Friday, February 10, 2017

Is There an Ageist Bias in the Church?

Many of you know that I have been seeking a new call since the middle of last year. I have been reviewing parish profiles, crafting cover letters, and interviewing with search committees, trying to convey my vision for a vibrant, life-giving church. The one issue that keeps coming up is the assumption that young families with children are the sure-fire way to promote congregational growth, and that any parish that is not attracting this demographic is in decline. I couldn't disagree more.

Now, I landed in the Episcopal Church in a congregation that was composed mostly of young families with children, and I loved it. There was lots of noise and laughter, making the Eucharist (and the coffee hour that followed) a joyfully chaotic--and yet still reverent--event. Our parishioners were generous with their pledges and their time, but as a mission congregation, we often struggled. In the many years since I left that exuberantly young parish, I have come to understand that it is often elderly and retired people who keep many of our churches chugging along. And I am deeply, deeply grateful to them for their commitment. They are the lifeblood, the ones on whom you can always rely.

And it's not by accident. As I sit in interviews with search committees and vestries, I look around the conference tables and see a preponderance of gray and silver heads, which tells me something important. Elderly and retired folks have the time and energy to volunteer on search committees, vestries, altar guilds, choirs, and outreach committees. They have the freedom to attend meetings during the day when everyone else is at work. Although there are many elderly and retired folks on limited incomes, there are also many who are now enjoying the fruits of a lifetime of hard work and careful planning. They tend to pledge well and participate in planned giving programs. Their kids are grown and out of the house. Some are reaching the end of their professional careers at the height of their earning potential. Others have lost spouses or are geographically separated from their children and grandchildren, and so value the sense of community and belonging the church offers. They always show up for Sunday morning worship. They provide food for potlucks and coffee hour. They iron the altar linens and prepare the sanctuary for worship every week. They coordinate volunteers. The contribute to capital campaigns. They support the priest in a crisis, whether it's a hospitalized parishioner or a broken boiler.

Young families with children, while contributing much to the life of a parish, have a unique set of challenges. Being at an earlier stage in their life cycle, money tends to be tighter. And for low-income and single parents, the obstacles are even greater. In general, young parents earn less at a time when expenses are high. They may be trying to buy a house while they raise their kids, so they likely do not have the resources to be big pledgers. After all, children are EXPENSIVE. Young parents also have very little time, because they are working long hours to squirrel away money for the down payment on the house, the kids' college fund, and fees for their kids' extracurricular activities. Parental commitments like PTA meetings, soccer practice, ballet lessons, and karate classes mean that they feel pulled in many different directions all the time. Evening events, whether they are committee meetings or Lenten Stations of the Cross, often mean that they have to find a babysitter. Sunday mornings are equally tough, because sports teams now schedule mandatory practices and competitions on the Lord's Day, which would have been unthinkable in past generations. Clergy looking to fill the pews and grow their Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) often find that young families are their least regular attendees at Sunday morning worship. Once or twice a month is now becoming a normative standard for many families.

Of course, these observations are not meant as criticisms of young families, but rather as a sympathetic appreciation of the demands on their time and finances. With all of this in mind, congregations should be seeking ways to support parents and help them (and their kids) stay connected to the church and nurture their spiritual lives.

This brings me back to the contributions of seniors to the life of a congregation. Without them, our parishes would be greatly diminished. For example, I recently organized an Inauguration Day collection and distribution of supplies for people experiencing homelessness. Because it was a Friday, almost all of the volunteers were seniors. They made sandwiches, packaged supplies, and went out into the community to distribute the food, clothing, and hygiene kits to our neighbors. It's too bad that Paul didn't include the words, "no longer young or old," to his declaration to the Galatians that "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." As I watched everyone joyfully bustling in the parish's dining room to get things done, I witnessed the Church at its healthiest and most vibrant. Jesus never said the body of Christ was a youthful one. Perhaps the body is matured and seasoned, experienced and wise.

I raise this issue about ageism in the Church, not because I think it is especially guilty of this bias, but because I think it is an extension of the ageism present in our culture at large. Youth and beauty are privileged and prized. Gone are the days, it would seem, when we showed reverence for our elders and looked upon them as mentors who could help us mature into better adults. Now, granted, age is no guarantee of wisdom or any other virtue, but there is something to be said for respecting the seasoned perspective that experience brings to living, including living as a Christian. There is much that I have learned about being a person of faith and conscience from people that are far older than I. They have taught me how to deepen my prayer life and to practice greater humility, patience, and generosity. They have helped me to take a longer view and put things in proper perspective. They have broadened my appreciation for what is possible. So, I would urge us to be counter-cultural, and to greet our senior parishioners with the same enthusiasm and gratitude as we do our young families with children. A diverse Church is a strong Church. Without our seniors, our congregations, not to mention the Kingdom of God, would be woefully incomplete.

Abundant blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

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