Why Missional Leaders Need to Get Over White Man’s Angst

Over the past 5 to 10 years, I have kept encountering a problem with young white missional leaders. At the risk of stereotyping, I find many young white missional leaders inflicted with a kind of white man’s angst inherited from the American post 60’s generation. Ever since the seventies (and probably a little earlier), once education opened up to everyone and the industrial society morphed into a service economy, middle to upper middle class families (majority of whom are white) have bred children to believe they could choose their careers. They could go to college, get some grad school, get good at something, and then choose a satisfying career path from which they would get their identity and prove their self worth. Many of this generation think that they have to have this figured out by the time they are say thirty.
This drives me nuts when these pressures are applied to ministry. Missional church planters/pastors viewing a life in ministry simply can not think this way. Not only is the economy NOT like this any more (no one has one job for a lifetime anymore), but ministry in general is not as well. We are caught in the shifts of post Christendom. Outside of the Christendom south (U.S.), and its enclaves in the north, ministry can hardly be viewed as the secure career path it once was. Even when there is this possibility, ministry is a poor long term career offering low pay, extremely long hours (in Christendom structures that is), susceptibility to lack of satisfaction (ministry as profession is hardest job I ever had) and good possibility of getting fired (or the pressure to keep everybody happy in your church so you keep a pay check). The only real career in ministry that works along these former ways of thinking is “the mega church pastor.” The “mega church pastor” is a limited skill-set (not many have it). And I wouldn’t wish that life on anyone. And yet, on and on it goes. Young white males, coming out of seminary, can’t deal with the identity crisis they get when they are asked to pursue another skill or vocation alongside the pursuit of ministry. Somehow, to dive in and learn another vocation for the long term that shall feed into one’s vocation of ministry – is a compromise.

Fellow pastor Geoff Holsclaw and I were talking about this yesterday and he called it “the white man’s place of privilege.” We (white males) are used to being masters of our own destiny. We are told we can do anything if we work hard enough. So to pursue a vocation other than ministry that shall be part of ministry is a compromise. It detracts from a singular focus on ministry. It throws open the future. It disrupts the question “will this job fulfil me?” because there is no way this question makes sense anymore when we enter into Kingdom life in this way.

And yet this is exactly the path I believe many of us are called into when looking at the church through the eyes of post Christendom.

In my experience, women and minority people in general have less of this angst for many reasons. The angst of the young white male is a recent development in history (where I grew up, in Hamilton ON, everybody’s dad was a steelworker, and everybody’s son was expected to be a steelworker, unless they became a pastor/missionary). Most people, prior to the 60’s were too busy responding to the immediate task of providing for family and needs. Planning a job/career was not on most people’s minds. Only the wealthy had this angst. Yet years later, as culture morphed into the service sector offering more choice, middle class white males felt the pressure first. “What career path will you choose?” “What are you going to make of yourself?” Then Caucasian women fell into this in the 80’s. Then various second generation immigrant groups coming into the country to fulfil the American dream felt this pressure. Other minorities, to the degree they have begun to enter into the economic mainstream of N America (including the black middle class), have also begun to feel this pressure. To all these groups, the temptation is to look at ministry as a career achievement track. On the other hand, minorities still caught within America’s poverty cycle, including much of Hispanic immigrant culture, still is driven by the need to find a job and take care of families much like it was in the early days of Euro immigration.

There’s a real sense that we are returning to these minority postures as far as the missional leader is concerned. We are in Newbigin’s words in a “missionary culture.” Christendom is shrinking. The established church culture is getting harder and harder to work in. Devoid of a secure career path in ministry, new missionaries must think in terms of “how am I going to feed my family?” They must be open to what lies in front of them, and respond to job opportunities openly, NOT FROM A POSTURE OF HOW WILL THIS AFFECT MY LONG TERM CAREER IN MINISTRY. Instead, take a job locally, band together in groups, and work out ministry in local contexts. And when, the demands of ministry require it, be prepared to go full time. But don’t think about that right now. You’ll get to that when you get to it.

I was sitting around a living room this past Friday with some people in our missional order dinner group and I told my story. It is a winding swerving crazy story from all counts. I weaved through a financial services occupation in which I became very good in the financial services industry. I engaged a wide open future knowing I would need to get very good at one thing where I could earn a living, and that would serve me well in the rest of my life in ministry. These jobs provided not only a salary but a vision for understanding the world. Yet, as I look back, I was basically put in a position to discern what God was calling me to do each step of the way. There was no master plan. I rejected the singular career in ministry early. I did not have the luxury of choosing a career path in ministry or teaching. Instead God led in and through many different journies. I was involved in church ministry when God led us to start a community. I pursued a PhD when I applied and it was largely paid for.  One thing led to another. By placing one foot in front of another each step along the way, God led to the shape of ministry he had for me. I think this is the way of the future, because the established church and seminary teaching are shrinking as options by the day.

The missional movement needs to come to grips with the young white man’s angst whether we are white, male or not. It is probably too late for the older generation. But the younger generation needs to reconceptualize what ministry will look like. We need to understand seminary differently. A whole new world of ministry is opening up, a revolution of sorts. And the next wave into the missionary context of the West demands flexible bi-vocational cultivators of the gospel. They will inhabit locales for many many years as missionaries leading missionary communities.  I’ve done it. It is not only possible, it is a wonderful intense way to live the gospel driven life .

What say you? Is the missional movement got white male angst in it? Have you got this white male angst? Even if you’re not white? if you’re not male? Can you relate? Is this angst holding the movement back? Holding you back? How? Comments please!!


NOTE ON THE WHITENESS OF MISSIONAL MOVEMENT: In this piece I am discussing the angst of many white young leaders. Truth be told, much of the leadership in the missional movement is white (Caucasian). There are reasons for this. Over here I have argued (against Soong Chan Rah who to my knowledge- has never really addressed this issue) that the missional movement is a rejection of the consumerism, individualism and affluent Christianity most associated with the white evangelicalism of the post WW2 generations. This is where most of the missional movement originated from in N America. Most minorities, having yet to enter that mainstream economy, and in many cases coming to the United States for the express purpose of participating in this American affluence, can hardly see this affluence etc. as something to be resisted. They cannot relate to the terms as laid down by the missional movement for a new economics. This I admit is changing. The recent downturn in the economy is causing many to at least rethink the anti-Christian formation within the promise of United States capitalism.

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