A Message from Our District Lay Leader and Coeur Team Chair, John Townsend

Defining Moments

An acquaintance of mine, for whom I have a measure of respect, posits that there is a “defining moment” for every generation.

I suspect there is a nugget of truth in that idea. And with the corollary that institutions and individuals are further defined by events or “moments”.  

Reflecting upon those ideas and the events of the last month, I thought about defining moments. Some are fairly obvious and are enshrined in national holidays­ Juneteenth, for example. But they can be hard to connect with personally if, for no other reason, they happen outside of our individual connection to them.

My grandmother, Lida Helen, was born in December 1890 and lived until January 1986. Her father died when she was an infant, and she was raised, along with her siblings, by her mother. Her lifetime spanned the Battle of Wounded Knee, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, the Korean conflict, and Vietnam. Her lifetime witnessed the first controlled, sustained flight in heavier-than-air aircraft and the moon landing. She raised her family during the Great Depression. She was witness to the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, as well as the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. The swearing-in of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – the first woman on the Supreme Court – happened during Helen’s lifetime, as did Nixon’s resignation, the Cuban missile crisis, the atomic bomb, and the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

I am not sure, with a list that dramatic (and not including advances in medicine – the Salk polio vaccine being only one), what could be claimed as her generation’s defining moment. I suspect that the Great Depression would be a strong contender.

Certainly, for my parents, and especially my wife’s, the Great Depression, during which they were children, and the Second World War, were defining. There is no question – as I look back on it – that my parent's stewardship of material things and their financial management was influenced by growing up in the Great Depression. There is no doubt that within the broader context of the Second World War, my mother-in-law’s experiences as a civilian prisoner of war and later association with the Philippine resistance shaped who she became and how she approached life.

Events like these, primarily experienced by a generation as they grow up, give each generation its “generational personality” and shape the values of that generation. Values that they then bring into their families, workplaces, and third places.

The “Baby Boomer” generation (1946-1964) could certainly point to the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the moon landing, and the Kent State shootings as defining moments. I’d offer that John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address inspired countless individuals to “ask not” and established a conviction and moral tone that, as a country and a people, the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,…”.

Those defining moments, or “influential events”, that create a generation’s personality and give it its values are many and varied. There is little question about their effect on a generation’s “worldview”. (For example, those graduating from college this year have never known a time without airport security measures – a direct result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.)

There are other, smaller, but perhaps no less dramatic, events that shape generational and personal “values”. Grandmother Helen, whose father and father-in-law were both Methodist Episcopal ministers, most likely had values and expectations for her church that were influenced by the 1939 reuniting of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church (South), and the Methodist Protestant Church to form the Methodist Church; and that body’s 1968 merger with the Evangelical United Brethren Church (which also ended the segregation of African American congregations into a separate Central Jurisdiction).

My parents (and I) may not have paid much attention to those as they happened in our lifetimes, but they certainly influenced our views of “church”. The “glory days” of attendance swelled so that a second, then a third Sunday worship service was added along with Sunday night meetings of MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship – an outgrowth of the Epworth League which, incidentally, had been founded at Grandmother Helen’s church) which was where you were on Sunday evening as a youth.

Events like those, experienced as we grew up and as we had families, events, and experiences that shaped our generational personality and our worldview, have given us our “generational personality” and formed the values we bring to our third places (like church), are also sometimes stumbling blocks.

I may be a proponent of John Kennedy’s “ask not” and think the idea of “pay[ing] any price, bear [ing]any burden, meet[ing]any hardship” has merit – although I wonder if it might have led us to Vietnam (a question I’ll leave to historians).

Likewise, the ideas of “church” being those swelling Sunday morning congregations, MYF meetings stretching the room capacity, and the hiring of another associate pastor can get in the way of what church is today. And how we respond to the reality of that.

We have just witnessed events in our nation’s life that are historic. And in our denomination’s life as well. They will be, in their own way, “defining moments”.  

While the just-completed General Conference may well be considered “historic” for its removal of “harmful language”, there remain discriminatory provisions that need to be addressed.

We will see a Resolution at the upcoming Annual Conference about “Setting Pastoral Work Expectations”. The expectation, growing out of those “glory days” when the hiring of another associate pastor transferred the work of the church to the professional clergy, is not a sustainable model for the future.

Every generation has defining moments. What will define our lives as Methodists and our churches in the years to come? I look forward to accompanying you on that journey of discovery.

John Townsend, Inland Missional District Lay Leader

1 Comment

Connie Walters - June 8th, 2024 at 11:41pm

Excellent reflection, John. Thank you.