Written by Steven Liechty
I read about the 20-year-old who feels a call to ministry and it made me wonder about the other end of the age spectrum. In the church I have been in there is an upper age cap because they fear someone trying to scam a retirement benefit.
I know that the Roman Catholic church will accept older men as priests because I know several who became priests later in life after they were widowed (Rome=no married priests, you know). What is the UCC position?
Not retired but able to do so at the "young" age of 56
Dear Not Retired,
Sometimes, when we've exhausted the ambition that first claimed us as young people (or just exhausted ourselves), God starts to find us in vulnerable, quiet moments and talk to us about how we might best serve the Lord and God's people. Sometimes the call has been there all along, shadowed or delayed by other more insistent work, sometimes emerging with a newfound faith.
In the UCC there is no formal position on the appropriate age to enter ordained ministry. For the last couple of decades, in many seminaries, second-career people outnumbered new college graduates in seminary! I myself have known lawyers (karma much?), stay-at-home moms, business executives and even a long-distance truck driver who went to seminary in their 40s or 50s. Recently, however, that trend is shifting as young people once more get mobilized to consider a vocation in ordained ministry.
It's true that the Roman Catholic church—for many centuries now—has sometimes attracted older men to vocations as priests or monks, in part so that they might avoid the indigence of old age. For better or worse, there's no such thing as scamming a retirement benefit in the UCC: ministers don't get vested with a pension, as in the olden days, but use their earnings (and negotiate with the churches they serve to do the same) to pay into a 403(b) retirement fund run by the UCC Pension Boards. So, as in most other jobs, the longer you work and the more you save, the more prepared you are for retirement.
As for Theo, we consider it a great blessing and advantage to have middle-aged and even older folks discerning a call to the ministry. They bring a wealth of real-life experience from professional spheres like management, finance and organizational behavior, and personal spheres like parenting and marriage. They have, for the most part, survived more loss and learned that there are very few real emergencies in life.
One of the most powerful ordinations I have attended was that of a 66-year-old retired entrepreneur, who was ordained as a supply preacher. Everywhere he went, he carried joy in his person. His newly forged faith combined with his natural and mature confidence made his joy infectious and credible.
Not all churches want to hire an older person, and even the ministry is not immune to the perils of ageism (what is that old joke about the search committee that wants to hire a 38-year-old pastor with 25 years of experience?)—but I would wager that there are many, many congregations that would be glad to draw on the steadiness and wisdom of someone who has been around the block a few times.
But what it comes down to, Not Retired, is: are you called? Does God keep you up at night with these thoughts? Have you talked to a working pastor, and prayed with them, about whether or not you have the right gifts and strength and skills and stamina to be a pastor yourself?
Ask yourself: is there anything else I can do to feel that my gifts are meeting the world's need—any other way I can minister? If the Call is trustworthy and true, the answer, sooner or later, will be No.
Bless you, and may you be a blessing,
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"Dear Theo" is written anonymously by four UCC ministers of different ages and backgrounds. We welcome questions spanning all kinds of topics: from sexuality and relationships to church culture and conflict to mental health, family drama, ethical and moral dilemmas...and everything in between.