Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Churches and Ageism

I've been meaning to write this post for some time now. 

I read obituaries.  I am interested in which parts of a life get tagged as “important enough” to consume another line in a ridiculously over-priced obituary.  I also read the classified ads…for churches.  I am interested in goals that congregations set for themselves and the traits that they believe their new minister must have to make those goals a reality.  I see a disturbing trend in these ads.   As a specific example, at the very top of the list of “personal/professional qualifications” desired in the new pastor, one church listed “young/young thinker (age 25-45).”

What an incredibly ageist statement.

We would never dream (at least I hope we would never dream) of listing race or gender or marital status or height or weight or financial worth as a “qualification” for ministry.  Yet, we don’t even flinch when “those over 45 years of age need not apply.”  We do not even blink when churches set goal after goal to reach “young families.”  We don’t think twice about the barrage of articles and workshops that address our obsession with getting millennials into church.

What about single adults…of all ages?  Are they less worth our time and energy?  What about couples who have no children?  Are they less valuable to God in their service?  What about older people?  Are their lives less worthy of hearing the Gospel? 

I’m a pastor.  I get worrying about the church’s future.  I get the desire to have young people, lots of young people, actively participating in congregations.  In 2016, I get the need to have leaders who are technologically savvy and who are unafraid of cultural change. 

However, a minister’s age or family status is never an appropriate credential for ministry.  Ministerial membership in a certain age group cannot guarantee anything about the church’s future.  For crying out loud, look at Bernie Sanders.  The man is 74 years old. Born in 1941.  His hair is white.  He’s a grandpa…and yet, the Washington Post reports that Bernie Sanders has “remarkable dominance among young voters…. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are well on their way to becoming their parties' 2016 nominees for president.  Among young voters, though, Bernie Sanders has more votes than both of them — combined.”

My point is not political.  My point is that the age of the leader is not a deciding factor in his or her charisma, nor is it a deciding factor in his or her skills, talents, and God-given abilities.  That reminds me…let us not forget God. Let us not forget that in the church, we are talking about God-given abilities and God-given call.  We insult younger people – all people, for that matter - when we assume that their allegiance can be manipulated with something as fleeting as age.  We insult older people – all people, for that matter – when we assume that their age limits their abilities.  We insult God when we fail to acknowledge the vibrancy and value that can be ours at any age.

I guess this little tirade is my attempt to urge churches to give careful thought to the words they use to describe their ministry's goals and the qualifications they seek in leadership.  If you want someone with a certain theological bent, then by all means, include that in your profile.  If you want someone with a certain amount of experience, then by all means, include that in your profile.  But, do not discriminate.  Do not insult God’s pool of leaders by seeking only those who are “young” or “old” or “middle-aged.”  Age – whatever it may be – is a gift from God, and it should be celebrated as such.