Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Ageism: Yo Church So Old

A few days ago, Crusty tweeted out some thoughts on the report of the Joint Nominating Committee, the entity that makes formal nominations for persons elected or appointed to various church
Yo church so old it got a mosaic of its founding Rector, not a photo.
commissions, agencies, task forces, and Boards.  Crusty noted with some alarm that 60% of the nominees were over the age of 60, and 81% were over the age of 50.   This tweet engendered some discussion, both online and in direct email messages.  When asked by one person what COD thought was behind the disparity, Crusty replied simply:  "Ageism."

That's an oversimplification, to be sure.  And Crusty would like to say from the outset he doesn't personally blame the JNC, or mean to cast shade on any of the nominees.  I'm sure the members did their best, I'm sure they did their due diligence, and I'm sure the people they are nominating are competent, faithful, qualified folks.  But we have a systemic issue with diversity.  The Episcopal
Usual church response to lack of diversity.
Church is old and white.  That's a fact that's undeniable and is borne out by all available data.  The median age of someone in the United States is about 37; in the Episcopal Church, it's about 57.  The USA is 62% Caucasian; the Episcopal Church is about 87%.  This overall lack of failure to be younger and more diverse is one of the main drivers of the Episcopal Church's decline; in 1960, the Episcopal Church was 90% white in a country that was about 85% white.  Nearly 60 years later, the country diversified and the church didn't.

Yet while not personally blaming the JNC, we also can't just shrug and say whatev.  We need to look our ageism issue square in the eye and ask what we will do about it.  Because Crusty hates to break it to you all, sunshine, but the church has a serious issue with ageism.  Implicitly and explicitly, the church repeatedly sends the message than young persons are not really integral to the life of the church and are not welcome.  Crusty will offer six examples.  Three are public, from the 2015 General Convention.  Three are ones he personally experienced in his own life in the church.

At the 2015 General Convention:

1)  In the House of Bishops, in the course of a session discussing the question of same sex marriage, one of the bishops joked that they wouldn't be able to solve the question that day since "We've been discussing matters of sexuality since before Bishop Rowe was born," referencing the youngest bishop in the House of Bishops.  Using someone's age as a
Borat's clueless insensitivity was a parody, not something to emulate.
punchline for a joke should be utterly unacceptable, yet there were some low-level chuckles and nobody said a thing.

2)  In the House of Deputies, the following occurred ON THE SAME DAY.  During the debate on developing policies towards use of alcohol at church events, a deputy stood up, asked the official youth delegation to stand, and implored the House to pass this for the sake of the youth.

This was so utterly, completely bonkers I had to look around and make sure it was actually happening.  Once I did, I tweeted out my astonishment that one member of the House of Deputies could use other members of the House as a prop for a floor speech.

My tweet got circulated quite a bit, and someone even stood up and referenced it from one of the microphones.  This prompted a response from the Vice President of the House of Deputies, who tweeted me.  He noted that the action was out of order, Deputies should only address the chair and should ask permission to address anyone else in the House.  To which Crusty thought:  That's it?  Only noting that it's out of order?  Not noting that even if the Chair granted the deputy permission, it's utterly condescending and unacceptable?  

3)  After a greeting was given to the House of Bishops from members of the official youth delegation, a member tweeted "How were these representatives chosen?  I am not impressed."

There was not a single, formal acknowledgment of any of these incidents nor was anyone ever held to account for them.  Imagine if ANY other demographic group other than age and youth  were involved in any of these incidents.  Consider the following:

--In the House of Bishops, after a difficult discussion of racial reconciliation, they brought the
How were these 20th century martyrs chosen? I am not impressed.
discussion to a close by joking, "Hey we've still got work to do, can't resolve this today, I mean we've been working on racial reconciliation since Bishop Curry's ancestors were slaves, amirite?"

--In the House of Deputies, as part of the debate on approving rites for same sex marriage, someone had asked all the gay members to stand and implored people to pass the legislation for their sake.

--If the Episcopal Church Women triennial gave their official greetings, and someone tweeted out, "How were these old women selected?  I am not impressed."

But yet all of these incidents from General Convention 2015 occasioned no soul searching or response, sending the message loud and clear that young people are jokes, to be publicly shamed, and used as props.

