Thursday, September 22, 2016

Don't Be a Cool Church Leader, Just Be Real

Go church!

The research has come in:  Young people want substantive leaders. They don't (necessarily) want hip, stylish, trendy ones.

The study originally published in Christianity Today and then reported in Baptist News Global brings hard numbers to the conversation.

All I can say to this is: 


I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to bang my head against the table on this subject. I have talked to campus ministry group numerous times as a colleague or visitor. I'm told they want ministers who can "relate to the students." 

When I ask follow-up questions to gauge what they mean, I discover this: 

They want the cheerleader model of ministry.

They want someone fluent in current student-ese--someone who knows all the latest dances, songs, TV shows and secret handshakes. They want someone with the personality of a walking pep rally. Their goal is to portray the church not as some stodgy, dusty artifact but as cool, modern and relatable. They believe this kind of person accomplishes that.

That's fine . . . up to a point. I guess the litany of old, white men in leadership over the centuries has taken its toll.

But I would challenge them: 

Do you realize that many students are introverts?

Do you realize that many students are gloomy, moody and depressed?

Do you realize that students want true connection with someone more than just about anything else? They are hungry for something and someone real. 

Ask a student to name their favorite professor or campus leader--it is probably an elderly nun or a reclusive, quirky professor. It might be the dormitory janitor who they chat with as he's outside smoking while they are brooding over a heartbreak.

All that we can ever really give anyone is ourselves.


You might think Catholics would understand this better than most.  Millions of young people around the world have lined the streets or have attended a World Youth Day hoping for a glimpse of a world traveling pope.  Whether it's Francis, Benedict XVI or John Paul II, it's not age or cool, hipster style that brings them out in droves--it's leadership, presence, wisdom and the prospect of connecting to someone or something meaningful.

In fact, if you roll out a photo album of some of the most beloved Catholics in recent years, you would see bald monks and grey-haired activist nuns. However, we often throw this wisdom out the window when it comes to lay ministry. The shortage in vocations to the priesthood and religious life has created at least a couple generations where young people have mostly had only older role models in the clergy. Young, hipster priests are pretty rare. Whether by choice or necessity, we have given our elderly priests and sisters a chance that they wouldn't have gotten interviewing as a lay person for a campus ministry position.

Mother Teresa was a Catholic sister from Albania who ministered to the people of India, among other places. She looked different from most Indians. She had a wildly different religion. She spoke with an accent. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that she was sincere in ministering to the people and making a true connection. When her heart was set on that, all other boundaries were in play to be transcended.


I've worked a lot in urban, rural and multi-ethnic ministries over the course of my career. It is wise to bring in local people to assist in this work because they have local knowledge and local sensitivities. However, this can be problematic if we lean on it too much.

Bear with me here, because I'm going to make a very nuanced point: 

Let's say you work with a predominantly Caucasian-American group. You want to do ministry with African-Americans or Hispanic Americas. It would be completely unwise to attempt to minister to these groups without consulting with them directly. The Catholic Church has gotten into loads of trouble over the years making pronouncements on people or ministering to them without actually asking for their involvement in the process at all. You would ideally want some African-Americans or Hispanics as part of the leadership, direct ministry, or at the very least, in a consultant role.

However--and this is where I could risk getting into trouble, but stay with me a minute--you don't have to

No, I'm not against diversity, and I certainly don't want to bring back anything that resembles colonial tone deafness.

Here's the reason:

It would be a sad day indeed if we discovered that the only people who can serve African-Americans are other African-Americans. It would be a sad day if the only people who could relate to rural people are other rural people. It would be a sad day indeed if the only people who could minister to young students are leaders who look and act like what we think students look and act like.

The whole Gospel message gets blown to bits if we end up thinking this. It's a gloomy prescription for endless isolation, misunderstandings and miscommunication. It offers no hope of ever transcending our boundaries. It gives us the message: I can only understand you if I've had exactly the same life and experiences that you have had. That's just plain horrible and it runs counter to Gospel hope of inclusion and ultimate reconciliation of all people through Christ. It runs against centuries of Christian tradition where unusual, unlikely outsiders often become the heroes.

Jesus was male, but he reached out to women. He was Jewish but he reached out to Samaritans. The British St. Patrick went to Ireland. St. Francis visited the Sultan. Dorothy Day, once a frequenter in trendy literary circles, went to the slums of New York City. These are not exceptions but rather the general rule of Christian discipleship.

Yes, if a group of elderly, Caucasian nuns want to minister to the urban poor on the streets of Kolkata, India, they ought to consult with local people. There ought to be some local people as consultants or as members of their team. It would be enormously disrespectful and unwise not to do so, and I would bet any money that Mother Teresa did exactly that.  However, that should not stop them from making the effort on their own. In fact, it should enable them to reach out rather than disable their efforts to do so.

All that we can ever really give anyone is ourselves.


The cheerleader prescription for campus ministry usually fails on two levels:

1. It makes wrong assumptions about what students are like in the first place.
2. It incorrectly assumes that in order to minister to students one must look and act like students.

That's not ministry, and that's not leadership, and I don't believe that's where the Gospels are calling us.

I would also caution campus ministry teams: Young people can see through any charade in a heartbeat. The cheerleader model caters to only certain students and it truncates the global, diverse church into a little club with a very specific, approved approach. It's also like the "popular kid" trying to witness to a world full of outcasts.

There are some people who actually are like a walking pep rally. That's who they are and they are fully sincere in that. Kudos to them. I would argue that their ministry would only be successful--any ministry is only successful--if it is based on sincerity.

To church leaders, I say this:  Be brave enough to be yourself.  Trust in the dignity in which God has created you. Be whatever you are--nerdy, goofy, quirky, young or old, plain or complex.  Don't be trendy. You don't have to know the latest catch phrases or technology.

Just be you.

That's all that you can ever give, and honestly, that's all that anyone ever really wants.


See 2 Corinthians 5:16-21: In Christ, we are all called to the ministry of reconciliation.

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