On Removing the “Y” From “YCW”

Post Author: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

A couple of years ago, I applied to be a commissioner to our denomination’s General Assembly. After glancing at the essay questions, I went back to the top of the form to fill out the easy stuff: Name… Address… Phone… Email… Gender… Ethnicity… Age…

The “Age” line had several ranges to choose from. I began scanning the numbers with some smugness—This will be my ace in the hole! They’re always looking for young people to go to these things—until I realized which box I would need to check at age 37:

____ 36-64
Thirty. Six.
To Sixty. Four.

When did that happen?
When did I get old enough to be lumped in with people who were one liturgical year away from retirement?
On top of it all was a panicked lament: Why, dear God, why?

For years, my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has made a big deal about the so-called “seven percent.” That’s the percentage of PC(USA) clergy under the age of 40. Last I checked, the actual number is closer to 15%, but still. A very small number. An elite group. A group that many people look to for wisdom, ideas, and hope for the sometimes perplexing task of reaching out to young adults.

I write this article at age 39½. In just a few months, I will age out of the 7% (and the Young Clergy Women, for that matter). All of this has me pondering what it means to be young; and what it means to be no longer young but certainly not old; and what these categories offer that’s helpful, and what about them is limiting.

Yes, that’s all deep philosophical work. But I’m also just plain freaking out about turning 40. It’s not about the vanity stuff, though I certainly see more lines around my eyes lately, and I’m learning to accept that despite a new running practice, these few extra pounds are not going away without some serious intention on my part.

No, it’s more the awareness of the relentlessness of time—the realization that, in the words of singer-songwriter David Wilcox, “All the paths are getting shorter in the far end, because we only have so many steps to take. We only have so much time.” This statement comes in an introduction to the song “Hold It Up to the Light,” which is a riff on the Robert Frost poem about the road less traveled. Standing on the threshold of 40, I’m realizing just how many roads I’m unlikely to travel. I grieve some of these losses. That trip to Guatemala for three weeks of Spanish language immersion? Hard to pull off with three kids and a mortgage. Maybe when the nest is empty.

Other times, the slow diminishing of options is freeing—we’ve all seen the studies about how paralyzing it can be to have too many choices. It’s clarifying to have fewer options. I am probably not going to get that PhD in preaching. Of course I still could. There’s plenty of time for it. It’s just that the trajectory of my life is going in another good direction.

But where, exactly? I read and hear news stories about people my age doing truly amazing stuff, and realize that they’re not being described as precocious wunderkinden, catapulting to the top of their fields. They’re just… adult people, doing stuff. Accomplishing things. And I fret: Have I used the time well that I’ve been given? To put it theologically, have I been a good steward of my young adulthood? My young adult body? My young adult mind? (Nouns don’t come as easily as they used to, but I blame the kids more than my age.)

As young adults, many of us, myself included, looked at a whole life ahead of us and thought, I can do anything. I was ready to take the world by storm, solve big social problems, make a profound difference. I’m proud of what I’ve done in my life thus far, but my grand plans are more tempered: maybe I won’t be setting the world on fire after all. Maybe I will not develop some brand-new society-changing idea, or receive a MacArthur genius grant or deliver a TED talk. But I do make a difference in my family and community.

A friend and I have often griped about what we called the “Oprah-fication” of the women’s aging process. Oprah knows her audience and her readership—predominantly middle-aged women—and tailors her message accordingly: Life begins at 40! Or 50! Or Higher! I am sure that women of a certain age, some of whom suppressed their own needs and desires to support their husbands or raise their kids, find that message empowering. We do live in a culture that worships youth, in which the old commercial tells us not to grow old gracefully, but to fight it every step of the way.

But this age stuff is complicated: We’re also in a culture of “pay your dues; bide your time; wait to be authorized; wisdom is the domain of age.” What does “life begins at 40” mean for a 25 year old? That she’s deficient in some way? Not good enough? Why do we need to wait to be awesome? Just last year, Oprah’s magazine had a blunt recommendation: don’t even bother reading a memoir by anyone who hasn’t even hit age 30. Really, Oprah? Really????

Given all the fabulous women I know who are older than me, I’m excited for the next chapter of my life. But as I prepare to celebrate 40, my birthday wish is that all ages will be honored. Life doesn’t begin at 40. Life can begin whenever you decide it should begin. I’m not saying that every age is equally great. I’m saying that every age is uniquely great.

