I was graciously invited to an interfaith dinner at an area UCC church. I always welcome the opportunity to break bread with people of differing and diverse belief traditions to celebrate and recognize our common humanity, so I had little hesitation in accepting this offer. What’s more, I was still acclimating to a pastoral position in a new church, and saw this as a way to connect with others from nearby communities.
My wife and I made our way to check in and receive directions on where to go. As I introduced myself as the new pastor down the road, one of the ladies working the registration table looked at me incredulously and exclaimed, “But…you’re a CHILD!”
At this point, I had more than eight years of full-time pastoral experience under my belt. I’ve long recognized that my inability to grow or sustain much of any facial hair leaves me looking younger than my actual age.
All the same, I encounter regular comments that I couldn’t possibly be old enough to pastor a church.
I would wager most of these comments are meant innocently enough. Some may only know people in ministry who are older, and are surprised—even impressed—to meet someone in their 20s or 30s who willingly undertook such a role.
Some of these comments, however, come with other assumptions. I’ve had comments get back to me that me being younger meant I wouldn’t have much interest in visiting older members of the congregation.
At times, having a younger pastor causes people to assume he or she would automatically be gifted in organizing youth activities or that young families would be drawn to their church like moths to a flame.
With age also comes issues of authority. I’ve heard stories from colleagues—particularly women—who have encountered attitudes in their churches where their opinion carries less weight than it would for an older pastor.
Younger pastors also endure complex issues regarding parental leave, insurance coverage of family planning, and critiques of their appearance.
Thankfully, in recent years a group has arisen within the United Church of Christ called the UCC 2030 Clergy Network, which seeks to connect clergy in their 20s and 30s from across the denomination.
We organize an annual continuing education event, as well as occasional regional events, and maintain several social media platforms as ways to support one another as we navigate the beginnings of our careers, share in joys and frustrations of ministry in general, and seek to do our part to transform and empower the church to answer God’s call to faith, justice, and peace in today’s world. Such a group is not meant to be exclusive, but rather a safe space for clergy in a particular season of their lives to wrestle with the opportunities and trials that it brings.
I have counted it as a blessing to be a part of this Network, and to have just completed a leadership term with their National Planning Team. We have advocated for fair compensation practices, helped one another locate resources for worship and education, served as listening ears through troubling situations, and lifted each other up in mutual recognition of God’s call among us. It has served an important role for my own ministry, as well as for the denomination.
Pastors of all ages have many gifts to offer the church. I greatly value the experience, wisdom, and mentoring that I have received and still receive from colleagues who have been at this much longer than me. While younger clergy may not bring as much experience to the table, we do bring with us a willingness to learn, and to love and serve the church as faithfully as those who have gone before us. Our methods and concerns will not look the same, but we are just as committed to the church’s present and future.
The comments about my age will probably continue for at least a few more years. I am already detecting a few gray hairs, and whatever child-like facial features I’ve been able to maintain for so long will eventually fade. Regardless, I’ll continue serving as my gifts and sense of call invite, as that’s what we of any age seek to do.
I hope that as a younger pastor, I will be given the benefit of the doubt.
Jeff Nelson is pastor of Grace United Church of Christ in Uniontown, Ohio, as well as a spiritual director and writer. He also blogs at Coffeehouse Contemplative.