Enough Silliness on Age and Ordination

I’m almost surprised that Methodists haven’t crashed the whole Internet, as many emails, twitter messages, and blog pieces that have been circulating through cyberspace over the subject in recent days. For the “outing” of a Texas Conference internal proposal, one intended just for discussion, that would set an age limit on entering the ordination process has created a virtual firestorm of comments– some serious, some snarky, and some somewhere in between.

The truth, however, is that when it comes to ordination, it should not so much be about the years which have passed as the years that are left. That is to say, while it is sensible to suggest that those entering ordained ministry should have a reasonable minimal number of years of service to the church which they can render– say ten, perhaps– it is entirely different to mandate that someone who is forty-five, with a potential viability of 27 years of ministry ahead, is “too old” to become an elder.

Such is not to imply that some discrimination on the part of Boards of Ordained Ministry should not take place, for that’s exactly why they’ve been established, as one of my younger clergy friends has pointed out. And having served on the Texas Conference Board for many years, I can testify that one of the most difficult but important tasks that any such group has is to deliberately discern whether a candidate has the necessary gifts, graces and temperament to serve the people of our congregations. But in that process of discernment, I might also suggest that age is perhaps one of the least relevant indicators of a person’s vitality, readiness and potential effectiveness in ministry.

In all of the discussion that is ongoing, three simple observations need to be made. First, ordination is a gift of the church— it is not the inalienable or civil right of any man or woman, even if they have gone to all the trouble and expense of acquiring the necessary educational credentials. No one is entitled to be ordained, no matter who he or she is, or even how fervently they may have sensed their own individual calling from God. Rather, ordination is the corporate affirmation of that calling which, by very definition, may or may not be given following the serious reflection and prayer of others within the community of faith.

Second, the order of elders is not the brass ring of the church either— it is but one expression of meaningful ministry, not inherently better or worse than others. Deacons and local pastors are not “junior varsity” members of the clergy; they are simply colleagues whose gifts and graces, as well as life situations, work better under a different arrangement. To suggest that an individual pursue those avenues rather than the elder track is not to downgrade their divine calling at all, thus– it is to better define it.

Third, the church needs servant leaders not simply of all races, genders, and backgrounds, but even of all ages as well. Toward that end whatever efforts we can make– and the Texas Conference has helped to lead in this respect– to recruiting and encouraging younger clergy we should certainly do. But similarly, there is absolutely no place for prejudice against those who may be on the other end of the chronological scale. Encouraging clergy in their sixties to retire early in order to clear some space for those who are younger, for instance, or telling pastors that once they have passed that benchmark that good appointments may also pass them by, suggests a deplorable lack of respect for the contributions which those individuals have made and can continue to make.

Imagine, for instance, if someone had tried to tell John Wesley that he was too old to keep on going when he turned not just 45 or even 65, but 88 and was still very much in the game. Likewise, we may even wonder a bit about our mandatory retirement age in the United Methodist Church of 72, given the fact that our Catholic friends just elected a new pope who is four years beyond that marker. When all is said and done, therefore, it is my hope that the proposed age guidelines will appropriately enough “time out” before they are ever enacted.

If not, even the great St. Augustine, who wasn’t ordained until he was leaning towards forty, would barely have made the cut-off point had he lived in Carthage, Texas, and not that other ancient city by the same name in North Africa.

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6 Responses to Enough Silliness on Age and Ordination

  1. Well stated, Chap. All three of your observations are germane, but, given my own situation, I find the third one particularly poignant.

    Now, I want to challenge you to help eliminate (or at least reduce) an age-based and age-biased term that you helped popularize, that reinforces an inaccurate and potentially harmful generational generalization, and that I’m sure someone other than just me must find offensive: SPOTTED OWLS.

    It won’t be easy. From what I have observed, Bishop Huie has embraced the term enthusiastically (though she is certainly doing her part to move young TAC clergy off the endangered list), and it has spread to other parts of the connection. I find it hard to imagine that young clergy themselves like being labeled in any way–let alone as an endangered species–but the moniker is so well established, they may feel resistance is futile. My point, however, goes well beyond the nickname itself.

    Just as the BOM proposal regarding an age cut-off for entering candidacy reinforces an inadequate view of those over 45, lumping all young clergypersons into a group–regardless of their background, gifts, or interests–and hanging an unfortunate, non-human label on them encourages both those outside the group and the members themselves to view young clergy as a faceless, monolithic, homogeneous mass.

    If this idea can’t get any traction, I may launch a campaign to start identifying all white-haired clergy with larger-than-average noses as WHITE RHINOS.

  2. matt idom says:

    Chap, thank you for a broad view and argument.
    I tend to take a more severe view of this guideline, a more visceral reaction.
    Maybe it is because of my age, but it is more I think because of the relationships I have with second career clergy. I’ve not had a pay-check from anything but the Methodist church since I was 19, but I know of many who are second career and not only serve vital congregations, they do so with class, effectiveness, and courage.
    I served the BOM for 8 years, and I recall the debth and maturity that these second career folks brought to the mission when they came for their interviews. It was more than inspiring, it was reassuring and humbling. I realized that many were more than ready to prove effective, they were ready to demonstrate a standard for all.
    And that does not even begin to scratch the surface of what a 40 to 45 year veteran has to offer.
    And it is not limited to the names you cited from the history of the church. We do not have to look very far to see the vibrant role that is made in every discipline by people during their “senior” years.
    You know… Reagan was just a couple of weeks shy of being 70 when he became our 40th president.

  3. Keith– the label began as a joke between one of my young colleagues and myself, but then– much to our surprsie– went a little viral. While it was effective several years ago in helping to make a point about the rareness of younger clergy, it is no longer a useful term and I think you are correct that most young clergy would just as soon see it abandoned as well. It kind of reminds me of how if you do anything in the church sometimes it inevitably becomes the “first annual” such event.
    Thanks for joining in the conversation. Chappell

  4. David Edwwards says:

    I agree! We need vital, visionary, leadership in the pastorate and the pew… young and old have something to contribute… thanks for your contribution to the discussion! d

  5. Kathe Begrend says:

    I hadn’t heard of this controversy but your comments make sense to me.

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