Jason Byassee: Overaccepting being young

Nathan Kirkpatrick writes of ways the church tries to encourage its young ministers. What do we young ministers do when they get it wrong?

My Leadership Education colleague Nathan Kirkpatrick has written a beautiful reflection on what it’s like to be a young minister in a Mainline church. I commend it to you here. I share his sense that the church both expects too much and too little of us younger clergy. Too much: Surely we can be the generation to turn around the slide in the institution’s loss of numbers, money, prestige. Too little: God brings about revivals on God’s own time, and it’s more likely to happen if we love and innovate in radical and risky ways.

I had an older minister stop and talk to me at annual conference one time when I wished he would have just passed by. I’d been praying -- but not because I was feeling particularly pious. It was because a relationship had ended that had mattered to me, and I was distraught. Seeing a young pastor at prayer, he stopped and said, “You have the potential to be extraordinary.”

It was awkward. What he thought was a mark of devotion was in fact prompted more by depression. I was despondent, and he wanted me to feel triumphant. He should have just smiled and nodded and walked off and let me cry.

But here’s what he tried to do: He tried to bless me. He tried to say something encouraging. He tried to make a tiny gesture toward the future health of the church. Through mistake, misstep, but well-meaning exchange, he wanted me to feel encouraged. And I was. I never saw him again.

The trick to being a young minister, it seems to me, is to overaccept. In Sam Wells’ terms, improvisational actors are taught not to block: If another actor gives you something, and you turn it down, the scene ends. But if you accept it abundantly and move it in a direction above the giver’s intentions, then the scene goes forward and something genuinely new happens. I always remember his exceedingly English example: When Princess Diana was asked if she would ever be Queen of England she didn’t block (“no”). She didn’t just accept (“yes”). She over-accepted: “I hope to be queen in people’s hearts.”

In his reflection, Nathan describes how he overaccepted the man’s comment on his awkward robe. We have to overraccept the yeoman’s work of people like Lovett Weems and Beka Miles to support young clergy. We have to overraccept an entering student body here at Duke that looks young enough to be refused at the cigarette counter. How is it, to fire a bank shot off Matthew McConaughey in “Dazed & Confused,” that every year they get younger while we stay the same?

And we overraccept whatever God has for us in this church God has given us. Since God is the one who so radically accepts all of us.