As a young adult pastor, I was sought after partly for what I represented: a demographic group—an inside track to the young adult “market.” Some years ago, I was asked to serve on a presbytery committee. Fresh from maternity leave, I arrived at my first meeting, 15 minutes late, wheeling my newborn daughter into the room where several gray-haired men sat. I parked the stroller by the conference table, plopped into a chair, and quipped, “Your diversity’s arrived!” But now, as I prepare to leave young adulthood behind, it’s not about what I represent. It’s just about me now. My ideas. My experiences.

The other day I was telling an elder in our church about a weekend with my kids in which everything just clicked. And I said at the end, “What could be better?” He responded, “The answer to that is always ‘Nothing.’ Nothing could be better.” This is a man who just celebrated age 50 with a tattoo and a two-week pilgrimage to Cooperstown and other beloved baseball sites, so I’ve decided that his comment is good advice for this aging stuff too.

At 30, nothing could be better than being 30. At 40, nothing could be better than being 40. At 50, nothing could be better than being 50.

Nothing could be better. Full stop.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a pastor and writer in the suburbs of Washington DC, where she serves Idylwood Presbyterian Church. She is writing The Sabbath Year, which will be published in fall 2012 through Chalice Press’s Young Clergy Women imprint. She blogs at The Blue Room.

14 replies
  1. Whitney
    Whitney says:

    This is a beautiful reflection. It brought me to tears as I contemplate sermon prep this week and my 35th birthday not to long from now. Thank you.

  2. MaryBeth Butler
    MaryBeth Butler says:

    Just an observation: At the RevGalBlogPals Big Event 4, it came out that a number of the “young clergy women” there actually were offended to be referred to in that way. They didn’t want to be called “young.” Just “clergywomen.” Or “clergy.”

  3. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    YES! I just posted my own reflections on my blog of my upcoming (still a month and a half away) 32nd birthday with many of these same thoughts and feelings – even though I’m a few years behind you. I’m also 3 children behind you, and that adds to the anxiety. But the increasing anxiety of a PhD in preaching timeline? The days of being hailed for being “wise beyond your years”? I’ve been surprised by my own anxiety and discomfort with getting older – not from a vanity standpoint, but from these other perspectives.
    Thanks for sharing your voice!

  4. Susie
    Susie says:

    This is wonderful, and I practically did a spit-take at the line “your diversity has arrived.”
    I’m curious about the comment that other young clergy women were offended by being called “young”… I wonder if there is something about the tokenism and demographic-representation that they were responding to when in a group with a wide age range…

  5. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I appreciate this. I’m just 31, but already have grown tired of being the token young clergyperson on boards and committees. I’m pretty sure I’m actually a good pastor, not just a good YOUNG pastor, and while I’m loving life as a 31-year-old, I will not be sad when I am no longer eligible for those token roles and can simply be taken seriously for the gifts I bring to the table.

  6. teri
    teri says:

    As one of the YCWs at the RGBP event, there was significant discussion about the issue of being “young clergy” or “young adults” vs being “adults”–with the main question being, essentially, when do we get to be real grown ups? When are we pastors, who journey with people and preach and teach and love and laugh and cry and visit and all that stuff, instead of being called out as “the young pastors”? The issue was sometimes one of tokenism, but more often one of feeling like we’re being dismissed because of our age (and in groups with wide age ranges, it’s so easy to do inadvertently, right? “those lovely young things” is easy to hear as “those cute little darlings who still have so much to learn”–which is not usually the intent, but…). Which, interestingly, is one of the reasons I love TYCWP. Because it’s a place where we can be taken seriously by peers, where we can discuss issues common to our calling as well as our current space in chronos time.
    This is also one of the reasons I love this article–I hear both celebration and a little trepidation (and I may just be projecting here, MA, sorry!) about moving from one peer group into another one. While we retain our YCW colleagues, obviously, the support available in various settings is different, and to “age out” of the Y part is both a little scary and a little exciting.
    Alex–I’m not sure I understand your question, but as a RevGalBlogPal board member I’d be happy to chat about whatever concern underlies your question, if you’d be willing to clarify.

