Eighty year-old seminary grad readies herself for ordination
Written by Gregg Brekke
October - November 2008

"If there is something you want to do, do it. Age shouldn't be a barrier," says Winslow, shown here at Andover Newton. Winslow graduated from the seminary in May. Photo courtesy of Andover Newton.
Great-grandmother looks forward to her first call to ministry

Phyllis Winslow knew she had to answer the call — the "tug" had always been there. She had waited a long time to begin formal preparations for ordained ministry. So at age 74, Winslow petitioned UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts for acceptance to their M.Div. program and found herself attending classes in the fall of 2002.

Now 80 years old, Winslow graduated from seminary in May, passed her ecclesiastical council in June and has been approved for ordination pending call by the Pilgrim Association of the Massachusetts Conference.

Winslow had missed her opportunity to pursue higher education as a young person. The time was WWII — both her brothers were in the military and she says, "I would have liked to go to college, but it wasn't the time for me to leave home. It just wasn't right that I pursue anything like that." Andover Newton had no problem making an exception to their entrance requirements, allowing Winslow into their divinity program without a bachelor's degree. She literally had a lifetime of experience in raising a family, being an active leader in her congregation, and in caring for families in need through her 25-year career in Medicare records administration.

"I had a lot of contact with families in crisis," she says of her medical records career. She worked directly with families as loved ones were admitted to nursing homes or rehab facilities. "I saw the pain of separation felt by the family and the person that was being admitted. I learned to sit with them and just hold hands sometimes."

Winslow is a native of the communities surrounding Boston. Her father's family had Italian Catholic heritage. Her mother's was Scottish Presbyterian. As a child, her church home was in the Presbyterian Church with a pastor she describes as "a real Bible thumper."

Winslow's relationship with a UCC predecessor denomination began in 1943, when a friend invited her to attend Covenant Congregational Church in Quincy, Mass. At 15, Winslow says she was drawn to the congregation because they weren't afraid to laugh in church.

When the Winslows married in 1958, they moved to Braintree, Mass., and joined Union Congregational UCC — they have been members ever since. Even as she raised children and fostered her own career, Winslow stayed involved in the congregation.
In 1997 her husband of 50 years, David, retired from his job as lab manager for the Smithsonian at Harvard University. The couple took the opportunity to travel but Winslow's involvement in church life escalated. She had served her church in many capacities over the years and felt inspired to begin work in adult education.

She pioneered a popular book discussion group and started an interfaith dialog group that brought in leaders from different faith communities to speak and interact with the members of her long time church home.

Winslow was especially encouraged by a dialog with Buddhist monks that led to a youth fellowship visit to their temple. With the memory of the September 11, 2001 attacks still fresh in people's minds, an imam from the local Islamic Center came to speak to the group.

"I was a little nervous when the imam came the year following 9-11. I didn't know if anyone would be unreceptive," she says. "But he came in and was a wonderful speaker and really won over the whole audience. You could really see 'love thy neighbor' coming out of these discussions — because these people are our neighbors."

Reflecting upon all she learned through life's journey, especially events that brought her to answer the call to ordained ministry, she quoted Fred Rogers, saying, "You're every age you've ever been."

The insights of experience, and an insatiable hunger for learning, led Winslow to obtain a certificate in youth and young adult ministry from Andover Newton in addition to her divinity degree.

Although she has no plans to work full-time in youth ministry, Winslow considers the knowledge invaluable. "It's not like I'm going to be spending the night locked in the church with a group of teenagers," she says. "But if I'm going to minister to the whole congregation, I felt it was important to understand [youth culture]. I need to know these things."

Besides, Winslow dislikes the labels often used in churches to segment ministry areas. "When the children sing 'Jesus loves me,' they have learned everything they need to know," she says. "That should be shared with the entire congregation. We already are intergenerational, we just need to bring people together more."

As Winslow looks towards her first call to ministry, she expresses a preference to work as an associate pastor, especially in areas of Christian education and pastoral care.

"I'm interested in understanding my neighbor's faith and working so that others can have that same knowledge," says Winslow of her desire to continue interfaith work in adult education. "Our communities are becoming more diverse, especially where I live, so you know our children are going to school together. It's a great idea to know who your neighbor is and to really get to know them."

She is open to other ministry possibilities, including serving as the sole pastor of a smaller rural church. "God has brought me this far," she says, "so I'm not worried about it."

Winslow was supported in her seminary efforts by husband David, and her four children, 11 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. Since entering seminary, and serving in licensed ministerial capacities through her student field education, Winslow has had the honor of baptizing her four youngest great-grandchildren.

Winslow encourages older adults to maintain an active role in their churches by leading Bible studies, book groups or working with children. "[Older adults] need to take an active interest in the faith and be able to answer the question of why they cross the threshold on a Sunday morning," she says. "If there is something you want to do, do it. Age shouldn't be a barrier."

A frequent supply preacher in her Association, Winslow doesn't mind the curiosity many express regarding her age. "Moses was 80 when God spoke to him through the burning bush," she says. "I'm no Moses, but age didn't stop me either."
 

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