by Melissa Zimmerman
This is an excerpt of Melissa's General Conference blog from April 25.
...As dinner approached, I was invited to bring my dinner and eat with a particular organization. Because it doesn’t really matter what this organization was, I will refer to it as UMO. Realize that this organization could be yours. It could be UMW, UMM, UMYF, a group of Sunday School teachers, a particular United Methodist Church, a caucus group, or more. You may be able to figure out which group it is based on some of the things I say, but it doesn’t really matter. As you read my story insert whatever church group you belong to, especially if it has very few young people and wants them.
So, I was invited to dinner. I thought, “well, why not,” and I went to join them. The person speaking to them was the president of UMO. After she spoke, another woman spoke. This woman started to speak about how important it is that the young people stay involved in UMO. The sharks were circling. Then, looking straight at me (there were probably 8 people eating lunch down here and I was the only young stranger) she starts talking to me about how important it is to stay involved in UMO. Then the sharks started to bump up against me a bit. She asks me if I am involved in UMO. I say that I am not, and I explain that when I was at home, most UMO events met during the day on a weekday. In recent years, they have started to reach out to young people, but I am now in a different state at Seminary. In an effort to salvage myself a little, I explain that my sister and godson’s mom are both getting involved in UMO. Then, the sharks swam in and started to attack. “You know all pastors become members of UMO when they are ordained.” “You can have a group at seminary.” “It doesn’t take a formal group with a President to have a UMO group, you just need to do fellowship.” “You know, I have read so many books through our reading program that I never would have read before. It is so easy to use. Here is where it is in your church and how it works.” And on and on. They do a lot of great things, but very little is something I need or want at this point in my life. Finally, as I sit there wondering why on earth I would want to add a reading list of church books when I am already in school, I decide to voice this. I interrupt and explain that the books aren’t really interesting, since I am in school. Really, it is the mission aspects of UMO that are appealing. They then asked if I had ever attended their mission retreat, explained that often churches will help those who cannot pay for it to get the money, and that it has a ton of wonderful aspects. Finally, the conversation shifted away from me and we were told that UMO will meet to eat every lunch and dinner and have an evening prayer at the end of each day. I have not yet decided if I will go back. 1) It is rather scary to be attacked by sharks wanting my flesh…I mean wanting my participation in a group. It might be effective in driving me away. BUT 2) I have a strong urge to go back a few times so that I gain their trust enough to tell them how bad that introduction was. They had the best of intentions. They genuinely wanted me to get involved, get the connections and to benefit from what they have to offer. This inundating me with information and not listening to what I am interested in, however was not the way to do it. The scary part is that I have done this also. Honestly, if this is how we approach young people for organizations within the church, I worry about how we approach those outside the church. EEK!!
We should take this as a lesson! Listen before inundating with activities! This does not mean ignoring or not inviting them to something. It does mean slowing down, giving a couple ideas and asking if anything sounds interesting without pressure. I want to hear their stories! I want to know why this is important to them! I just don’t want to hear it all at once, and I want to hear why this should be important to me. A 24-year-old student who reads plenty of books and has plenty of friends for fellowship. Why should I join the UMO? For that matter, why should a 24-year-old grad student with plenty of friends who is already a member of a social club join a church? What do we have to offer? Why does this make a difference? Until we answer these questions AND act on them, not on what we think is interesting about the social opportunities, we cannot expect to see change.
Now let me be clear. I love the people in this organization and others. It is a great and important organization that does a lot of great work for our church. It was just a little frightening to experience exactly the same thing that is happening to every young person who walks in the doors of an older congregation...
Melissa Zimmerman is a student at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, who is working through the process toward ordination as an elder in the Indiana Conference. She loves reading, Dr. Who, and anything related to the furthering of the church's mission (even sitting in 10 day meetings!!) Her full blog can be found at Traveler 21.