Today, I worry about sounding downright ungenerous and small-souled. Even more, I worry because the topic I’m about to join cuts a little too close to the bone for me personally. I’m going to try to use parts of my life experience as a means of illustrating a problem in our church (United Methodist) that looms ever larger. Doing so touches a nerve.
Having attended two annual conferences, as well as following tweets, blogs and news pieces on General Conference, I have noticed how much we talk about people by reference to the categories they fit – or don’t. My category: a 57 year old, well-educated, white male, who enjoys a comfortable income. White, male, 50s, middle class. Privileged. Too many of my type still holding power.
Race, gender, age: these are the categories of reference most often put to use in our opinion-making about how things go in the church. (Notice how they come from social science and not from theology or the language of the church. But that thought will have to wait for another time.)
I have long understood the subtleties of race bias even when overt racism has curtailed some. I remember a former colleague – African-American woman, a professional in higher education with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university – once telling me how she had been shadowed in the local iteration of a national discount store. She had been working in the yard and was in her grubbies and looking a little scruffy. African-American, a little dirty (it was a sweaty summer day) and voila, you just might be a shoplifter. So an employee, pretending to be a shopper, hangs around and watches you. When I think of her experience, I remember why we need to continue to pay attention to race.
Likewise with the category of age. I work with university students. I love talking to them, listening to them, hanging out with them, mentoring them, teaching them. I am an advocate for young people in the church. But I’m starting to worry and even, I admit, feel a little resentful. During these recent conference sessions near and far, I have heard both old and young make repeated reference to how we don’t listen to young people, it’s time to listen to young people, it’s time for some of us old folk to get out of the way and make room for young people. Older people are hogging the power and clogging the church’s vitality with worn-out, dull, irrelevant ideas and concerns.
I want to make clear, my problem is not with young people. In fact, I have made my own criticisms of how we treat young people in the church. The problem lies not with young people or old people. The problem lies in the way we think and talk – in categories! In the heat of trying to get things done and make things better, we United Methodists lapse into “category-think,” a version of “group-think.”
And so, by way of personal illustration, I want to show why I worry about over-using categories, why I don’t like categories so much. Here is what the categories don’t tell you about me.
I’m well-educated and live comfortably now, but I grew up poor. Not destitute poor, just always tight, going-without, worried-about-money poor. We always had plenty to eat, but partly that depended on good church folks “pounding” the preacher (my dad), or a local farmer butchering a steer or hog and sharing some meat with us. I also always had decent, clean clothes to wear, but from the bargain rack. We didn’t buy if it wasn’t on sale. No shame in that, but, as a kid, I lived with that constant feeling of financial tightness. And of not being able to do what others were doing. Of being different. I know how it feels to be different.
After chasing one job after another, my father finally said yes to a call to preach that he had felt for a long time. At age 50 and with only a high school diploma, he entered (then) Methodist pastoral ministry. His first year in this role (1962), he made $2,700. For the whole year. The church provided housing, of course, so $2,700 could stretch a little further, but not much. Median household income at that time approached $6,000. According to 1962 standards, we lived right at the poverty level.
I also grew up a transient. Back then, Dad would go off to annual conference in September (after the school year started) and we would not know till he came home whether we were moving or staying. I remember the announcement, “We’re moving,” and in a matter of a couple of weeks, we’d be packed up and gone to the new appointment. We moved 4 times in 4 years during the middle school phase of my childhood. The longest I ever lived in one place – before going off to college – was 3 years. I went to two high schools. I was always “the new kid” where new kids stood out. And I knew we’d be leaving soon.
Was my life as transient as some of the field workers picking cotton in Texas or vegetables on truck farms in Colorado? Of course not. But it was more like their life than you could ever imagine if you look at me only through the category I now fit. And that’s the problem with categories. Categories hide people.
I thus have two strong and offsetting opinions about the categories we use over-much in the United Methodist Church. I am very sympathetic to people who find themselves disadvantaged, on the margins. I have some sense of what it’s like to be in that condition. But on the other hand, I feel more resentment than I’d like to admit when people stick me in a category and make easy, breezy generalizations about me. And I’ve heard a few over the years. (I once was called a “pretty little white boy” by a seminary classmate.) They distort and hide as much as they reveal.
Some of the big troubles we are now facing in the United Methodist Church stem precisely from thinking too much in categories. They work well when we are generalizing and they are far too clumsy when we need to pay attention to on-the-ground circumstances. When we use them wrongly, we are like a surgeon wearing boxing gloves while trying to perform a delicate operation.
Categories tell us something we need to know, but, honestly, they don’t tell us much. Especially in the church, we should be very careful how we use them.