Why Does God Hate Suburbs?

maple grove

Maple Grove, MN.

I’m a city kid.  I grew up in Flint, Michigan and was only an hour away from Detroit.  The 1970s, my childhood, was the time when we heard a new phrase: white flight.  It was a time when whites who lived in cities like Flint and Detroit, left the inner cities to head to a new life in the burbs.  At least in Michigan, the move to places like Rochester Hills, Farmington Hills, Troy and Southfield created segregated metro areas with a black and poorer inner core and a white outer ring.

So, I grew up with an antipathy towards the suburbs.  They were places that were gated paradises filled with racist white folk who couldn’t give a damn about the folks in the cities.

Twenty years later, I don’t have the same hatred of suspicion of the burbs.  They are still not the places I prefer to live in (thought I did live in the Washington, DC suburbs of Arlington, VA and Silver Spring, MD in the years following college). Part that is because I actually started paying attention to what is going on in the suburbs.  Over the years, I’ve learned that hunger take place in suburbs like Maple Grove, Minnesota, which is just west of Minneapolis.  I’ve learned that domestic violence takes place and that there are shelters for women and children in the tony suburbs of Oakland County north of Detroit.  I learned that runaway youth who live in the burbs need a place to stay.  I learned that suburban schools are becoming more diverse, handling people from different parts of the world.  What I’ve learned is that the suburbs are not some fascist utopia, but are real places with real problems.

But while the burbs are far more complex than I was led to believe, they old stereotype still exists, especially in churches.  Church leaders constantly rip the burbs as being against the will of God.

Last week, Acton Institute blogger Anthony Bradley blogged on how the new radicalism being preached by several evangelical ministers seems to favor the bold and daring instead of ordinary.  Here’s a key paragraph.

In the 1970s and 1980s the children and older grandchildren of the Builder generation (born 1901 between 1920) sorted themselves and headed to the suburbs to raise their children in safety, comfort, and material ease. And, taking a cue from the Baby Boomer parents (born between 1946 and 1964) to despise the contexts that provided them advantages, Millennials (born between 1977 and 1995) now have a disdain for America’s suburbs. This despising of suburban life has been inadvertently encouraged by well-intentioned religious leaders inviting people to move to neglected cities to make a difference, because, after all, the Apostle Paul did his work primarily in cities, cities are important, and cities are the final destination of the Kingdom of God. They were told that God loves cities and they should too. The unfortunate message became that you cannot live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs.

This led to a response from the folks at the Fare Forward blog who countered Bradley’s assessment of the suburbs.  They believe that Christians in America should abstain from suburban living:

Yet some forms of cultural resistance should be universal, because some aspects of “normal” life in America are deeply unChristian. Bradley laments that “anti-suburban Christianity” has lead to this kind of legalism. But there are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. Will Seath does a good job of laying those out in his article from the winter edition of Fare Forward. Bradley suggests that the anti-suburban Christians advocate for urbanism at the expense of the suburbs. But, as the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).

Notice what’s being said here.  It’s not that suburbs aren’t optimal to Christian living.  No, suburban living is unChristian, it goes against what it means to be a Christian.  I haven’t read the Will Seath article, but even without reading it the above statement is astounding.  What is being said here is that nothing good comes from the suburbs, and that millions of Christians in America are basically committing a grave sin because they chose to live outside the city.

In some ways what we are seeing here is a religious version of the war between sociologists Joel Kotkin and Richard Florida.  Florida is well known for his book of a decade ago called “Rise of the Creative Class.”  Florida tends to focus on America’s cities and focuses especially on cities that can attract the “creatives” persons in the arts that can enhance the life of a city.  Kotkin on the other hand, tends to focus on America’s suburbs and less cooler cities.  It’s obvious from the tone of this post that I tend to agree more (though not totally) with Kotkin.  If you want to get a different view on suburbanism, read Kotkin’s 2010 essay “The War Against the Suburbs.”

My point isn’t that the burbs are better than cities or small towns.  My point is that I think Bradley has a point that we are called to live a godly life where we are planted, be that a big city, small town or sleepy suburb.

