Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

3/3 2015

The Millennial’s Guide to the Older Generations

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millenials-older-generation-churchThere has been a lot written about what is going on in our culture and what it means for churches. Particular attention in recent years has been given to the millennial generation (born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) and the increasing number of people who do not go to church and claim no religious affiliation. This research is good and important, but I have noticed another problem. There are an increasing number of millennials who did not grow up in church and are now becoming pastors. Many of them are struggling in ministry because they do not understand the older generations. So here are seven descriptions or generalizations about the older churched generations for younger and second career pastors.

  1. Older generations are not technology oriented. I check my phone first thing in the morning, can’t stand leaving it in another room, and use Google on a daily basis. Older members in my congregation are not like that. The technology is a foreign language to them that they have had to learn and are not entirely comfortable with. In fact, many older church members are intimidated and frustrated by technology. They don’t know how to talk to their grandkids who are always looking at screens.
  2. Older generations are not accustomed to change. Millennials have grown up with change as a part of life. It happens fast and naturally. Older church members are not native to this kind of change. Some of them worked for the same company their whole lives. They live in the same home they grew up in. Now they are seeing their kids and grandkids move away to follow a new job every couple of years. In all of this change, the one thing that has stayed the same is the church. It has been their anchor. That is why they sometimes react strongly to changes in the church. They are reacting to a lot of other changes as well.
  3. Older generations are loyal to institutions. They are members of the union, the Lion’s Club, the Masons, the men and women’s bible studies… They are loyal to these institutions through the highs and lows. They cannot understand people who switch jobs or switch churches so easily, and it hurts them to see this trend because they are deeply invested in seeing these institutions survive.
  4. Older generations are patriotic. For them, the country is the institution to which we all owe loyalty. Many of them personally sacrificed either in military service or as their family members fought in wars. They grew up pledging allegiance to the flag in schools and often at church functions. This is why they don’t want you moving the flag out of the sanctuary. For them it is not just a move to separate church and state. It is an anti-American statement.
  5. Older generations have different concerns. When you are younger you think you are going to live forever. Older generations know better. They feel in their backs and their knees that life is a fleeting gift. They think a lot about things like retirement, aging, and death. They worry about the legacy of their churches being passed on, though this sometimes contradicts with their desire to see the church stay the same.
  6. Older generations consider truth differently. When older generations want to know something they consult experts in print to verify the facts. They want absolute truth. They want the encyclopedia. Millenials think in terms of Wikipedia—group-sourced opinions and observations on a screen. Reality can be relative. This distinction has huge implications for views of Biblical authority as well as preaching.
  7. Older generations think differently about money, possessions, and security. For young people debt is a way of life and financial security is not as important as doing something important. Older generations don’t thing that way. Some of them grew up in the Depression or learned from their parents about the Depression. They want security and the comforts of nice things.

Older members in your church have a lot of questions. They don’t understand why people don’t go to church, why the church is small, why things are changing so fast, why the world is so different, or why their precious organizations are failing. One of the things that pastors have the opportunity to do for these people is to lovingly and graciously teach them why things have gone the way they have and what it means for the future of the church. They are not usually trying to be blockers. They just think in increasingly different ways. If you want them to understand you, then you need to understand them.

Jordan Rimmer ’12 is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in New Brighton, Pa. He earned his Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently working on getting his Doctor of Ministry. Before moving to Pittsburgh, he was the director of outreach and youth ministries at Glenwood Methodist Church in Erie, Pa. He is a husband and father of four children. Jordan blogs at jordanrimmer.com and tweets at @jrimmer21. His sermons are available for download on iTunes or at http://jordanrimmer.podbean.com.


2/25 2015

Why My MDiv/MSW Joint Degree Created Clarity

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mdiv-msw-joint-degree-pittsburghI began my graduate studies as a student of the University of Pittsburgh working to receive my masters of social work (MSW). The course work was practical problem solving for those with mental health, social, and justice issues. It was exciting to be learning about how government programs work and how to best serve those with mental illness.

I was fascinated by my classes in cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. I could not get enough. In my second semester I was required to do my first internship. I began working as an in-home family therapist. It was wonderful work, coming alongside a child, and therefore a family, to offer services to better the life of the family and child.

In this work I got to travel all around the city of Pittsburgh. I worked with families that were very affluent and some that were the poorest of the poor. In all of it, my education, matched with outstanding supervisors, gave me the confidence to enter any situation, face it, and do my best to improve the lives of those I was working with and for.

As I entered my second year of graduate school, a more intense internship was required. I began working at a step-down program for children and youth exiting the psychiatric hospital and slowly transitioning back to school. There I had to apply what I was learning in a completely different way.

