AND I’m very aware that it yet takes a village to help each other and our teens know that pain they may experience is deep and real AND will not last forever. We are in too many consecutive years of teen suicide being on the rise. The reasons are complex and diverse and unique, and we each must be willing to be proactive to make a difference in this trend. How do we show our teens by our words, actions, and plans for the future that life is worth living, that brokenness and mistakes do not define us, and the love always wins? Because you see, after so many years in this rather peculiar calling of pastor, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt, that what random adults do that teens see and experience, makes a vast difference to a perspective of what life is like and what makes life worth living. So yes, those of us who either never had or no longer have children living in our homes, still have a huge influence on what the future is going to be by how we live, communicate, and offer ourselves in service of others.

I consider it a high privilege when a teen asks to have some time with me for a coke and a conversation. I will move an awful lot on my schedule to make that happen because of the investment I have in the leaders that will build the faith for tomorrow’s world. What grace do they experience from their community, their church, their pastor? What do they come to see as worthy of their investment in the kind of person they decide they want to be as they develop and use the gifts God has given them? I do have a tremendous bias toward how we provide a foundation for our children from birth through young adult. God has blessed us at Grace with a large number of these lives to love and nurture and trust with the living of our faith.

What kind of community of faith we want our children and teens to experience? Do we live that faith so they see it as effective and urgent and welcoming of new ideas and new possibilities? I would hazard to guess that someone or someone(s) along the way did that for each of us or we would not be connected to a faith community today. Perhaps we are then called to share that same gift with those coming after us. Start with a prayer for every youth in our community to meet the mentor that can touch their hearts and souls. Take a next step to offer a welcome or greeting to a teen you see in your neighborhood or at the place you go to grab coffee or breakfast or check-out at your grocery. A word of thanks or support can mean more than you know. Take another step and call a local school and ask how you might help, or our children or youth ministry team to ask the same thing. It may seem that all our young people want is to communicate with social media, but you might be surprised – a quick conversation in real time in direct relationship is a gift not taken lightly.

The ask a pastor session was not filled with easy and simplistic questions, answers, or conversation – and it was as important as any work I have done or will do. I am more than thankful for our parents, volunteers, children and youth staff, and most importantly, the teens themselves for staying engaged in the conversations and commitment to live like Jesus in the some of the most challenging days any of us have experienced. God’s vision for our future in the hands of our students is that which gives us a minute, or maybe even two, of grace!