A changing of the (old) guard?

Here I am, sitting in the Communications Center of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), waiting for some stories to come so I can butcher them, I mean edit them. But we’re in a lull and my mind is returning to something I’ve been pondering the last few days since I arrived in Portland.

For anyone who has followed the PC(USA), indeed any mainline denomination, in the last few years, they have heard the concerns over the graying of their group.

This was reinforced Saturday at this biennial meeting of the nation’s largest Reformed body. As occurs at every assembly, one of the tests of the electronic voting system included asking the commissioners their age. Overwhelming, the answer — as it always does — came back “old,” as in they’ve been eligible for AARP membership for a decade at least, if not longer.

And at one point, it was noted that the average age of Presbyterians is 62 years old (and I’m on the high side of that number). Several comments have been made about the future of such an aging group.

And yet.

As I look around the Oregon Convention Center, I think I think (that’s not a mistake) that we have reached a turning point, at least in the leadership. I see an increasing number of stated clerks, and denominational leaders — mostly at the regional or local level — in their mid-30s to mid-40s.

Some of them are very high-profile and are doing extremely creative and exciting things. I could name some, but I won’t because I’ll surely miss some, and maybe even misrepresent others, and the who is less important than the what.

Over the years, I’ve watched the shift coming; one might say it began to gather steam in 2004 with the election of Rick Ufford-Chase as moderator of the 216th General Assembly (2004). He was 40 then, and at the time the youngest ever to hold the position. (At the time Rick was elected, the chair of the then-named General Assembly Council, the denomination’s mission agency, was Nancy Kahaian, also a young pastor. Nancy is now a presbytery executive in Eastminster Presbytery.)

Four years later, 39-year-old Bruce Reyes-Chow was elected moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008) supplanting Rick as the youngest.

And then came Saturday, when commissioners made triple history:

  • First-ever co-moderators. (This is the first assembly that has been permitted.)
  • First time two women have ever led. (Two women had never held the positions of moderator and vice-moderator at the same time, although there have been plenty of times it was two men.)
  • One of the co-moderators is the latest “youngest moderator ever elected.” Denise Anderson, a pastor from Temple Hills, Maryland, is 37. (Jan Edmiston, the other co-moderator, is a presbytery executive from Chicago.)

But my observation is not based on the relative youth at the top; it’s the younger leadership that is in place up and down the line. And yes, I know that some will see references to 40-somethings as “young” is a pretty friendly definition, but the fact is that it’s a younger generation of leaders in place. It does take a while, after all, to work to a place where you are knowledgeable enough, and proven enough, to be in a position of leadership.

I’m aware of several presbyteries where it is a cadre of 40-or-so year old pastors who are pushing the old guard — said with love — to increase energy, to increase mission, to relate to the world more directly.

And today, I saw a social media post by one of those young leaders saying, “I am so tired of being told we are in a crisis. We are not in crisis. #ga222 #preslandia”

And it’s not at all pollyannish to agree with that sentiment.

Thanks be to God.

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