The “M” Word

That word came up again in conversation yesterday.

I’m at the final day of a three-day meeting of Project Connect “Key Leaders.” Project Connect is an exciting and important effort, funded by the Lilly Foundation, among the 21 ELCA Synods in the eastern strip of the country, to increase talk among 18-30 year olds about vocation: what is the work God is calling you to do? In those conversations, we’re paying attention to those young adults who have gifts for “public ministry” in the church — as pastors, Associates in Ministry, Diaconal Workers — and encouraging them to get into the process of becoming such a minister.

The work of the Project is crucially important for two reasons: first, because most Lutherans don’t have a good idea of a real strength of our tradition, which is the theology of vocation — that God calls us through our baptisms, and that, when we’re doing work God wants us to do, then that work is fulfilling! At various periods in life, we need to discern what work God is calling us to do. The second reason is that there is such a shortage of pastors and professional leaders in the church, and the shortage will get worse as old people like me retire.

Aside from the work of the Project, though, I enjoy the gatherings of the Project leaders because they are the best and the brightest. They are creative. They are hopeful for the future of the ELCA. Especially since the ELCA Assembly votes on sexuality, when I gather with other pastors, I’m all the time hearing worry and anxiety about the people and money we might lose in the ELCA, and what we are losing. It’s much different among the people I’m getting to spend time with during these days. We have lots of contact with young adults, and we’re hearing their dreams and hopes for the church — so the talk among us is hopeful! It’s exciting to discern what God is doing among us! What is God creating in this Church?

We are of all ages at this meeting. I enjoy talking with other pastors close to my age, sharing experiences and perspective. (I had a very good conversation, for instance, with a pastor who’s been in his congregation for 26 years. I’d like to stay at St. Stephen for the duration (which would mean about 10 more years), but I’ve seen too many pastors stay too long in their congregations, who have become stale and boring. So I asked Rick, “What have you done to remain fresh, and to avoid burnout?” Good conversation!

I also enjoy conversations with pastors who are my kids’ age, because their assumptions about the church are so different from what mine were when I was their age! Their ideas and thoughts are so mind-expanding! I scribble down notes and thoughts after such conversations. Somewhere in there are clues about what the Holy Spirit is doing with us as a Church.

But you know what also happens in those conversations with pastors my kids’ age? The “m” word comes up with some frequency.

I guess it’s because I listen and take these pastors seriously. (They experience a great deal of “agism” from more experienced pastors who assume the young whippersnappers don’t know nuthin’. I’ve watched and listened to that happen many times.) Maybe it’s because I’m listening to these young pastors and learning from them that, when I offer responses from my experience, that’s appreciated. And sometimes it’s even valuable to them! My roomie at this event is three years younger than my son, and we’ve had some good conversation. After one he said, “I really appreciate your mentoring.”

There it is: the “m” word.

When did I stop being one of the “bright young guys?” (That was a phrase my father always used about young executives he’d bring on his staff. Of course, in those days, they were all guys!) Somewhere along the line, I stopped being one of those “bright young guys,” and turned into a “mentor.”

I gotta get used to this!

About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine loves being a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!