These words are not too surprising for someone to say about the Episcopal Church, or any organized group. Usually, in doing so, the “I’m” refers to some neglected minority within the church.
What was different this times, were the words that preceded the phrase:
“I’m 49 years old. Does the Episcopal Church care that I’m here?”
I am feeling a bit battered by the flood of announcements everywhere in my church life about groups and activities and opportunities for formation aimed at people in their 20s and 30s. Young adults’ supper clubs and movie nights. Young parents’ groups. Incredible opportunities like the chance to live and pray at Lambeth Palace for a year in a radical new Christian community – but only if you’re under 35.
Since turning 45, I’ve given up my career, moved four times, resettled in my home town after many years away, struggled to redefine myself, gotten started on a new career, and finally found a wonderful parish home after a false start or two. Welcoming as my parish is, I’m a profoundly introverted person, and the parish is growing, which means it would be really helpful to me to have a structure of smaller groups to connect with as I try to find my place in a new community. Every new announcement in the bulletin that turns out not to be for people like me is a bit deflating.
After acknowledging that this is not about God’s love, and that she is self-aware that she is about to go on a little rant that can feel self-serving, she addresses her point:
The Episcopal Church is very worried that it’s dying, and it has responded at the church-wide, diocesan, and parish level with a whole lot of programs aimed at bringing young adults into the life of the church — in the hopes, one presumes, of creating a cohort that will be the stalwarts of the church in a decade or two or three. There is nothing not to like about church-planting, campus ministries, community-forming, or bringing energetic new voices into aging parishes.
But I’m starting to get the sense that the flip side of this is that the church thinks the people in their late 40s or 50s are people they can take for granted. We are supposed to be parish leaders, vestry members, thoroughly acculturated Christians, people in no danger of wandering away from the flock. The people so boringly reliable that they represent the coming death of the church? (Oh, wait…) The people we need to replicate for the next generation. Hence the scramble to recruit and retain their replacements.
It is true that many leaders in the church, both lay and ordained, fall in the age cohort I’m talking about — late 40s and 50s. A dozen years ago, a study found that the average age of Episcopal clergy was 54 and of parishioners, 57. In 2009, half of Episcopal clergy were over 55 and about a third were in the 45-55 age range.
A lot of the rhetorical panic about an aging denomination makes it sound like all those 50ish people are nothing but a sign of the decline of the church.
When we’re not thinking about middle-aged people as statistical harbingers of the death of the church, we tend to think about them as the only part of the Body we don’t have to worry about. The assumption that the 50ish are reliable leaders in our congregations masks some other assumptions: that these are people who are secure in their careers, stably partnered, well along in raising families, and thoroughly embedded in their communities for the long haul. With that kind of stability, the 50ish should be able to be ministers who don’t need much ministering to.
Those are some outdated assumptions, and, dare I say, some rather gendered ones. I know a lot more people my age who are in or emerging from some sort of midlife upheaval than people who fit some notion of predictable stability.
Carin continues by considering “what the 50ish in our parishes really doing.” Read her list at her blog, Ruff Notes.
What are your thoughts?