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Ageism in the Church: A three essay series by the Rev. Tom Buechele

Ageism in the Church: A three essay series by the Rev. Tom Buechele

My name is Tom Buechele and I am a retired Episcopal priest as of 2010 after 42 years in ministry. I have served in the Church as an Associate Priest, Vicar, Church Planter, Director of Continued Education for Clergy and Director of Permanent Deacon Programs. I also have served as a  Vicar for Spanish-Speaking congregations, and have been an Interim and Supply. In this essay series I would like to call attention to the topic of Ageism in ministry. I  believe this is an issue for the Church to address in order to truly be missional and inclusive. In the last few years, as I moved into my late 70’s I have experienced of instances of ageism surrounding ordained ministerial opportunities.

Ageism as defined by Ashton Applewhite, author of “This Chair Rocks”, is “stereotyping and discrimination based on a person’s age. We experience it any time someone assumes that we’re “too old” for something—a task, a haircut, a relationship—instead of finding out who we are and what we’re capable of. Or “too young;” ageism cuts both ways, although in a youth-obsessed society, olders bear the brunt of it.”

I would like to share two instances when I experienced this first-hand. The first was after retirement, when my wife and I moved into a new (for us) Diocese. I offered my talents and experiences as a Church planter for Latino immigrants. I had the qualifications, the support of the area clergy and the commitment of some financing from the local congregations. However there was some hesitancy from the Bishops’ office. I soon learned that there was a presumption that I was just looking to find something to do and make a job for myself. After that, we agreed to disagree.

The second instance happened as I explored the possibility of full-time ministry once again in another context. While engaging different leadership, there was more hesitancy and the answer was, ‘Tom, why in God’s name do you want to do that?  You are retired; stay that way. Make it easy for yourself and your wife.’

I have never thought of ordained ministry as a “job” or as uneasy hard work. Yes, there are multiple challenges. I also believe that a priest should get paid for what they do, but as a retired clergy I am blessed with finances not being an issue. I am fortunate to be without diminished cognitive or memory issues. Being my age I believe I have gained through experience, reflection, wisdom, prudence, and good judgment. Ashton Applewhite says, “like racism and sexism, ageism serves a social and economic purpose: to legitimize and sustain inequalities between groups. It’s not about how we look. It IS about how people in power assign meaning to how we look.

She continues, “Stereotyping—the assumption that all members of a group are the same—underlies ageism (as it does all “isms).” Stereotyping is always a mistake, but when it comes to age, the older we get, the more different from one another we become. Unless we challenge ageist stereotypes—Old people are incompetent. Wrinkles are ugly. It is sad to be old—we feel shame and embarrassment instead of taking pride in the accomplishment of aging. That is internalized ageism.

By blinding us to the benefits of aging and heightening our fears, ageism makes growing older far harder than it must be. It damages our sense of self, segregates us, diminishes our prospects, and actually shortens lives.” With these experiences and no doubt others shared by other retirees, I wonder if our Church should add ageism to the rigors of challenging the isms of our time.

I deeply respect any clergy person who offers themselves for a position of authority in the Church. However, I believe the last time the Episcopal Church did research on the State of the Clergy was 2012. A lot has happened since then.

By the way, for those who want to know, President Joe Biden and I are the same age. And he’s still working.

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Ben Garren

An “ism” doesn’t work unless one group has systemic power over another. Every decade since 1970 TEC has ordained more people from the author’s generation than any other. 75% to just above 50% depending upon the decade. At this point in time 55% of stipendiary clergy are Baby Boomers. If we want to inquire about a systemic issue of ageism/generationalism in the church that is it. The author is from the most empowered generation in the church.

Relinquishing power by retiring and receiving a robust compensation package is not a form of prejudice. It needs to be understood that this individuals projected retirement income, pension and social security, is going to be above the minimum clergy salary across TEC. There are full time working clergy who are making less than he is to be retired. If we presume the eight years that define his pension payment was the diocesan median at his last posting and use the CPG calculator his resting income is 55k-60k, which is 10K above the minimum salary in my diocese and equivalent to my current salary. If the authors actual retirement compensation is not near a six figure income then adding a full time, or even a half time, church position to current resting income would almost definitely make it so. There is no way to claim the church is actively engaging in prejudice against someone who is being provided compensation equal to a working salary for being retired.

Complaining one no longer has the power one held for 40+ years does not make one a victim. It means that one is not engaging a life transition in a healthy or beneficial way. Our clergy need to begin transitioning to support positions before they retire and be ready to enter into non-stipendiary support work in retirement. The ability for our older clergy to enter into subsidiary roles as mentors with wisdom of what has occurred before while younger leaders plan the steps for what will occur next is essential.

This article is, fundamentally, an abuse of basic concepts of social justice and liberation theology. The claims of the author to be part of a marginalized group being oppressed by the church is, simply, false. That is not a category one can derive from being a Baby Boomer in The Episcopal Church, especially not a retired member of the clergy receiving robust benefits for years of service.

Thomas Buechele

Thanks for the feedback Ben. I am not a Baby Boomer…(1946-1964). I am 79. 2nd, my offer to serve in ministry was not based in seeking financial support. You’re right, I and other retired clergy are well taken care of. I would love to mentor, teach, and especially assist smaller congregations that are facing closure because they cannot afford staffing.

Ben Garren

What would it have looked like if you had began the migrant farm workers ministry with a plan to create a part or full time position for a lay or ordained young adult to be the paid staff person for the ministry with you as a member of a board of directors that was chaired by a local long term community member?

Something that you could foster and provide your wisdom to over the next five or so years knowing from the beginning that for it to have any long term sustainability or viability over the next decade and beyond your role would need to be limited from the start?

When the diocese said they wanted to ensure that the position went to someone who was in need of a full or part time position for their ensure their day to day financial needs were taken care of what would it have looked like to listen to their discernment and help facilitate such a person coming into the ministry and you taking a secondary role?

Thomas M. Littlewood

What are the moral implications of someone in their late-70s continuing to work while others much younger struggle to find paid employment? What about pensions? If a retiree is drawing on the pension plan, can they ethically also draw a salary?

Thomas Buechele

Hi Tom. I agree. I have served in congregations without pay and the offers I suggested in the article were not based in large financial compensation. Some Dioceses are also calling it Permanent Supply.

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