  7. MaryAnn
    MaryAnn says:

    Dangit, I wrote a whole long comment and it got lost. Bleh.
    Teri’s comment highlights how contextual this stuff is. Sometimes “young” really is nothing but a demographic distinction, not a judgment. I personally can count on maybe two fingers the number of times I’ve been patronized as a young(er) person. It’s possible that I’ve been oblivious to the rampant ageism thrown my way, but I doubt it, given that I’m usually hyper-sensitive to subtext (to the point of imagining some when there really is none).
    Of course, I’ve also been told I have an ‘old soul,’ and have almost never been considered “cute.” So it goes.
    I think Alex’s post is a way of saying that removing “gal” from RGBP would take away something that makes us distinctive. Words like “young” and “woman” don’t have to be seen as qualifiers that diminish us. Sometimes they are simply words that describe. Or maybe even, empower.

  8. Alex
    Alex says:

    Yes, that is what I meant. MaryBeth said that some clergy at the RGBP event did not want to be identified as “clergywomen”, just as “clergy” so I wondered if they also were ready to drop the “gal”.
    Sometimes a name can just be a name…

  9. teri
    teri says:

    I think the issue MaryBeth was highlighting was some of our YCW experience of being called “young” as a way of putting us in our place, and also that some of us have had the experience of being “women clergy” as a way of suggesting that we’re not real clergy. So, for that very reason I agree with MaryAnn that being RevGals or YCWs can be empowering. The difficulty comes when those same words are regularly used to demean–which, for the record, is a large part of my own experience.
    This feels to me like a classic case of the difficulty of the written internet medium. Having been in several of the conversations at the BE around this topic, it was definitely more about context and tone.

  10. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    This is a fantastic article — as always MaryAnn — and a tremendous conversation. I think MaryAnn’s comment (obviously I cheerlead for you MA) hits the question of terminology of “young” and “gal.” In both communities (TYCWP and RevGals) that share some overlap, we use these terms positively. They identify who we are and we choose them to articulate our identity to the church and the world. However, the church and the world don’t always use these terms in the same spirit. I so appreciate how this sensitive matter is approached in this article.

  11. Stacy
    Stacy says:

    I appreciate the comments here, and to Mary Beth, I wonder why the term “clergy” is more acceptable than “young” or “women.” To me, a label is a label is a label, and part of discovering your identity is finding appropriate language to describe it. Why would “clergy” be a better term than “Christian” or “leader” or “disciple?” These are all simply words we use to tell the tale of who we are.
    I think the strength of TYCWP is that a specific generation of Christian leaders has chosen to self-identify in a way that is both empowering and descriptive. I myself have never understood the name “young clergy woman” to be demeaning. Rather, because we have claimed it as a meaningful term of self-description, it is a powerful method of identifying ourselves as a community.

  12. Rebecca Littlejohn
    Rebecca Littlejohn says:

    I am about to turn 36, and am becoming aware of aging out of young adulthood as well.
    I feel like my young age, for an ordained person, opened some doors for me, and then the people in those contexts grew up with me. Now that I’m aging out, I’m rotating off those boards, and wondering what will come next.
    One thing that I think is important is to realize the difference between generation and age. The church will need to continue to listen intentionally to the generation that has been “young” in the last decade (even when we’re no longer young), because our generational cohorts will continue to be under-represented.
    Meanwhile, space will have to be created for younger generations who are actually still young. And they, too, will eventually age.
    One of the things I find to be the greatest gifts of the church, and especially the small membership church, is that it is one of the only intergenerational communities left in our society. It is a place where we can learn about aging, either through example, or possibly even through intentional conversation.
    Ironically, one of the doors opened to me as a young adult was the opportunity to keynote the Region’s Senior Adult retreat. We had a great time. Talking about these issues (aging, marginalization, etc.) helps us realize that we have more in common across generations than we sometimes feel.

  13. Erica B
    Erica B says:

    A very thoughtful article. I turned forty in March, so I suppose I am already an interloper — but I promise not to linger. Forty was harder than I thought it would be, largely because my life in general just isn’t where I thought it would be by this time. Being single, I often find myself in a “no man’s land” — though I cringe at how inappropriate that turn of phrase is in this context. Many if not most of the folks I know my age (and younger or older, truth be told) are coupled, with families.
    One of the first churches I served had a number of retired ministers in the congregation, one of whom was a woman. Following a sermon one Sunday, she said “Good job, kid” to me. My better self knows that she didn’t mean to be demeaning, but I felt demeaned. In a gathering of clergy women several weeks later, this came up. I don’t know where it came from, but I commented that I don’t know many folks who would appreciate the compliment, “Nice job, old lady.”
    I think another dynamic having to do with age and clergy, perhaps particularly clergy women, has to do with second career clergy. I know that probably deserves to be teased out a bit, but I already feel as though I am rambling a bit.


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