If everything is a priority, then nothing is. This is a cliché because it’s true. If something is a priority, it means you rank it above similar things that are normally considered alongside it. And it means that when things take a turn for the worse, you give your priorities special treatment. If you’re not willing to do this, then you should not be calling it a priority.
Everyone who is in a political position is going to degrade language to the utmost of their abilities. This doesn’t make politicians bad people; it’s part of their job to keep as many people satisfied as possible. But it’s the responsibility of those for whom the politicians are working to call out such language pollution when we see it.
And so we come to the trimming of the United Church budget, a necessary task that fell to the General Council Executive to carry out last spring. One of the positions cut was the youth and young adult program co-ordinator. As soon as I heard this news, I prepared for an onslaught of paragraphs beginning with the sentence “Youth and young adult ministry remains a high priority for the church.” Yet even I was surprised by the sheer prevalence of this phrase, to the point where I felt like banning the word “priority” from all communication around this issue.
I sympathize with those who were forced to decide which staff positions to cut in order to meet budget requirements. No matter where they made the cuts, a backlash was going to erupt. And I don’t think that the decision to lay off Rick Garland and eliminate the staff position for the foreseeable future was taken lightly or without consideration of the consequences.
But if the General Council Executive takes this action, it cannot then say that youth and young adult ministry remains a “high priority.” This is an objectively false statement. Money had to be cut from somewhere, and it was taken out of youth and young adult ministries because it was deemed to be less urgent than other areas. Yes, I understand there are other ways of carrying out the work of this portfolio, but the unavoidable fact remains: the staffing has been cut.
We can have conversations about how to conduct national youth and young adult ministry effectively, and what the relationship should be between the national, regional and local levels. I first attended Youth Forum when General Council was held in Toronto in 2000, and cannot overstate the role national gatherings play in keeping my generation committed to the United Church. But these conversations are, strictly speaking, irrelevant to the issue of staffing cuts: at that very same General Council, it was decided that national youth and young adult ministry is a priority of the United Church. With the removal of the only full-time staff position, that decision has now been reversed.
There is still a large network of extremely talented and passionate people across Canada who will help shape the future of youth and young adult ministry in the United Church. As long as we have these people, the future will always be bright. But if the United Church does not support them with proper resources, we will begin to lose more and more of them. There’s a famous quote by a Notre Dame University administrator: “Don’t tell me what your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money, and I’ll tell you what they are.”
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