Are there unChristian things going on the suburbs?  Yes.  But last I checked unChristian principles like greed are found in the city as much as in the suburbs.  Wall Street is in New York, by the way.

I think the guys at FareForward are dressing up their prejudices against the suburbs and for the city in biblical garb.  There’s nothing wrong with preferring city over suburb.  What is a problem is trying to use the Bible to justify your views.

I think God calls us to different places.  We might be called to an inner city neighborhood, or a small town or a suburb.  Rod Dreher was mentioned in the blog post by FareForward.  Dreher wasn’t saying just live in small towns or go back to your hometown, but that we must put down roots in the communities where we live and work. Dreher commented in a recent blog post about his book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, a memoir about his sister living and dying with lung cancer:

I want to push back against people who say you should not leave the country for the city — that was my sister’s view — and against the view of people who say that you should leave the country for the city, which, broadly speaking, is the view of my class. The truth is, we are not all called to do the same thing, or, as I’ve learned, to do the same thing for all of one’s life. I had to leave the country as a young man, not only for my own health, but to fulfill what I believe was my divine calling to be a writer. The sojourn I took in the mid-1990s, trying to move back to Louisiana and failing, confirmed to me that God had a calling on my life, and it could only be accomplished away from here. Now, though, nearly 20 years later, I was able to see through my sister’s fidelity to her own calling here in the country, that He was calling me to do a new thing, outside of the city. What did it was being impressed — overwhelmed, actually — by the extraordinary good my sister Ruthie did living here in this little country town, and seeing in that a model of faithful presence that challenges my own ambitions, and the ambitions of many, many people like me…

This vision was expanded by my attending the funeral of my Great Uncle Jimmy, who was a common man of uncommon goodness and greatness. I came home from that a changed man by what I had seen and heard, and started Orthodox Holy Week in a far more prayerful state of mind because of him. All week I’ve been thinking about how much people need to know about the Ruthie Lemings and James Fletchers of this world, and how I am not necessarily in a position to do the things they did, but I am in a position to write about it, to tell others. This is how I can use the gift and the opportunities God has given me.

Are there Ruthie Lemings and James Fletchers in the city? Absolutely; Uncle Jimmy lived in one, actually, in industrial West Monroe. Goodness knows nothing of the city and country distinction — and neither, it should be said, does evil, though country people and city people sometimes flatter and delude themselves that those who live in the Other Place are more susceptible to wickedness than they are. My point is simply that for me, given my own personal and professional story, I have discovered, to my very great surprise, a calling back to the country. Because of the sort of person I am, I could not, or at least did not, “see” the Uncle Jimmys and Ruthies when I lived in the city, though they were no doubt all around me. It took leaving the city for me to be able to do this. Since Little Way was published, I have heard from so many readers who have written intense, heartfelt letters telling me how much this story about a little town and its people has changed their perspective on life and how to live it…

My point, in terms of Christian vocation — which is what Alan brought up — is that God can use us in the country, He can use us in the suburbs, and He can use us in the city.

He goes on to say about how young Christians want to do Big Things, and they do.  I wanted to change things when I was in my 20s.  But now in my 40s, I want to live a good life, live to be used by God wherever I am.

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Follow the (Aspie) Leader

One of the things you don’t hear a lot about when folks talk about persons on the autism spectrum is to be an effective leader at work.  Most of the time when there is talk about the employment of aspies, it’s usually about how hard it is to keep a job or talk about how we prefer certain jobs.  The quiet assumption is that someone on the spectrum is not going to get to a place where they manage people or projects.

But the fact is, we do sometimes stumble into positions where we have to provide leadership and vision.  For me, that’s being a pastor.  My calling doesn’t allow me to be holed up in a corner somewhere.  I have to deal with people’s problems and come up with solutions.  And I have to do this all the while having a condition that makes communication somewhat difficult.

All of this leaves me with questions on how to be a leader or manager who happens to be autistic.  Luckily, there are resources available for those of us who are “aspie leaders.” Asperger Management is website I have stumbled upon every so often.  It’s run by a British man named Malcolm Johnson. Johnson shares tips to help those of us in the workforce that have to lead. Here’s a blog post he writes about learning how to appreciate your colleagues:

I have been working with my boss and a junior colleague on a recruitment drive for new customers recently.

