In my work with the Maine Conference United Church of Christ, I currently find myself in the midst of a difficult situation just on the edge of crisis. One of the dynamics running through this situation (just one of many) is an older versus younger problem. It’s not the first time I’ve been in such a dynamic, such a weird crossroads where I am alone, not one of the older group and certainly not one of the younger group.
It’s a lonely place to be.
In the United Church of Christ, not just in Maine but across the denomination, an effort has unfolded over the last decade or so to encourage young clergy and gather them in an affinity group of sorts—the 20/30 group. Attend any large gathering of UCC people and there are bound to be younger people in attendance sporting their bold “20/30” t-shirts.
On the other end, there are the older people. They don’t need t-shirts. They have gray hair, or no hair in some cases. Their faces sport wrinkles and some walk with canes. They are organized by their shared experiences with the vicissitudes of getting older. It’s not hard to pick them out of a crowd.
I am in the middle. And I have been for a long time. Now on the late edge of my early fifties, I am well beyond the 20/30s group (which, of course, didn’t yet exist when I was in that age range) and I’m too young for the post 60 near retirement or actually retired group.
I am in the middle, and mostly alone.
A few years ago, whenever I attended a large gathering of UCC people—conferences, general synod, etc.—I would joke around about creating a 20 plus 30 group. People would look at me in puzzlement. Then, I would emphasize that it was about addition: 20 + 30. Add them together and you get 50. There would be a spark of recognition and then the puzzled look would return. Why in the world would anyone want that sort of group?
If there is a group.
But, I know there are other clergy who are around my age. Somehow most of us just do our work, without the benefit of a gathering of similarly aged individuals. Last year, when I attended the UCC General Synod, a multi-day meeting of UCC folks from around the country, I reconnected with several old friends from divinity school, all of us around the same age. Here in Maine, though, I have few colleagues who share my vintage.
I’m stuck in the middle. With no one.
It’s not easy, then, when situations arise where one of the components is an “older versus younger” affair. I sometimes feel like I’m the net in a heated tennis match—just there keeping the two sides from attacking each other. And feeling woefully inadequate to the task.
And sometimes I feel that person on the tall chair at a tennis match, trying to keep order. Keeping order, though, doesn’t mean that each side will take the time necessary to comprehend the other, or appreciate the other. Instead, a whole lot of assumptions are discussed just amongst each side, leaving a chasm in the middle of suspicion and misunderstanding—and that’s where I am.
I can see and understand issues raised by both sides, yet that doesn’t help much in trying to find common ground. Each group remains unsure about the other. One side worked hard to make things the way they are. The other wants to change things because, well, things have changed.
I’m stuck in that strange, vast space in the middle, land of sea monsters and dragons. In the current crisis that looms in the midst of our life together in the Maine Conference, let’s hope that we will find other ways of working through our various difficulties. If it’s left to the younger versus older business, I fear it will only result in a fierce battle. One side may win, but we will all lose.