OK, those were the public ones.  What follows just a couple of examples selected from literally dozens and dozens of incidents Crusty could name from my own experience.  Crusty's got a history here.  Crusty's been active in the church almost his whole life: Sunday school, Confirmation, involved in with high school and college chaplaincies and student groups.  Felt the call, went to Yale Divinity School at 22.  Crusty was actually told by many persons at age 27 to go out and get more experience before starting the ordination process, even though I'd been active in the church my whole life; completed an MDiv, including a 2-year parish internship; a year-long, full-time, 12-month CPE residency; and was working in a congregation as a lay formation director.  Then there's my wife, who was ordained at age 25 in 1998 at the nadir of young persons being welcomed into the ordination process (only 300 clergy out of nearly 7,500 were under the age of 30 in 1998) and had the double whammy of being young and a woman.  She had been an active, cradle Episcopalian her whole life, deeply committed and involved in the church.  She was also told "You're too young, go get more experience," and replied to one of the members of the Commission on Ministry, "Your son's a doctor, did you tell him to go be a lawyer first?"  Despite all the bloviating about baptismal ministry, the church sent the message loud and clear that all of our years of lay, dedicated baptismal ministry didn't mean as much spending a decade at a day job you hated. What is "experience" sometimes code for?  

Here are just three ways I have seen the church demonstrate its sometimes downright antipathy to young people in the church:

A)  I was a lay person when our son was born, my wife was clergy, so often I was the one who cared for the kid during services.  One Sunday my wife was doing supply somewhere, I went to a church closer to our home, and the boy was fussy that day.  He was loud.  I took him out, calmed him down, took him back in, did my best.  He was only 9 months old and I didn't feel comfortable leaving him in a nursery at a church I'd never been to before.  I was red-faced and embarrassed because I was getting the occasional glare from parishioners.  I had managed to calm him down and was standing in the back, right by the door, so that if he got fussy again I could take him out.  After the peace, the priest stood in the pulpit and said, literally, "I'd like to draw your attention to some announcements, if you're able to hear them."  Since the only noise had been my child -- no B-1 bomber flyovers or anything -- the intention was clear.

I walked right out and never came back. 

B)  A good friend of mine was priest on staff of a church that decided to reach out to all the young families in their neighborhood.  They created a seeker's service, held at 9 AM, in between their 8 AM Rite I and 10 AM Rite II with choir.  It had contemporary music, was held in the parish hall.  After a year, it worked.  A parish that had 150 ASA now had an additional 100 people coming to this 9 AM service.  When time came for annual meeting, the nominating committee presented a slate that had no one from this 9 AM service despite is making up 40% of their ASA.  My colleague asked why.  The reply, "We don't know any of them."  My colleague:  "I gave you several names to contact."  Reply, "If they want to serve, they should come to the 8 or the 10.  That service isn't really church."

C)  After ordination, I was interviewing for a job at a parish and was told by someone in the interview "We're so glad to have a younger priest considering the position." (I was 40 years old, BTW).  I asked why and the person said, "Because no parents with children in this neighborhood have joined the church in the past 30 years."  Me:  "Really?"  Person:  "Yes, that's not an exaggeration."  Nods around
Homer Simpson's Seekers' Service?
the table.  Another member, visibly agitated and body language showing anger, leaned in and jabbed a finger pointing at me, "Yes, we're hoping you can be the one who gets them to join."  I replied, "Why aren't you asking yourselves what you've been doing for thirty years to prevent any families with young people have joined and instead think I know the answer when this is my first time in your church?"  

These interactions reveal another cold, hard reality in the church:  while there is often just plain ignorance, or implicit or unintended ageism in the church, there's also a strand in the church of open hostility and resentment towards youth and young adults.  Faced with aging congregations and financial challenges, the church at times seems to be saying to young persons, "Join our church, shut up, pledge, and serve on committees where we tell you what to do.  And by all means keep your damn children quiet because our children never, ever made a peep in church."  The church's attitude sometimes seems not all that different at times as Homer's fury when he's losing his election for sanitation commissioner, "I hate the public so much...if only they'd elect me!"

And the things is...there are real, tangible, concrete steps that we can take.  Here's just a few, and not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive:

--We can set quotas for youth and young adult participation.  If we want to be serious about diversity and representation, set quotas.  Crusty has also suggested this for non-Caucasian representation in other blog posts, BTW.  COD repeatedly gets push back on it, often from people saying, "We can't set quotas, that limits the work of the Holy Spirit," or "We can't set quotas, the church doesn't do that."  Hey, everybody: General Convention, in fact, is founded on a quota system:  equal representation of clergy and lay in the House of Deputies.  We can and do set quotas where we feel it is foundational to how we understand representation.  We have set a quota at the highest level of our governance.  We as a church just choose not to do so in other areas.    Hey! Start with baby steps!  Set manageable goals! Maybe make a quota that 50% of our nominees need to be under 60 instead of 60%!

--Think about how we do business differently.  The way we do a lot of our church governance all too often makes it a burden to serve on many commissions and committees, requiring lay persons and people with younger children to take vacation days to go to multi-day church meetings and be away from their families.   We are very much in danger of having a professional class of quasi professional church technocrats who are the ones who have the time and privilege to attend all the gatherings.  And yet we are still unable to shorten General Convention, and we will no doubt restore pretty much every committee and task force we previously eliminated.