It was the responsibility of the junior employee to follow-up on the leads that we generated and to ensure that prospective customers received the appropriate documentation to enable the sales to be closed.

During a conversation this morning, my boss mentioned how the customers had commented on how efficient the junior member of staff had been in administering these leads and how she had been instrumental in their decision to buy from us. My boss said that he had thanked her for doing so.

I dropped her a line to say likewise also to register my approval and support. In turn, I received an e-mail from her thanking me for the acknowledgement.

A few years ago I don’t think that I would have written to her.

I have come to appreciate how important it is to acknowledge the efforts of others. I have also come to notice how this is normally reciprocated and how it builds a positive disposition from them towards me.

I’ve had to learn this myself and I still have ways to go in this field.  It’s helpful to read that someone else has had to learn something that comes so easily to others.

Another person to look for advice is the blogger Penelope Trunk.  Also on the spectrum, she writes about career advice, management tips and other issues.

People with Aspergers can be leaders, but to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, we have to it backwards and in high heels.

Okay, maybe not the high heels…unless they come in a size 12.

Repost: Aspie Reflections: What Do You Do With An MDiv?

The following post is from May 2008, just after I received my Aspergers diagnosis. One of things I was thinking of back then is how to be a pastor with autism.  I don’t think I have the answers today, but I think I’m a bit more confident that God does have a place for me in ministry.

Last night, I watched the Associate Pastor at the church I am a part of. We had our weekly prayer service- now biweekly during the summer months- and she was talking with two members of our congregation whose daughter, son-in-law and children were brutally affected by a tornado that hit the northern Twin Cities suburbs. She was skilled in being truly a pastor to them during this horrible time. As watched this scene, it occurred to me: I couldn’t do what she is doing- or at least it doesn’t come to me as naturally.

Today, at another meeting, I saw a young guy who is a pastor at a local UCC church. Again, he has the social skills that make him an excellent pastor. And I thought again, I don’t have those skills.

While I am relieved about my diagnosis of Aspergers, it leaves me with a big question regarding vocation: what in the world do you do with a pastor that has autism?

I’ve been around long enough to know that pastors tend to be social beings. They are supposed to be the kind of people who can connect with others. They “get” social cues. They know how to deal with sudden change. So what about someone like me who isn’t any of that? How in the world can I be a pastor if I don’t have those skills?

This doesn’t mean I am planning on hanging up my stole (though that has crossed my mind). But I just don’t know what to do here. I know that I can’t be a solo pastor of a church. There is way too much instability for me to process it all and I know I would end up pissing people off with my aspie ways.

For a long time, I’ve wondered where I fit in the church. I knew I didn’t fit, but didn’t know why. But now I need to figure out how to use my gifts in ministry, how to use my Aspergers not as a deficit, but as an advantage.

I know that I need to be in environments that are structured and have some sense of stability. That has made me think of some kind of Associate Ministry. However, at least in the metro area, there are no possibilities for that kind of ministry among Disciple churches and very few in UCC circles. I guess I could start looking outstate and see what happens.

What I have wanted to do is to maybe create some kind of ministry in a congregation where I would be on staff probably bivocational. Maybe it would be to perform worship or lead Christian Education. But it would be something that is regimented.

One of the stories in the Bible that I love is the story of Gideon. Gideon was called by God to lead an army against the Midianites. The trouble is, Gideon is a coward. But God uses him and just to make sure Gideon knows that it is God doing this and not Gideon, he sends Gideon into battle with only 300 men using pots. It was that ragtag army, led by a scaredy cat, that defeated the mighty Midianites.

The story shows that God doesn’t use the most qualified persons to do God’s will. So if God can call someone like Gideon, God can call me.

I just need to find what in the world that is.

The Miracle of Employment (Really)

Every so often, I wonder how I ended up with two good jobs.  I don’t know how I got my current full time job with the Presbytery and my call as Associate Pastor.  I am shocked that I haven’t made some mistake at some point that sent me packing.  It’s not that I have done some things that has really pissed a few folks.  But for some reason, I’ve been able to rectify the situation and try to be a better worker.

