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.
I look young for my age, so people sometimes invite me along to young-adult events. I'm flattered, but I taught college for many years and have spent a lot of quality time with 20-somethings. I love them, but there are things going on in the life — and the spiritual life — of people pushing 50 that need a different sort of attention.
Let me get this out of the way before I continue my little rant: Yes, I know God loves middle-aged people, too. Yes, I know this sounds a bit like the kind of special-snowflake-ism I usually deplore. (What about MEEEEEE?) Yes, I know that if you want a new ministry or group in your parish the answer is to start it yourself. I'm on it.
Now that that's out of the way...
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.
What are the 50ish in our parishes really doing?
- Caring for elderly parents, or mourning their loss.
- Confronting their own mortality.
- Having existential crises.
- Changing careers, by choice or necessity (especially after the Great Recession).
- Sometimes struggling to do so. Sometimes discovering a vocation to ministry. (See: late-onset priesthood as a trend in TEC.)
- Reordering their priorities.
- Wondering if it's too late to develop a purpose in life.
- Seeking a community that will support them following a midlife displacement.
- Seeking to form connections they can count on as they age without spouses or children to fill that role.
Some of these folks are the people who were successfully brought into, or back to, the church as young adults a decade or two ago, who are now in need of spiritual refreshment and at least as much practical help as their younger counterparts.
Who is more in need of ministry and mutual support?
If TEC and its parishes remain committed to organizing the faithful into age-cohort groups — which is a practice we might examine — I hope we might see a more systematic attempt to bring together those who are nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita for ministry and mutual support.