Suddenly, I was faced with children and families who were experiencing trauma that I could not imagine in my worst nightmares. During a therapy session with one such child he asked me, “Does Jesus want me to forgive my auntie who hurt me? My pastor said on Sunday that we should forgive everyone. Is God mad at me?”

And with that one therapy session I realized I needed way more than the training I was receiving in my MSW. Clinically, I could answer that question with a question, “What do you think Jesus would say to someone like you?”

Theologically, I was not ready to proceed. And I could not proceed. Working in a large conglomerate system does not allow for personal religious beliefs and frankly, neither does therapy. It is about working out the problems of the client and helping the client achieve mental health. For this young man, I can say that I did the best I possibly could. We worked on his problems and my hope is that he is a well-adjusted man today.

But personally, I knew I had to go back to the drawing board. My MSW was not enough. I needed a theological education that would provide a foundation for all of my practical and theoretical knowledge. And that is why I then began attending Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, earning my MDiv through the PTS/Pitt joint degree program. I graduated with both degrees in 2005 and have found the mixture of practical and theoretical knowledge perfectly supported by my theological education.

Being able to see the world and the great, tragic problems of the world, through the lens of my theological education gives me great eschatological hope. And great practical hope. The lens through which I understand God and our human interactions with God does not get clearer every day, if anything it gets foggier. But having both an MSW and an MDiv allows me a clarity that one alone did not.

The Rev. Erin Davenport is a 2005 alumna of the MDiv program. Through the Seminary’s joint degree program, she also earned her MSW from the University of Pittsburgh. A former chaplain, she now resides in Pittsburgh and serves as the Seminary’s Director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute.


To White Churches at the End of Black History Month: Begin Now!

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Black-History-Month2I was just doing what I thought I was supposed to do as a white pastor of an almost entirely white congregation: invite an African-American preacher to preach on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. An assistant professor of black church studies at a nearby seminary had been worshiping with us lately, so I called her with the invitation.

“Thanks, Roger, for this invitation,” she said. “But I really don’t like to do white peoples’ politics for them.”

I stammered, apologized, stammered some more, and drew the conversation to an awkward end. Then I let what she said sink in. She was asking me in so many words: Can only black people talk about race? Why can’t you say to your congregation what needs to be said?

I’ve thought many times about that conversation in the years that followed, and not a few times during this Black History Month. At the end of January and in February we invite an African-American to preach, sing the few African-American spirituals in the hymnal, mention Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and then head into March with clear consciences.

But do these gestures keep us from doing the work of self-examination, awareness-raising, and deep understanding we need to do as white Christians?

As we come to the end of Black History Month, here are a few suggestions for white pastors and churches that might help us “do the politics” we need to do:

Learn to let issues of race and racism show up in your sermons throughout the year—not just in February or in response to a crisis. I had to learn as a pastor to let the language of race and racism become a natural part of my preaching. Could I preach about the sin of racism as easily as I could the sins of greed or gluttony? Could stories of civil rights champions past and present find their way into my sermons 12 months a year? Did I only mention race when race appeared on the screen of the nation’s consciousness? I’m thankful for a preacher’s honesty in pointing me to my job as the church’s pastor.

Create spaces for the church to engage in self-examination. I remember how surprised I was when I learned that our church had an African-American associate pastor in the early 90s. And how dismayed I was to learn he only stayed a year and few people remembered his name or the circumstances of his leaving. Together the staff and leaders of the congregation realized that we needed to create spaces to name our own church’s history around race as honestly as possible, spaces where we could remember and confess our own complicity in our city’s history of prejudice, discrimination, and violence. Discovering and confessing our own history was the first step toward authentic action.

Learn to engage in ministry “with” rather than “to” people of other races. When we began to engage in self-examination, we discovered that many of our ministries were ministries “to” people of other races. The neighborhoods around our church building were predominantly African-American, but we didn’t know how to be with them as neighbors. So we began a clear emphasis on getting to know our neighbors—living, learning, and listening with them. We stopped thinking that we had the expertise and the resources to fix “their” problems, and learned that the pain and hope belong to all of us in different ways. We watched as friendships formed across lines of race, and celebrated the ministries that grew out of these relationships.

One African-American preacher’s encouragement (and rebuke) to me prompts me to offer this encouragement to white congregations: Now that February is almost over, and no one else is telling us that racism, prejudice, and white privilege need to be topics of conversation—now let’s put these things on the table of our life together, and keep them there.

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years as co-pastor with his wife Ginger.

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