The reason I’m surprised is that the number of folks on the autistic spectrum with a job is pretty low.  Really low.  Really, really low. Here are some stats to shock you:

Fifteen to 17 percent of adults with ASDs work full-time, according to a U.K. study (2007). Other researchers have found similar trends. Even those of us with doctorates struggle with employment in academia (Diament 2005). Outside technology fields, the world is less than welcoming (Anthes 1997).

We are attending college, obtaining degrees, and ending up unemployed. It is a struggle to finish college, and yet that only marks the beginning. We love the success stories of students with ASDs in college (Erb 2008). Those stories don’t answer the “what next” question. A U.C. Berkeley study found adults with ASDs struggle with unemployment:

— Almost all participants … reported lengthy periods of unemployment and/or underemployment, as well as lack of opportunities for career advancement. In the words of one participant, “I spent much more time being unemployed than being employed altogether” (Müller, et al 2007).

The problem is that even though people on the spectrum can do really well in school, they face a whole new game in the workplace. Any place of work is a social place. You have to constantly learn how to treat folks and a missed social cue can be an excuse to send you packing.

But people on the spectrum have problems even before they get to the office. Interviews are always hard because in many ways you have to learn how to “act.” Again their are social cues that someone like yours truly just miss.

The blogger Autistic Me shares his own fears about his own job as a professor:

The university is a workplace, and I worry about the same things I’d worry about in any other job. At some point, I will say or do the “wrong” thing. I’m certain I’ve said and done plenty “wrong” already. You can say the wrong thing in more ways than I could outline here. You can support the right program, for the right reasons, yet find yourself opposing someone powerful. You can might criticize something a powerful person supports. It often seems the only good approach to employment is to say nothing — but I’m not capable of saying nothing at all.

I work from home as much as possible to avoid interacting with coworkers. I don’t want to say anything to anyone, because I know I’ll mess up by having any opinions.

There’s little reason to comment on what is going well. Why would I say something about a routine day or a decent class? So, I end up only mentioning problems that should be solved. I don’t like to make small talk or to waste time with the obvious. As a result, people assume I am a “negative” person, when the reality is I look to solve problems. In my ideal day, I’d have little to say or I’d only have extraordinary events to celebrate. But that’s not most workplaces. We all see problems and, I hope, most of us would like to improve our workplaces.

I constantly worry about my either job.  I worry I am saying the wrong thing  and hurting someone or that I’m not speaking up enough.  I worry because I have said the wrong thing or did not do something I was supposed to do and ended up paying for it- sometimes with my job.

The thing is, I really don’t know what can be done to help those of us who are autistic.  I don’t have an answer for myself.  At some point, I will need or want to look at another job or seek another call.  I have to hope I can use the skills I have tried to learn over the years to try to get through the interviews and make that next employment experience as hassle free as possible.

Hope and God are all I have to rely on.

More About Young Clergy

Fifty-something Presbyterian pastor, Jan Edmiston chimes in on the young vs. old clergy smackdown:

Several pastors seeking paid positions in the church are over age 65.  Maybe they still have mortgages, or maybe they’ve used their savings to help their children, or maybe they’ve depleted their savings to pay medical bills.  Several of those who come through my door have sick spouses who haven’t been  earning a paycheck themselves for many years and things have been tight for a long time.

Yes, we have tiny churches who basically want a chaplain and they might hire an 80 year old pastor.  But more often, congregations want a high-energy pastor who will bring fresh ideas.  I know some high-energy pastors over the age of 70 – don’t get me wrong.  But I worry that their inability to retire is taking work from younger clergy.

And this is not just an issue for the septuagenarian and older crowd.  We all know pastors in their 50s and 60s who find themselves holding onto church positions even though their energy is low, their technological skills are dated, and their leadership gifts are a bit Old School.  But they can’t afford to retire quite yet.  Maybe they won’t be able to retire for another couple of decades.

So, what do we do about this?  As our society is growing older and living longer, I wish I had answers.  Any ideas?

Of course, I don’t have an answer. But that is part of the problem: we have Baby Boomer pastors that really can’t afford to retire just yet, a number of young pastors with a ton of debt, and a lot less churches than their used to be. Not a good mix does this make.

