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Eastern Washington Legislative Conference 2015: Raising Prophetic voices

Faith communities need to nurture role of elders

Because people in communities of faith start at different points in terms of faith, service and involvement in social justice, the Rev. Mike Denton, conference minister serving 83 congregations in the Pacific Northwest Conference United Church of Christ, said it’s important for people to share their personal contexts.

The Rev Mike Denton

The Rev. Mike Denton, PNCUCC

Use this link to watch the two part video of the keynote presentation on The Fig Tree Youtube Channel part 1 /
Keynote part 2

He also spoke of the need for faith communities, which increasingly have five generations, to redevelop the role of elder in nurturing youth to listen and act.

In his opening reflections on the Jan. 31 Eastern Washington Legislative Conference theme, “Raising Prophetic Voices: Faith Communities Advocate for Justice,” he pointed out that all speech and action are biography.

So he shared some of his background as a sixth-generation pastor who grew up in the racially diverse Midwest in a United Methodist family with a tradition of involvement with social justice as an expression of faith.

Now, as a parent of a two-year-old, he has found his world and worldview changed.

“In raising prophetic voices, we, like my son Leo, need to be sure we know we are loved, our basic needs are cared for and we care for others,” said Mike, expressing his pride when Leo shared his first book.  “We need to set boundaries, encourage and then step out of the way.

“Our goal is to have an ongoing relationship with Leo, not necessarily having him fulfill our dreams for him,” he said.

That’s an insight into Mike’s call for congregations to nurture their elders and for elders to nurture youth.

Along with people having different starting points, he suggested that they may experience a “holy tweak or nudge” from something in the news or in their life experience.  Then it may sit there for a while.

For some, the interest in social justice may have started with a petition, maybe from taking a listening position or taking time to pray.

“It may stop there, but at a time of a holy tweak, it may become bigger.  Some form of charity begins when we are in relationship with people involved in an issue.  We give what is needed—maybe money or a can of black beans we have not used in three years.  Maybe we sign a petition.  Sometimes, it stops there,” he said.

Sometimes charity is a part of a bigger delivery network that has structure.

“That’s service.  We make time for it.  It’s not excess.  We build a relationship within the faith community,” Mike said.  “In service, something else happens.  We recognize what is happening around an individual life and also what is happening because of a systemic issue.”

All along, he says it’s necessary to pray, study and listen.  Some are called to service and some are called to advocacy, which means an intentional increase in risk.

“Each step is not a clear progression,” he said. 

Most recognize a call to give to a charity.  The next largest group participates in a service. 

The smallest number are involved in advocacy.

In the process, friendships emerge, and involvement shifts from time to mutual support.

“Then, once in a while, we glimpse what the church community is called to build: the Kingdom of God, a world filled with love, care, mutuality and more,” Mike said.

With the increasing amount of gray in faith communities, Mike said, comes the opportunity to “do the role of elder” and to “encourage the younger generations to listen carefully.” 

Today, most congregations are intergenerational, with up to five generations involved. 

“Most U.S. institutions, however, are set up for two-and-a-half or three generations.  Then people retire and die,” he said.  “Fifty years ago, we did not expect to retire and be helping our parents.”

After being leaders, elders need to have respect. 

“Relinquishment is a gift for elders, especially when they have less energy,” he said.

Part of relinquishment is for elders to respect, honor and listen to youth as a way to pass on leadership and prophetic witness.

In recent years, Mike has seen significant moves by adults to listen to ideas of younger people.

•  The Occupy movement, part of movements around the world, put economic inequality on the front burners for leaders, who are talking of taxes in a different way.

“We refuse to accept abuse of the poor,” Mike said.

• The environment movement grew from young people who are now graying.  Because sustaining the world calls for change, younger generations are carrying on the movement.

• GLBT concerns and violent conflict have led to changes in the social system, such as marriage equality, which the United Church of Christ supports.

• Black Lives Matter has led black youth to expose racial and sexual inequality; expose police brutality, and expose the anger of those who mourn for lives lost too soon.  They challenge that the racist criminal justice industrial complex is based on slavery and oppression, he said.

• Native Americans have also experienced many deaths through genocide, abuse of their rights and neglect, Mike said. 

“On these issues and more, we need to listen and wisely join when we are invited to lay our lives on the line so prophetic voices emerge,” Mike said.

“We offer our facts, speak and listen.  We join voices and call others to join.  We keep our eyes on the local and bigger picture.  We speak out when we see something is wrong.  It’s a call and gift to recognize the need to be challenged on racism,” he said.

“We need to look for ways to raise our prophetic voices and look for ways we need to be challenged to be better helpers,” he said.

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