Guest commentary by Christopher Morgan
On the early evening of June 27, co-moderator Gregory Bentley gave the closing benediction and walked off, screen left. A calling to “transformative and redemptive ministry” ended the 224th General Assembly. As I closed my laptop and stretched my back, however, my temples pounded, my muscles ached and my eyes pulsated.
I wasn’t feeling particularly transformative or redemptive.
I served as a Young Adult Advisory Delegate (YAAD) to this summer’s General Assembly, so while I do not speak for all YAADs, I thought it would be important to document one young person’s experience at our denomination’s most important business gathering. I want to begin by expressing my abundant gratitude for our four YAAD advisors whose work wrangling over 100 YAADs for two weeks must have left them even more exhausted than I was. They were unequivocally marvelous.
After co-moderator Elona Street-Stewart skillfully finished moderating the business on the agenda, before closing worship, I immediately began wrestling with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I rejoiced because we successfully conducted a General Assembly exclusively on Zoom. We elected two personable, patient, and faithful co-moderators. We took up “On the Church in This Moment in History,” a powerfully amended statement on anti-racism and our church’s culpability in slavery, discrimination and bigotry. That was good work that made me “hippopotamus happy,” as Bentley said following his election.
On the other hand, we refused to listen to the guidance of Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) Presbyterians. When Denise Anderson, coordinator of racial and intercultural justice for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and resource person to the Special Committee on Racism, Truth and Reconciliation, suggested consulting that committee before expanding the scope of its work, the assembly did not do that. Kerri Allen, moderator of Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force, repeatedly asked the assembly to explicitly address violence against and oppression of Black women and girls – but the assembly did not do that either. We, the assembly, had the opportunity to say unequivocally, “We must stand against this evil” and chose not to.
We need to name this for what it was: a heinous act of white supremacy and bigotry that should have no place in the world, and especially not in the church. How can we white Christians claim to be about the hard work of dismantling racism in our institutions when after only two days we have become “too tired” to take up action? In this way, the 224th General Assembly failed. Most YAADs knew it to be so. We exited our final plenary, and many of us named feelings of frustration, anger and a deep hurt that over 90% of the YAADs advised commissioners to consider the issues facing Black women and girls but enough commissioners refused to suspend the rules that the motion failed.
“Were we even being listened to?” YAADs wondered. “Where had the transformative and redemptive ministry we were hearing about gone?”
I sat in my apartment alone in deafening silence. The clock’s tick-tick-tick of the second hand was maddeningly calm in a moment when I felt such turmoil. I wanted to feel joy and pride in being a part of this assembly, but it felt wrong to rejoice when such weariness and hurt had come out of our inaction. Especially as a person of privilege (I am a white male who uses he/him/his pronouns), it felt like an abuse of power to celebrate something when injustices were allowed to go unaddressed. Then, of course, I had to remind myself that even these feelings of conflict were a point of privilege because I would not have to face the direct ramifications of this racism and bigotry.
So I turned to the group of people I had leaned on the entire week for support, education and advice: the YAADs. With them, I found, blessedly, that I was not the only one struggling with competing feelings, and this sparked a meaningful conversation among a few of us about how to move forward from here. Here are a few highlights that I took comfort in, shared with permission:
“I think that we are allowed to be proud of the work that we did and the good that did come out of this GA, so long as we ground ourselves and stay humble and remember that there is still work to do. … Many of us hold the weight [of failure] on our shoulders.” — Emma Kate Lander, YAAD from the Presbytery of Baltimore
“I definitely am proud of the strides we made in certain areas, but I do believe we didn’t go far enough. … It’s fueled me to want to be on the frontlines for this fight in the church even more so than I already wanted to be.” — Mason Warren, YAAD from the Presbytery of East Tennessee
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the institutional church vs. the missional church. … I think our structure as an institution is meant to give us a vehicle through which to do the work of Christ. Which is to say that our institution is meant to support the mission. … I think what we saw was an instance where our institution limited our mission. … A missional church is one that exists even beyond our institution and recognized forms of church.” — Dresden Vogt, YAAD from the Presbytery of the Pacific
I am so thankful to have been in communion with dozens of the smartest, most inspiring and most God-loving young people I have ever met. I know I am in good company when we can flip from laughing about childhood bedtime stories and Baby Yoda to challenging each other on the callings of the church and nuanced polity details in the same conversations.
It was in this group that I saw Bentley’s calling to transformative and redemptive ministries. The YAADs I serve alongside are what give me the greatest hope for the church, reflected in our assembly’s theme, “From lament to hope.” We are not just waiting “for our turn,” but YAADs (and other young people) are right now continuing to further the hard work of justice.
We are taking up the call to transformative and redemptive ministries.
So I ask for your help. We, the young people, are ready to serve the church. We are ready to dive into committees and task forces to bring our perspectives and ideas. However, we often don’t know where to look to serve or who to ask for connections. We don’t know when to apply to committees or even what opportunities exist (or could exist!) for young people to lead. I envision our denomination growing to a place where we are comfortable being led by our young people, but that can only happen if you take the step to reach out to the capable young adults that you know and invite them onto the committees, task forces and leadership teams of your congregation, presbytery, mid council or denomination.
One integral way we can work toward this vision is through ordination. Ordination is one of the most visible and important ways that congregation members can serve the church in our tradition. I met many YAADs this week that served their congregations as empowered ruling elders, but many more, including myself, have never been asked to serve our sessions. Our sessions should equitably represent the leaders a church needs. This means ensuring that sessions have elders who are youth and young adults. Yes – more than one, and particularly young BIPOC. It will serve the church if we call young people who will be listened to and represent our generation in our church. Drop the moniker “youth” from “youth elder.” There is no mention of “youth elder” in our Book of Order, so elders of any age should simply be referred to as an elder, with all the responsibilities and expectations that come with that position. Then, when young people are ordained as ruling elders, allow yourself to be open to the advice of these young elders you have entrusted to the office.
As a Young Adult Advisory Delegate, it is my role to advise our church. Take up the cause of justice, specifically justice for Black women and girls, at your church and in your presbytery. Celebrate and lift up the voices of underrepresented people and work to deconstruct the institutions of racism and privilege in our communities. Young people are already leading the way, so invite us to do so in official capacities. This church can answer our co-moderators’ call to transformative and redemptive ministry, but only if we do so together.
You have been advised.
Christopher J. Morgan is the Young Adult Advisory Delegate for New Hope Presbytery in Central North Carolina. An avid UNC Tarheel fan, he is currently trying to keep from lighting his first apartment on fire while learning the art of the pressure cooker.