Which is why I go back to the DIY/tentmaking idea. It’s something that I had to do in my own call. If we are truly called to active ministry, we might have to have a job on the side that can pay the bills and also can give us medical and retirement, because the numbers right now aren’t looking good for full-time ministry for anyone under the age of 45.

Thoughts About Young Clergy

Carol Howard Merritt has a post up about the young clergy crisis.  Here’s a bit of her post:

Since I’ve been chairing a national Presbyterian Church (USA) committee on the Nature of the Church for the 21st century, I’ve been gaining a different perspective on many of the larger trends of our denomination. One thing that has been difficult to realize (and equally difficult to communicate to the larger church) is the young clergy crisis.

Why would I call it a crisis? We’ve known for a long time about the startling decline of young clergy. The drop-out rates don’t help (I can’t find hard and fast stats on this… but some claim that about 70% of young clergy drop out within the first five years of ministry, usually because of lack of support or financial reasons). The average age of a pastor in the PCUSA is 53. And I’ve realized that the age of our leadership might be much higher.

Over half of our congregations cannot afford a full-time pastor and many associate pastor positions were cut during the recent economic downturn. These are churches where seminary graduates would normally be heading, so what are the congregations doing instead? Many of them are hiring retired ministers or retired laypeople to serve these churches while our younger pastors remain unemployed.

The post has garnered a lot of fellow young clergy and the like agreeing with her.  In some ways, I agree as well.  Mainline Protestant denominations don’t do a good job with younger clergy.  Churches are cutting Associate Pastor positions, which in many ways have been the entry point for young pastors.  Also, denominations and seminaries need to deal with the ongoing debt issue.  Many people (myself included) come out of seminary with a lot of debt.  These young clergy then need to have a well paying call to help pay off the debt.  Then there is a silent generational conflict going on with Baby Boomer pastors on the one side and GenX and Millenial pastors on the other and right now the Boomers are winning.

However, this posts brings up a lot of thoughts.  First, what is causing young pastors, even those who are in pastorates, leave after five years? Also, I think the reason some churches pass on young clergy in favor of a retired pastor is simply cost.  A pastor in their 20s or 30s probably have kids and a mountain of debt.  Congregations with shrinking budgets can do the math.  They look at a retired pastor who is probably already getting their pension and social security is a far cheaper alternative.  If you are the chair the church board or clerk of session, you have to find a way to keep a building from falling down and also find ways to support the pastor financially.  Something has to give.  This is a long way of saying that when young pastors get passed up, it’s not that laypeople don’t like them, it’s they think they can’t afford them.

Actually, a lot of this problem is financial; churches are low on funds, and pastors have lots of debt.  That’s not a good mix.

As I was reading this and seeing some of the comments, I kept feeling as if some of the young clergy feel that they are owed a job by their denomination.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s something I keep picking up from the conversation.  It’s also something I’ve seen in myself.  We rack up a lot of debt and go through a lot to become a pastor, so doesn’t the denomination owe us in some way?

Yes and no.

I think that if people feel called to the ministry, then denominations really have to work at making the cost of seminary less prohibitive.  Louisville Seminary is planning on going tutition-free in 2014.  I think we need to find ways that the cost of a seminary education can be dramatically reduced for students if not free.  Of course, that means churches and denominations are going to have to raise money to create some massive endowments to make this possible.  But I think it can be done.

However, this also means that young clergy are going to have to be more flexible and more willing to advocate for themselves.  Even if the cost of seminary is lowered, most young pastors are going to want a good salary, something that still might be out of reach for some congregations.  This might mean that we have to be willing to be bivocational (something that still seems like a dirty word in Mainline circles).  If we really feel called by God, then we need to be creative in fulfilling our call.

Younger clergy also need to stop complaining and start agitating.  Far too often young clergy like to complain about not being taken seriously and the like, but how often to do we speak up at denominational events?  How often do we take part in the denominational structure?  Do we band together to work for change, or do we whine and complain, expecting the higher ups to pay attention to us at some point? To that end, I want to share this post from Methodist pastor Steve Bruns:

If you are a part of the young clergy demographic, think about your church situation. When you sit down with your nominating committee to help select leaders for the coming year, do you immediately pick the people in your congregation who are constantly complaining that things ought to be different, or do you pick the ones that have a similar vision that you do?

