“Hey, Kim!” Mike, my kind-faced and bespectacled pastor, said as he opened his office door and saw the extra-large bag of Doritos in my hands. We laughed. Doritos are Mike’s favorite snack, and for the last decade and a half, they’ve symbolized my personal amalgamation of olive branch and sword.
Mike leads our large family of churches. He teaches at seminaries and recently served as moderator for our entire national denomination. He’s got a solid reputation in our city, and a highly esteemed one in our home, earned from days of volunteering as a “Dad on duty” in the local high school and buying soccer balls with teens we tutored together in a nearby trailer park. I, on the other hand, am a millennial mom of three with a smart mouth and a decent number of convictions. I’ve been part of this church for 17 years, since my freshman year at Davidson College, back when our now teetering-on-mega-church had a couple hundred people gathering for worship in a YMCA gymnasium. This was maybe the 5th bag of Doritos I’ve brought to Mike’s office.
I’ve shown up with snack in hand to discuss whether the tithe is a high enough bar for the modern western church, to struggle with sexual ethics relating to church membership, to wrestle with ministry philosophy, to complain about loud and uninformed voices sullying the Christian witness in our city, and to get in the weeds on staff concerns. I don’t love direct confrontation, and I especially hate it when it involves the people closest to my family. Mike’s wife is easily one of my top 10 favorite people, and he’s just a few slots behind her. (With the birth of each of my babies, everyone else moves down the list, even as my affection for them grows). There’s a truckload of trust sitting between us in Mike’s office, but it still took me a week of restless nights to summon my courage to come in with my bag of Doritos. Just like every time before, Mike listened first and talked second. Just like every time before, I pinched my leg to stop myself interrupting when it was (finally) his turn to speak. Just like every time before, Mike asked for more voice from me, not less. Just like every time before, I left his office reassured.
I worry too much about being seen as a difficult person, a twisted self-absorption assuming people like Mike spend hours assessing my likability and charm. “Am I annoying? I’m annoying, right?” I ask my best friend and my husband. I procrastinate discussion around questions or disagreement even when I know it’ll just fester and yell louder from the depths of my soul. But I often brag to myself and to Mike, “I’m not leaving. You’re going to hear from me, most definitely more than you want to. But I’ll be here.”
What a pitiful thing of which to boast; what a sorry low bar I’ve set. We’ve known about church-hopping for a long while, people crisscrossing through every house of worship in a zip code. I resist keeping a mental record of the worst offenders, people treating local church bodies like fast fashion. But we also know for many of my same-age friends, we aren’t hopscotching at all. We are just done. We silently leave after the tenth time a church member denigrates our passion for creation care or fair-trade consumption or when, yet another lay leader posts some wacky conspiracy theory online. We are tired of waiting for someone else to address the public hate and nonsense slapped with the name of Jesus. We despair, feeling sure that correction will be reserved only for sin that aligns with one political ideology.
This Sunday, Pastor Mike preached on 1 Timothy, reminding our people that elders and leaders must be highly esteemed by people outside the church. Mike prefers strong expository peaching and Lord of the Rings references and cheesy dad jokes to being tough on his flock. But this Sunday, he calmly claimed an exodus of young people from the American church as the cost of uncontrolled bile and outrage and lies on social media and in the public square. My husband said the air was thick. I was blubbering too much to notice.
Mike is certainly right. It is especially delicious when my gentle pastor firmly and publicly corrects other generations, and my tribe is cast as the victim. But I wondered about the part my own generation plays too…our tendency to call it quits before we call anyone to account.
Each generation must carry its own weight in correcting idolatry within the body of Christ. But do we have the courage and conviction for committed relationship with our older leaders? And when we show up knocking at the door, will our elders listen to understand, or mumble something dismissive about “peace and unity,” unwilling to grapple for the truest form of both?
When speaking of sticking around and wrestling, I must caveat, emphatically, that the bravest among us are writing and speaking about abusive leadership in churches. All that is being said and written still is not nearly enough. I’m unspeakably proud of many of my generation for standing up and not taking it, walking away quickly and confidently. But down the road from toxic bodies run by narcissist leaders, there are churches like mine: imperfect but striving for health, generally well-run but with some dark spots, united on mission but with holes that desperately need filling. Most pastors are over-worked and weary, especially now. I’m not sure if all those pastors would prefer their favorite snack and an hour of “discussion” to a silent departure. I’m grateful mine does.
Right after Mike’s sermon on 1 Timothy, I was ordained as an elder of our church. During the ordination service, my oldest child, my 6-year-old girl, sat in my lap. She watched the men and women of our church tell her mom to stand up and lead. I’ve swapped bags of cellophane filled with GMO ingredients for a table with people my parents’ age whom I’ve looked up to for almost two decades. In my first few elder meetings, I kept a running tally of how many times I spoke, again afraid of being annoying or dominant (my fears were unfounded; I talked an average amount).
It isn’t uncommon for someone a few years younger than my husband and I to show up on our doorstep, seeking to wrestle with questions of faith or with disappointment in God’s people. I have learned from Mike to engage with humility and to hear a prophetic word from a younger generation. I still don’t have his pastoral heart or his ability to let someone else speak first. Maybe it would be easier if GenZ showed up with my snack of choice…chocolate and caramel, please.
By Kim Muhich, a Millenial Mom and Church Elder