This piece is co-authored with Christian Peele and Kevin Wright.
Christian Peele, Director of Stewardship & Development, The Riverside Church
Kevin Wright, Minister of Education, The Riverside Church
Dear Millennial Church Leader,
Do you know what the hell you're doing? Because we're coming clean and admitting that often times we don't.
For starters, let's agree we're past the whole "millennials vs the church" conversation. "Millennials hate the church." "Millennials don't believe in institutions or organized religion." "Millennials don't tithe because they're selfish!" We know the stereotypes and stats. We're just not interested in engaging that kind of click-bait navel gazing.
What we do want to talk about is the fact that to many of our contemporaries who are leading the exodus away from the church, our decision to move toward it is like jumping on a sinking ship -- silly if not suicidal. But making an unpopular choice isn't what's scary about this work, is it? What's truly terrifying is the suspicion we can't quite shake (or maybe even admit) that our peers might be right to leave. They might be right that this -- the entire work and enterprise of the church as we know it -- may all go to shit.
Really, who goes to work for a church these days?
Apparently we do -- you and the three of us. Maybe your story looks something like ours (maybe it doesn't).
The three of us were successful young professionals, working in meaningful careers. A university chaplain at one of the top ranked schools in the country. A communications consultant to influential power brokers in DC. A White House staffer among the political elite. We are well educated and experienced, our entire careers are before us. We sound like the type of cocky jerks you try to avoid at parties, don't we?
The point is, going to work for the church wasn't a foregone conclusion for us -- even going to The Riverside Church in the City of New York, where we are all now senior staff. Yes, Riverside is a historic beacon in American Protestantism, but it also has its share of problems, just like the rest of the institutional church. And we had other options.
Except. Except really we didn't. Maybe you know what we mean?
It was the steady gaze of the octogenarian Jesuit Priest who rode shotgun on a winding path of discernment. It was a moment pulled over on the streets of DC when the tears wouldn't stop coming and a turning point had been reached. It was the wise mentor who said, "Don't work as a leader in the church and don't take on any sort of call to ministry unless you absolutely have to." It was the moment each of our hearts leapt, like John in the womb, like fire in the bones, like really annoying heartburn you wish would just go away. And we knew. Even though going to work in the church makes almost no sense in this day and age, we had no choice.
Now, we realize we're writing from the perspective of a pretty lofty tower, a place of relative ease. Being at The Riverside Church as senior staff at our age, working for the first female Senior Minister, is humbling and we are grateful. To not name that would be arrogant and disingenuous. But we also know and feel in the depths of our souls that the stakes of this work are high, in every church, yours and ours. We are either birthing something new and incredible or futilely tending to a stillborn hope. And some days we feel the questions pile one on top of the other. Maybe they're your questions too:
- How can I lead the church when half the time I'm not sure I believe in God myself?
- Is this going to be a career killer? If this church fails, am I employable anywhere else?
- Did I "end up" in the church because I don't have the "right stuff" to make it in another career?
- Will the church be the voice of the next justice movement, or worse, will it stand in the way, attempting to crush any movement of God that does not issue from its walls?
- Is this gamble going to pay off or am I about to go bust?
If God had bothered to ask us, we would have listed all the reasons why we are absolutely the wrong choice for this work. Of course, if God had consulted us about how best to act in our world the church would have been dead long ago. Think of how untrustworthy the institution has proven to be. Think of how unadaptable and glacial slow it is or the leaders and followers who have used its name to preach unimaginable hate.
So why do we stay?
For us, quite simply, it's that fire in the bones we cannot keep shut up. It's the nagging question, what if?
What if God is not done working in this messed up, beat up, washed up vessel? What if, in this new period that is emerging, the church can summon our better angels and move our world a little more toward justice, and mercy, and compassion? What if the church is not dead, but like Lazarus in the tomb, merely asleep waiting to be awoken to a fresh reality made new by the power of God?
Let's be clear, we are not interested in being hospice chaplains to the church. We are not here so that there is someone to turn out the lights after everyone has left. We're here because we want community, a life of purpose, and the ability to make the world a better place through innovation and social consciousness (we are so millennial!). We're here because, as Will Willimon says, we believe that "the church is necessary because it knows what the world does not yet know: God has reconciled the world to God." And because maybe, just maybe, what the church can become is so damn good, it's worth the risk.
This work is not easy. It's Dorothy Day's long loneliness, Thomas Merton's prayer to please God, and Beyonce's Sweet Dreams.
So, this is our confession, our truth and our dare, our hope, our fear, and our prayer. We're going all in on a high stakes hand that may not pay off. This may all go to shit. But if it doesn't, just imagine what if.