Now I am not advocating we simply be good little clergy and always do what we’re told by the powers that be, but perhaps we can communicate a little better the issues we see. Instead of complaining so much, let’s get excited about evangelism. Instead of griping about the decline and fall of the United Methodist Church, let’s get people on board with our vision and potential for revitalization and church planting. Instead of pointing out (continually, ad nauseam) how we are discriminated against because of youth and inexperience, let’s admit we haven’t been around the block yet, find older clergy who have similar vision and passion as we do (they are out there), and seek to be discipled by them.

His words might be harsh, but he’s on to something.  It can be frustrating and hurtful to have gone through all the stuff you have to do to be a pastor and then not get noticed by folk.  I know, I’ve been there.  But at the end of the day no denomination owes us anything.

The days when a young pastor could just go to seminary and then go to a call at church immediately following seminary are over. In this DIY era, we are going to have to advocate for ourselves and also work at being more creative.  We may have to go back to being tentmaking pastors, or create our own ministries.

I wish I had better news.

Notes from a Scrapper

I’ve been meaning to share this post by Carol Howard Merritt, but life has been busy and so I never did get around to it.  But hearing about some fellow Disciples of Christ clergy who feel that they have no place in the church reminded me of it again.  She uses the term “Scrappers” to describe a generation (or two) of folks who have worked to piece together a ministry, in this time of diminishing resources.  Here’s a snippet of what she’s talking about:

A Scrapper is pragmatic. We are people who have learned to work outside of institutional structures in order to get stuff done. It doesn’t always mean that we’re anti-institutional. It just means that after facing years of rejected articles and diminishing job opportunities, we’ve learned to build our own unsteady platforms and live out our creative callings.

When we can’t get published, we start blogs. When we don’t get invited to speak for large audiences, we fire up a Twitter feed. When we’re not allowed to use amplification, we call on the people’s mic. When we we’re not invited on radio shows, we start podcasts. When we cannot find pastorates, we plant churches. When we get tired of the same people at conferences, we stake out our own venues. When the media does not cover our concerns, we find ways to get the word out. We are usually under the age of fifty (aka, Gen X and Millennials), but not exclusively.

We’re Scrappers. We’ve learned to survive this way. The question is… how will we thrive?

It’s hard to be a Scrapper sometimes, because we don’t usually make a lot of money for the work we do and (as I said earlier) we’ve often been rejected by the established structures. We didn’t cry or whine over that fact (at least not too much). Instead, we DIYed it. We worked really, really hard and created something else.

While I don’t agree with her politically, she is right on about how young persons in the church have to live in this age.  We won’t be handed things on a platter.  We have to learn how to basically DIY our callings.  I look at my current call.  It was totally constructed.  Same with Community of Grace.  Mainline Protestants are learning something that evangelicals have known for a long time: that when the resources are sparse, you have to learn how to create your own ministries.  Denominations and congregations are no longer rolling in cash to just provide us with a nice job or a great salary.

To those frustrated Disciples clergy, I can only say: I know of what you speak because I was in your shoes.  And the thing is: I very well could be there again in a few years.  I know that you can get frustrated at the denomination and think that it’s filled with idiots who are letting the ship sink, but I can tell you that the leaders in most mainline Protestant denominations are feeling the same way- trying to figure out what’s going on and feeling scared to death.  Yeah, the institution is failing you and me, but it is also trying to figure out how to be church in an age that it wasn’t prepared for.

Remember that we are called by God to preach the good news.  Remember that people like Abraham and Moses didn’t have the easiest time trying to follow God.  Suffice to say, life didn’t turn out the way they expected.  Remember that all of these folk walked on faith, starting new journeys and challenges only on the shear hope in God’s word.

The years ahead aren’t going to be pretty: more and more churches won’t be able to afford full-time pastors.  But the Gospel still needs to be preached.  We are going to have to learn to be scrappers, to find ways to be church in the world.  We are going to have to learn to be bivocational and be creative in sharing the good news.  No doors will be opened for us, so we need to start knocking some walls.