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.