This month, we asked our bloggers what it’s like to be the youngest Presbyterian in the room. Here’s what they shared.
A few weeks ago I sat at a local restaurant with two very active, energetic church members. We spanned about 40 years between the three of us. Each of us care about ministering to those over age 65, so we gathered to discuss how we might connect and support this group of “older” adults.
At some point, one woman sighed and said, “It’s like you stop existing in the church after age 30.” The other agreed.
I looked at them with some amazement. “Thirty? Really? So many of my colleagues feel like we aren’t taken seriously in the church until at least age 40. I cannot tell you how many of us have been told, ‘But, you’re too young to be a pastor!’ ”
The two women looked back at me with equal amazement. “Really?” they said, echoing my surprise. “People say that?”
I nodded. We all sympathized with the other. Then we continued our work together.
Still, this conversation lodged in my brain and I kept returning to it.
As a 31-year-old associate pastor who grew up in the Presbyterian church and has since worked in skilled nursing facilities, hospice units, retirement communities and a small aging congregation before my current placement, I have often been the youngest Presbyterian in the room. In varying ways, I have loved and appreciated each of these experiences. However, I have come to know that I must arrive with a toolkit of responses, prepared for the moment when someone exclaims, “But you’re too young to be a pastor!”
Still, I think there is a reason that on that afternoon in that restaurant, those women and I echoed each other’s words; we were different generations looking at each other and ourselves across the fault lines of society. Society and advertisers have their chosen target demographics at whom they throw a lot of time, energy and money. The church sometimes seems to have its own “favorite” age groups. Those women and I were each seeing ourselves through the eyes of others, others who rank us based on an age bracket, others who make assumptions about us based on preconceptions of aging.
There are a hundred important conversations to be had about building intergenerational community within the church. However, I wonder if this particular conversation around youth and aging might boil down to a single deep, dark question: “Do I have worth?”
As in, “Am I old enough to have worth?” or “Am I young enough to have worth?”
We each want to know that our talents are worthwhile, that our presence is valued. We each want to hear someone say, “Ah! You are the one we need!” While it looks different at different stages of life, we each want to find the space where, as Howard Thurman beautifully wrote, we can “come alive.”
For indeed we can come alive at any age; we also can feel diminished and slighted at any age. Thus, we in the church must work to offer a narrative that claims the worth of each person, a worth that comes by God’s grace and subverts social suppositions. The Spirit’s work with and through us is never finished. Over and over again, we must affirm that no matter our age, we each have something to teach and we each have something to learn.
In some places, it is important to be the “right” age. In the life of the church, there should be no such thing.
I stopped worrying about being the “right” age a few years ago when I was a youth director in the midst of leading youth on a mission trip. Within the course of a week, I was mistaken for a youth participant, a youth’s older sister and a youth’s mother. Somehow, without me changing my style, my way of speaking, or my height – oh, if only I could change my height! – others drew conclusions that put me somewhere between age 15 and 45 (I was 27).
After that, I gave up. I gave up trying to seem older. I gave up trying to convince someone I was the “right age.” There was just no way to satisfy everyone. I decided to focus on being the age I was at the time. (After all, we’ll never be other than the age we are in the present moment!)
I also remember some words from Albert, a seasoned chaplain I worked alongside at a skilled nursing facility when I was “just” 24. Albert was mild-mannered, but one day, when I was feeling particularly sheepish about my age, he turned to me with strong conviction and said, “Don’t worry about leaving your youth behind. Bring it. Bring it here. These people need it. You need their life experiences and wisdom. They need your youth. Don’t leave it behind. It is what you have to offer.”
So, perhaps this might be our hope for our selves and for others within our congregations. We each are the age we are, with the talents of our particular life stage. The church needs this. We must bring it.
KATHRYN LESTER-BACON is the associate pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia.