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Older than we think…

old and young?

Back at it this past week – students back in class, faculty and staff back in the routine of office hours and dealing with student crises. And I am aware once again of what a different rhythm this ministry has from parish life. I spent Christmas ‘off’ – the university closed on December 23 and re-opened on January 2. So while most of my colleagues were running around like crazy, I was actually in one of my slow seasons.

It has left me thinking again about the differences between parish and campus ministry. There are many. (In fact, the students use this as a chorus when I look particularly surprised by an event or comment. “Megan”, they say with a grin, “Tell us again, how is this different from life in the parish?!”)  Some of these differences are created simply by the informality of ministry with young adults, and their willingness to ask questions – and to enjoy shock value! So yes, there are loads of very frank conversations about sex and relationships going on in the Ministry Centre and my office, and yes, we had a finger puppet pageant at which Mary explained to Gabriel just exactly how she couldn’t be pregnant yet…

But some of the differences are more profound. The students I see are genuinely interested in faith and ask questions wanting to deeply explore spiritual matters. I have more real conversations about faith in a week on campus than I had in an entire year in the parish. That is significant. So is the reality that I am clearly understood to be middle-aged on campus.  Even among staff and faculty, being in my mid-forties means that I am older than most. Yet in a parish context, or when I go to church meetings in the diocese or deanery, I am seen as one of the younger generation. It has left me far more aware than I used to be about the aging of our churches.

There are more differences, of course. But that last one has struck me anew this holiday season. Ironically, over Christmas I attended a church which seemed to have lots of young adults in the congregation, all apparently visiting their families over Christmas. So I do not mean to suggest that every church is about to die off! But it is significant that my youngest daughter (aged 22) whispered to me in surprise during the service, “Hey mom, do you see how many young people are here?!” It was noticeable precisely because it is unusual. And in a church where I am often seen as ‘young’, how much more difficult is it to try and connect with the likes of my daughter, who already is of a different mind-set and generation than the 17 year olds I deal with in residence?

I don’t mean to suggest that only ministry with youth is valuable, or that we should be putting all our energy into ways of connecting with the latest generation! However, sometimes we are unaware that even those the church considers young are in fact several generations removed from that reality – and perhaps we should be more cognizant of that. How might that change the ministry we do?

About Megan Collings-Moore

Megan spent 8 years in parish ministry before arriving at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo. Raised as a Quaker, and with roots in the Presbyterian Church, she has been Anglican since her teen years. She loves to talk about faith and God – and enjoys a good debate! She likes finding ways to connect popular culture with faith, and thinks there is nothing quite so interesting as people, and finds that those who are seeking truth always have interesting conversations.
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0 Responses to Older than we think…

  1. Kyle Norman

    Megan, thanks for this post.  I, like you, have the wonderful honour of being younger than all my contemporaries, and about 90% of my church.  I am interested in your statement that “I have more real conversations about faith in a week on campus than I had in an entire year in the parish.”  I am wondering what the reason for this is? Is it because people in parishes are not open to ‘real’ conversations about faith? Is it because there is something about universtity that makes it more open spiritually than a parish? 

     I imagine that part of it is that the university culture lends itself to a certain amount of thinking and introspection.  I remember my university days, we were always thinking and discussing something of grand merit.  But what makes this not transferable to the parish setting.  Does the routine and traditional nature of the parish tend to create a system by which spiritual discussions are mediated through pre-defined processes (Baptism, confirmation . . )?  If so, what is the remedy?

  2. I too am a younger clergy person serving congregations that tend to be ‘of a finer vintage’. That being said, these folks are delightfully engaging, and while they do see me as younger, they also see me as part of the parish family. In my 3 years serving this parish, I’ve never heard ‘you’ll understand once you’re older’ or any such patronising comments. In a previous parish I served, however, I had the exact opposite experience – once being asked if I was old enough to have completed university (I was, at the time, completing my 4th degree and teaching undergraduate courses!)

    As for engaging conversations, my experience is that people will get into them when they feel comfortable – when they can put aside preconceived notions and fear and all that. In one Bible Study group last week, we barely cracked into our planned study – someone instead asked a question about the sermon from the week before. We had a great 90 minute chat about that instead! It was great. Admittedly I was the youngest of the group, but that didn’t stop a fun and lively chat on faith and theology.

  3. Kyle – I think there are many aspects to why more of the young adults I see ask faith/spiritual questions. Partly it is about a stage in life when everything is up for grabs – including faith (but how relieving that faith is in that mix!!) Later on in life I think we have more invested in the answers we have previously claimed as true – and more to lose if we doubt… Partly it is also about a legacy of being afraid of getting the wrong answer and having the institution (and the local community?) turn on us if we ask the really big stuff or express major doubts or anger. And frankly it is also about the reality that later in life one has less time and energy to think!!!!

    And Laura, I too have had great experiences with senior parishioners – had a fabulous book club in my previous parish where I was the youngest by at least 25 years. And I think one of the biggest gifts the local parish can give is the experience of intergenerational community in a society which often divides and segregates according to age and stage in life. BUT let’s not pretend that we include representation from all ages when we don’t! Or play at youth = middle-aged – that’s particularly dangerous in a society which doesn’t deal with aging…

  4. I’ll join @Kyle_Norman and @LauraMarie as one of the young people in the midst of elders… though it’s also becoming clear to me that early 30’s is no longer “young,” at least by young people’s standards. I’m interested, Megan, in how you perceive communication styles to change across the generation gap. I don’t think it’s any surprise that some of our younger leaders have congregated here (or in other online spaces). People naturally go where they find their own kind.

    How can we go about accepting that, without ghettoising congregations, service times, online communities, etc.?

  5. Afra Saskia Tucker

    I was just  yesterday telling our college chaplain, who remarked she is nearly 50 years my senior, how unfortunate I feel this situation is: I treasure the role that elders would ideally play in a community, bringing wisdom, life experience, and many other wonderful things to enrich our lives; yet, due the generational imbalances that I and my peers (the few that take part) experience in church, the conversation (that I admittedly participate in) around elders is normally quite negative and diminishing. It’s heart-breaking, really.

    Furthermore, I know that I too, one day, will find myself in the the same position as them. I think the problem is not just church-related, but indicative of the poverty of inter-generational dynamics in society. Youth segregate themselves online and with a host of other technological gadgets. Older people often don’t keep up with that, and are cared for in ways that are quite different than the past. I think if we want to address the issue of elders vs. youth in our churches, we will necessarily have to address it beyond church boundaries.

  6. Kate Newman

    Thank you for these thoughts. What a great question. What is youth? Can I quote (but not idolize, I promise) Kurt Cobain? “The duty of youth is to challenge corruption.” If this is true than it is youth who have the ability to notice that which is corrupt in our personal faith. Seeing youthfully is a way of finding those ways of thinking about faith that will eventually cause our faith to crumble.

  7. Hmm… good observation, @Kate_Newman. It seems to confirm what Megan implied earlier: the older we get, the more we have invested in the status quo, and the more we (feel) we have to lose. Seems to me that baggage could easily cloud our ability to see things as they are.

    So: where do we find middle ground? Baggage, as Laura Marie has pointed out on occasion, also comes with wisdom and understanding. I wonder if university ministry provides a good model for us–where middle-age wisdom is respected and looked to for reflection, but where younger voices and new was of thinking are looked on with excitement?

    *edit* is youthfulness sustainable?

  8. Afra Saskia Tucker

    Someone I was speaking to today mentioned this resource, and it struck me as potentially useful to the conversation about aging communities, church or other:

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