As a College Chaplain, I’m constantly being asked by congregational leaders how to get young people into church. The older folks notice and feel the absence of young people in the pews. The younger people… they’re mostly fine without a church in their lives.

institutional building
Institutional Building

            “We are disposed to distrust institutions. That is the basic fact of life that we share as modern people,” writes Hugh Heclo in On Thinking Institutionally. If Americans as a whole mistrust institutions, young people are allergic. Even as they attend university, a very large institution, they push back and resist their own participation in it. Most of the young people I work with are mindful that the institution is lucky to have them and not the other way around. The same is true for church. While they feel a strong call to the way of Jesus, they don’t identify that with churches. In fact, it is often their sense of integrity that calls them out of the church.

 This move away from institutional belonging, I suspect, is rooted in a keen sense of justice. It comes from a Godly place. Many of my students are deeply aware of how institutions have failed them. This especially true for BIPOC, other marginalized folk, and those attentive to oppression. My students are contemplating God and the life altering climate changes, the role of colonialism, racial justice, and trauma informed attempts at collaboration.

I know there are churches trying to respond to exactly these same issues, but often those attempts just lead to further alienation. Many churches, particularly White churches, seem to be clumsy and half-considered in their recent alignment with racial justice. They signal a willingness to support Black Lives Matter, but not to reconsider their own racialized structures. 

            Recently, I urged a student to give a visited congregation a second try because of the congregation’s good intentions around racial justice and poverty. Politely but firmly, the student let me know what I wasn’t seeing. I realized for the millionth time that my position as a cis-White Christian had led me to be too trusting of intentions and not nearly skeptical enough about actual impact. What my student sensed, and I didn’t, was that the congregation used its local mission activities to fuel a saviorism that perpetuated a racial and religious hierarchy. My student felt it from her first moments in the building. As a church leader, I’m haunted by my student’s question, “Are there any institutions that aren’t oppressive and self-serving?”

Student with Yellow Backpack

            Sisters, I’m struggling to discern what it means to be a leader in an organization in which a majority of 18-29 year old Americans have chosen not to take part. During this time of pandemic crisis, we’ve all been forced to reassess what the real value of our involvement in institutions is.  I love the church and I want her to be talking with and to my students. 

recent article in Inside Higher Ed recommended that colleges have someone on their board whose sole job is to assess, “institutional ethics and alignment to help ensure that the institution and its staff, faculty and students are properly focused on core values.” This is the vocation of all Christians. Of course, we know that if it is everyone’s job, then it’s often no one’s job. What would it mean to have an ombuds-elder focused on dismantling White Supremacy? What if our missional gaze turned inward, and we asked for accountability in our own institution?  

At a meeting this week, I heard Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, say, “we need to speak in the tongues of this generation.” I wonder if institutions just are the wrong language for this generation of activist Christian.


Elizabeth Hakken Candido is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) Pastor who currently serves as the College Chaplain and Director of Religious & Spiritual Life at Kalamazoo College.  Liz lives in Kalamazoo, MI with her husband Bob who is a pilot.  They have two daughters, Clara and Abigail.  Liz blogs at skepticsnbelievers.wordpress.com


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One thought on “Pastoral is Political: Institutionalized Christians

  1. I’m a child of the sixties. My generation didn’t trust institutions either. Big time. I think it’s a thing. Not to dismiss it, but I think it’s a thing that people of a certain age do. A good thing, actually, because questioning the institutions gives us all a chance to think about what we do and why we do it.

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