I've pretty much been watching the recent blog thread on how the Church should embrace the gifts of younger leaders from millennials Jonathan Sullivan, Timothy O'Malley and Colleen Reiss Vermuelen from the sidelines. This has been a bit challenging to us older folks - especially those of us who were unaware we were being perceived as suspicious or non-accepting.
Believe me, acceptance was just as difficult for many of us when we started out, even for those of us who began ministry in mid-life. In the late 1980's when I started, even though I had an ecclesial degree, I had to "prove" to people of my parish that I could be the liturgy coordinator. They had never seen a lay woman who was not a religious sister in ministry. (My pastor finally had to tell people from the pulpit: "In matters of the Liturgy, Joyce speaks for me.") Later, it took me almost four years to prove to some people in the parish where I became the DRE and director of liturgy that I was not one of those "uppity" women who wanted to be ordained! More recently, though I have always been a writer, I was not "recognized" on a non-local level until about a year ago. So, don't feel picked on. This is not all about generational differences. It's actually more about being "new" to the ministerial community and possibly about the impatience of youth. (ducking!)
Here is my challenge to younger leaders. Indeed, let us learn from you - but not just about the operational points of ministry. I know for a fact you have great ideas. Instead, sit with us in the circle of community. Let us learn from you how God is calling people into lay ministry today. You have a different story to tell - and it is a necessary one to an understanding of the story of the Church in the USA. We older folks DO have a need for you to tell us about yourselves. We honestly don't know - and that's why some may have a hard time accepting you. Sherry Weddell has said the first threshold is trust. It's hard to trust someone whose experience appears to be very different.
Let me explain. Maybe I'm not the norm, but my (very) slight degree of disconnect with younger people in ministry is my lack of a frame of reference for their vocation. Pretty much every middle-aged and older catechetical leader I know tells a similar story: none of us actually planned to do this with our lives. Rather, God called many of us, from something else, through a series of situations. Those with ecclesial degrees, mostly went "back to school." In other words, it's often been a case of giving up another agenda in favor of service to the Church.
A popular meme of many in the older generation of ministers is "This was not my plan, but apparently it was God's idea all along." Often, there is a great deal of Paschal Mystery involved - dying to old priorities and rising to new - widowhood, divorce, unexpected request from a pastor at the departure of a previous leader.That's why local, diocesan-sponsored lay ministry formation programs, local university cohorts and online learning are needed for those who did not or could not become qualified by traditional academic experience as young people.
What I most want to hear from this new generation of leaders who chose to go to college and major in theology, catechetics, liturgy or something else ecclesial early in life, is how does it feel to choose this intentionally as a young person? How is this, for your generation, a divine calling, and not simply a "career choice?" I am certainly not at all suggesting it is not a divine call. I just want to know how this works when God calls a young person. I want to hear the Christ-centered theological reflections that help me understand how this is as real for you as a divine call as it is for me -and how a young person's ecclesial vocation is part of an ongoing path of conversion. (And no, you don't need to prove your authenticity - just tell me how it works!)
In my experience, some people in the "older generation," especially those with a background as school teachers who took this path as career choice early in life, have (how do I put this nicely?) an institutional bias, and may, in their later years, have developed a "staleness" and a tendency to cling to old models. In contrast, many who have felt a strong mid-life conversion-based call to catechetical ministry are more open to new models and methods, if the impetus for these seems to be coming from the Holy Spirit. This is because, through their response to their call to the vocation of catechesis, they have been opened up to God. Yes, these are all generalizations, but this, in some way, reflects my experience. I so want it not to be true for this new generation.
So, please tell me. How does an early vocation work? Did you grow up admiring other catechetical leaders or theologians and want to emulate them? Or, did you, too, start out doing something else and then God "yanked" you into this? When did you know this was what you wanted to do? Was all of this pretty organic? Where does the vocation of a young person come from, if not through the changes and demands of Paschal Mystery? Help us "old folks"out. Many of us have been sharing stories of our convoluted paths to ministry for years. This has been an important part of what the first generations of post-Vatican II lay leaders have brought to the conversation.