--If we include younger persons, include them with equal representation.  Give the youth presence at all our church meetings, including General Convention, voice and vote.  Otherwise we send the message loud and clear that our understanding of youth and young adult involvement is a kids' table to the "real" church.

Because the reality is the only way really to have broader representation of younger persons (and for all under-represented demographics, actually) in the church is: to invest in programs of formation; to specifically seek out, recruit, and nurture those persons; and to create an environment in the church where they are valued, welcomed, and their contributions taken seriously.  This kind of thing takes years, costs a lot, and requires a lot of training an institutional change.  But hey, we can do this.  A generation ago nobody wore seatbelts and people could smoke in public places.  Those behaviors changed because society put a lot if time and energy into education and training and changing a culture.  We've made progress in the church with inclusion of LGBQTI persons because we put a lot of time, energy, and institutional effort into that work.  There are ways forward with ageism in the church, the question is whether there is the will.

It's also important to note the church's the reality of ageism overall systemic sins of sexism, gender bias, racism, homophobia, and classism, among other failings.  While pointing out the issue with ageism, we must
Yo church so white it uses mayo instead of chrism at baptism.
also see where we fall short in the full inclusion of all of God's people.  There are thousand upon thousand incidences of discrimination and abuse directed towards women, people of color, and LBTQI persons happening right now.  And ageism certainly cuts both ways, and there are times in the church and in our society when older persons are marginalized and discounted.  That's wrong, too.  While pointing out this issue with ageism, I would rather not start arguing about what forms of oppression are more or less important.  Crusty spent a good portion of college, seminary, in other places listening to people debate about taxonomies of oppression than actually doing anything about the oppression.  Who we say has to wait often tells us a lot about our own biases, which is why Dr. King said that injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere.

Concern about the future of the church drives much of the issues around ageism in the church.   Yet we cannot be held captive to those anxieties. The Episcopal Church runs the risk of being a kind of Samson, with our aging resulting in us pulling the church down around itself, the way Samson pulled the building down around the Philistines.  A number of our local congregations are already doing this, having effectively chosen to dwindle and die and close. That church where I interviewed ended up shutting its doors, quite possibly still resenting the neighborhood around it.  A church this white and old that doesn't take steps to change deserves to die, with the hope that God can raise up something from the wreckage of our systemic sins that toppled it to a new life that better reflects that diversity of all of God's people.


  1. I'm young and I already have so many stories I could add to yours. I sat in a planning meeting for a women's ecumenical Christmas tea because it was my first year as the pastor and I wanted to know what it was all about. For thirty years, this tea was held on Monday afternoon at 1:00 pm, and for thirty years, planners had wondered why no young women were coming.

    That year, they were moving it to Sunday afternoon in the hopes of drawing more young women in. But they also made it explicitly clear that while young girls could come with their mothers, they didn't want any little girls or babies to come. I was too stunned to say anything, something I'm still working on.

    And this attitude is by no means confined to a Christmas party planning meeting. Growing up, my congregation didn't know what to do with me because I was a young kid who wanted to be involved in everything and serve in worship as much as I could. In their mind, church was for the adults.

    We had a lady who was the fellowship table hawk. She stood there as the kids went to get snacks after worship and yelled at any kid who took more than two cookies, but adults could take as much as they wanted. My mother took her to task.

    One year for the Annual Meeting (held in January), the pastor's wife actually kicked us kids out of the building--not just the fellowship hall, but entire building--because we "didn't belong there". Kicked us outside. In January. If I recall, we stormed the building near the end of the building.

    I've been told I didn't know any better about a theological issue because even though I'm seminary trained, I'm "too young".

    And on and on and on.

  2. "We are very much in danger of having a professional class of quasi professional church technocrats who are the ones who have the time and privilege to attend all the gatherings." "In danger of"? We've been there for years.

    I don't at all disagree with your points, but I think the situation is more complicated than simply old vs. young. Old people may run the church, but only some old people.

    I myself am old now, but as a young woman I was explicitly excluded from all sorts of interesting things by both age and gender. As I grew older, I was excluded by having to work outside the church for a living--for example, I was briefly on my diocese's Commission on Ministry but had to resign because I was a single mother and couldn't afford to take unpaid time off work or arrange more childcare. And now that I'm old, still lay, and still a woman, I'm even more insignificant, and "too old" to participate in theological debate--how can I understand how young people think? "Too lay" is also implied, though seldom stated. (BTW, I also have seminary training and two theological degrees.)

    I hope this doesn't sound like "All Ages Matter." But I think the bottom-line issue is privilege, rather than age per se. And perhaps working to genuinely include youth is a good place to start.


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