Post Author: Erica Schemper
One Sunday morning last spring, I found myself nursing my 6-month-old in the narthex rocker while my full-time colleague was preaching. The sound system was wonky enough that I could barely hear the sermon that morning, so I was flipping through a denominational magazine and I came across an article about church leaders under 40. They were each doing wonderful things: thinking outside the box, reimagining how church can work, discovering opportunities in the places they’d been planted, finding the intersection of God’s heart with the world around them. The article described churches and pastors doing new things, the kind of ministry that I hope I do a little bit of in my current part-time position, and that I hope to do much more of in a few years when I re-engage in full-time ministry.
It should have been one of those accounts of good work in the church that reinvigorated my excitement about doing ministry. Instead, I spent the rest of the afternoon wallowing in my own anxiety, mixed with a side of outrage. I will most likely be over 40 before I am back to full-time ministry, and at that point, no longer eligible for the “pastors under 40 doing amazing things” demographic that our mainline denominations sometimes seem so enamored with.
I’ve never bought into the idea of being ashamed of my age. When I was first ordained, I was proud of the fact that I was one of the youngest women ever ordained in my denomination. As I’ve piled on a few more years, I’m still happy to admit my age. My mid-30s have been wonderful. My life has balanced out in a way that works for me and my family. My husband and I have three children, and he makes enough money for us to live comfortably. A geographic relocation for his career a few years ago made it difficult for me to find exactly the kind of ministry position that was “right” for my career trajectory, so I work less than half-time at a lovely little church as their director for children, youth, and family ministry. I’m proud of the life experience I’ve accumulated. I’m convinced that the last four years, when I’ve pulled back from full-time ministry, are molding me into a better pastor. I’d never had such a clear view of life from the church pew, as someone who went sailing straight from college to seminary and on to ordination.
But I face the fears of any parent who has dropped out or “leaned out” for awhile, with the added anxiety of reports of the imminent demise of the institutional church, and paid ministry in particular, as we know it. I have every intention of reentering the ministry workforce in my 40s, and doing my best work yet.
But what if the church doesn’t need me anymore? I hear rumblings that suggest to me that those over 40 aren’t capable of doing creative, innovative ministry. An article that highlights the contributions of young leadership in the church is a wonderful reminder of vitality, especially when we look around some congregations and can’t find a single Millennial or Gen-Xer. But there may be a line where we aren’t only highlighting, but also idolizing, accomplishment in one’s youth.
Last year, I listened as a keynote speaker told a group of conferees (the majority of them not in the under-40 age group) that the best thing we could do as church leaders when we pass into our 40s is to step out of the way so that younger ministers and church leaders could have a chance to lead. This speaker is church-famous in my denomination for his leadership and vision while he was still under 40. The basic idea was that those who are over the hill need to step out of the way, mentor as needed, and let the younger people lead.
My immediate thought was, “That’s all well and good, but I’ve not yet had a chance. I’ve always been the associate or the parachurch ministry person, or the temporary supply. I’d like the chance to preach more than once every month or two, I’d like the chance to manage a church budget, I’d like the chance to attend the General Assembly, I’d like the chance to lead a church through change. I’d like the chance to try a new thing.”
Is it really the case that I’ll be washed up as a pastor when I hit my 40s? If I’ve chosen to take a few years of leaning out of the career track of my profession, and take a few years then to lean back in, will I have missed some vital window in which my ministry was most valid and valued?
I’d like to think that the church is able to acknowledge diversity of age and calling and career track. Some are called to ministry and take time out to follow an additional calling. For many women ministers, and some men, we may take time to focus on raising children; for others, we may take time to support the career and calling of a partner, either by moving, compromising on where we might serve, or supporting a partner through additional education. Some are called to ministry later in life, and we should celebrate that, too. And some ministers may be inspired anew by the Spirit even in their 50s, 60s, and 70s – people are living longer, of course! I’d like to think the church values all those variables of calling, so that our leadership spans generations.
Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that only the young are worth our attention and admiration. We serve a God, after all, who is most definitely older than 40, a God who is and was and ever will be. We are called to be the Church of all times and all places, and to sing a new song as we do God’s work in any decade of our lives.
Erica Schemper is a Presbyterian minister serving a Lutheran congregation part time in the San Francisco Bay area. She spends most of her time being a mom to her three kids, and surprisingly little of her time worrying about her impending 40s.
Image by: Ramón Gutiérrez
Used with permission