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What's honored in a country will be cultivated there

The national gathering for the PC(USA) starts on Saturday. I’m proud of our General Assembly. It’s a biennial event where we wrestle with profound issues, listen to one another, and seek to discern God’s will. Not everyone agrees with the decisions. Many of the votes end up with a nearly 50/50 split. But we covenant to be a part of this process and find unity in our differences.

I love that the commissioners to the assembly are made up of equal parts laity and clergy. I love that people on the ground, worshiping in local churches, and struggling with particular budgets make decisions.

One thing always makes me pause though. When we get the age breakdown, it’s nothing short of horrendous.

  • 91 percent of the laity are 50 and older.
  • 67 percent of the clergy are 50 and older.
  • A mere 23 percent of all commissioners are under 50.

Why is this important? Well, the worldview of people under the age of 50 is much different, especially when it comes to things that mean a great deal to how we do church—racial ethnic makeup, marital status, education level, and religious affiliation. We have different opinions on marriage equality, immigration, and technology use.

Here are Pew Research’s graphs on these issues. Millennials and Gen X are under 50.

Having people who can make decisions with that differing perspective will be important for the health and well-being of our denomination.

How do we fix this? Of course, there is no easy fix. Other than buy my book. (Just kidding. Sort of.) 

But when we think about the General Assembly in particular, is there anything that we can do? I think there is.

Paul Raushenbush interviewed William Sloane Coffin about a decade ago. I often go back to this interview, and it might give us a clue now, especially when Coffin quotes Plato: "What's honored in a country will be cultivated there." When I enter churches or study organizations, I ask myself, “What kind of work do they honor? Whom do they celebrate?”

Now, more and more, when I go to denominational events, they honor the lifetime achievements of distinguished individuals. Sometimes they are the unsung heroes of our church, who labored for years without any recognition. But usually, they are the people who have received loud accolades, fantastic salaries, and great honors their entire careers. And now that they are retired, we go to General Assembly luncheons where every Presbyterian organization hands out an award to a retiree and applauds what we used to be.

In one particular organization, when they were deciding who to give an award to, a person on a board asked, “Why don’t we give out that award to someone who’s not retired? What about giving it to a person who’s on the top of her career right now?”

The answer came quickly: “Well, we don’t want to give a young person a big head or anything.”

I don’t want to sound like a jerk. Of course, it’s lovely to remember a life well lived. But the thing is, the award is not only for the person on whom it is bestowed. It is for the body. What's honored in a country will be cultivated there. 

*(Now, I know that the PCUSA uses TE/RE to make the clergy/laity distinction. But no one outside of Presby-world understands what that means. So for the purposes of the ecumenical nature of this blog, I’m going to stick with laity and clergy. Those outside of the PCUSA, it might be helpful to note that we ordain our laity to be ruling elders and deacons.)

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Concrete steps

A presbytery can take steps to assure a more even distribution - even, or especially, when it means revamping an existing system for electing/appointing commissioners. My presby has a rotation re TE assuring that alternate assemblies we send TE under 40. I'm hoping to advocate for alternate years an RE under 40 as well. We only send 2, plus the YAAD - it's a step if we can have at least a 50/50 split. If most presbyteries did this, it would encourage a more broad representation, I think.

Thanks for helping to keep up thinking, Carol.

Age at GA

You might find it helpful to look at how the age distribution has changed (or not) over the years. I’ve never seen such figures, but they exist, I’m sure. It’s always possible your age distribution is getting younger. (wry smile) At least the leaders in the UCC look younger every year (as I get older) (very wry smile). But I think the trend of the numbers will help your argument.

I think the challenge is larger than not wanting to reward/recognize young leaders. I think it’s just plain hard for a younger member (say, under 40) to participate in multi-day long-distance denominational events because they’re raising children (and sometimes doing it alone), because they have limited time off, and because it costs money, even when the denomination pays “all expenses”. For instance, school is not yet out here in Rhode Island & Connecticut — and no teacher’s going to take time off in the last 2 weeks of school — not and keep that job. How do we make it possible for younger people to participate in these events?

I think moving national meetings around the country helps. I’d bet the majority of younger Presbys attending your meeting will come from within a day’s drive of Detroit. Is there some way to organize “meet the Commissioner” parties for younger people?

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