The Church of the White Middle Aged Woman

So last week, I was out of town in Washington, D.C. and attended mass at a lovely community that came highly recommended to me. What I found there was a confirmation of much that I’ve noticed nationwide.

I looked at the altar and saw three white female altar servers all over the age of 40. The lectors were both white, one male, one female (the male was a lousy lector by the way) both, I suspect, over 35. All of the eucharistic ministers were over the age of 50 and they were all white women.

I can hear female baby boomers applauding this. If so, you might want to stop reading because I’m not sharing in your enthusiasm. Why? When I looked to the back half of the church, it was filled with younger men and women, most of them recent graduates of nearby universities. Presumably , none of them have been invited into ministry.

Repeatedly, over the years, I’ve heard from a number of people in the church that when it comes to ministers on the altar “we don’t need anymore men up there.” I can understand the sentiment. Women are not eligible to be ordained priests and therefore we should give them the opportunity to serve at the altar as much as possible. Women who have fought for equal treatment for women for years in the church are predominantly baby boomers. And because they are in the majority in our church (and have been now for some time), the opportunities are slim for younger people simply because older people don’t invite them into ministry when they see them.

Younger people in the Catholic church are by and large on foreign ground. They don’t know the rituals and symbols because Catholic practice has waned as a part of the family unit, the parents of younger people today have not always made religious practice a priority and therefore they don’t either. When they enter our churches, they don’t see anyone who looks like them in roles of ministry often. (That’s why the young priest is often popular, by the way!). The few that are involved are most likely involved because their family always have been involved in church.

I want to also cite my own failure as a now “semi-middle aged” male of 41 (and yet, still one of the younger ones, my baby boomer colleagues will tell me) and as a minister in the church. I don’t invite enough young people into ministry and I especially don’t invite younger men all that often. I sometimes am timid and shy around new people and need experiences with people to break the ice.

That ends today.

I’m issuing a challenge, it’s to myself but it’s also to all of those people who have been so active and vibrant and to whom the church should be more grateful for their service for these many years.

We’re not all that old, but we’re also not all that young. We’ve got a limited time to invite the younger people around us into roles that others invited us into. So this Sunday, simply put, invite someone who is “not you” into ministry. It could be:

– Your husband or child
– A young family who sits near you
– A graduate student or a recent grad who you’ve seen around
– Anybody who recently got married (Pastors and marriage ministers could send them all a letter very easily–even better would be a direct ask)
– University Students
– Someone who you know is Catholic and who is a great speaker (a lector awaits!)
– The young woman with an inviting attitude simply by her presence
– The quiet guy who prays piously at Mary’s statue after mass each week

For myself, I’ve done some of this before, but need to do better. I recently invited a young couple to get more involved with our university students and they were so honored to be asked. Last year, I asked a young haitian woman to be a eucharistic minister and she accepted and then went on to lead our spring social justice project and our alternative spring break.

So there are great rewards ahead for those who dare to reach out just a bit.

This Sunday, I’m finding a young African man who I’ve been friendly with lately and I’m going to ask him if he’d consider being a eucharistic minister. There are dozens of newly marrieds that I’m asking to get more involved each time I see them, one whom I know can be a great lector.

The message of the day is that it’s too intimidating for them to ask you how they can get involved. We need to break the ice. We need to openly ask for their gifts not in an announcement that says “all those willing to be eucharistic ministers, ushers, lectors, come after mass to sign up.” But rather, we need to be more like Christ and say “I want you! Come follow me.” This is all part of being a welcoming community and we cannot afford to fail.

Our protestant brothers and sisters are all too happy to do this every time we don’t. There’s a reason that the biggest denomination out there is former Catholics. For most, their reason for leaving is boredom and the more involved one can get, the less likely they are to be bored.

I hope you can take this challenge not as a criticism, or even as a lack of appreciation for all you have been for the church (especially the thousands of women who rightfully deserve our respect). Rather, I hope you see this as an opportunity to be generative, to be mentors not of a future, but of today. For our twenty and thirty somethings are the now of our church. And we cannot afford to waste another second of not inviting them to be a more vibrant part of the Eucharistic meal.

Have fun growing your ministry of today. And let me know your success stories and struggles.

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18 Comments

  1. Excellent! We older folk (50+) need to do some more “behind the scenes” work, mentoring the young folk. In our parish, service in the parish is a requirement for confirmation. We have young lectors, eucharistic ministers, ushers, catechism assistant teachers. We have them speak before mass of other service projects so all the parishioners know what they are doing and be a part of that when asked. For example, filling the bins with clothes for the school systems clothing bank, etc. Nothing is more gratifying as a 50+ than to see the youth stepping in. We should be doing all we can to make that happen! Can you tell I love this article? 🙂

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  2. Excellent Mike! I try to live this – because in order for our community to be what we dream of it – we must challenge ourselves. The challenge I would give the leaders of our church – is to begin with the sacraments. The few times people look to the church from the outside are times of change times we as a faith community mark with sacraments. We must make more of these times and stop making them the times we say No – and scare people away…

    R.

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  3. We have many youth ministry ministers and we have many over 50 women ministers… I am one of those.

    What we lack – and who we would love to welcome in any way – are those between 18 and 40.

    Mike this is your area of specialty. We can’t invite them, we struggle to find them. And when they come, it has been my experience, at only one parish, but it is my experience, they want to have their wedding/baptism/first eucharist and come back when the next event comes.

    I hate sounding cynical about this and I want to see a church that has ministers of *all* ages, including a big wave of younger.

    I know that you have not meant to be demeaning, but at the same time, thank God for a lot of middle age and older women. I can think of few parishes that can function without them. I guess it is the assertion that the young have not been invited… it may be widespread but not universal.

    I agree with Kathleen – nothing is more gratifying than youth. I will add to that, nothing is more gratifying than youth and young adults.

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    1. Fran,

      Don’t misunderstand me. The church of Vatican II was built on the backs of these same middle aged women and many are so involved that they are overworked and underappreciated.

      But you state that those who come for sacraments are often all you see. Well, that’s a great place to start then. And you don’t start by overwhelming them with things. You start by making that the best experience that the parish has to offer. THEN they’ll ask you how they can be more involved. We should talk. We just revamped marriage ministry and it’s taken off like fireworks. Tons of people getting involved off of that springboard.

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  4. A few reflections as a soon-to-be middle-aged woman:
    – I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve been at gatherings in ministry settings and am the youngest. It was fine when I was 25, but it’s not fine when you’re 43.

    – the situation you describe is going to become more dire when us happy Gen-Xers become the middle-aged people doing everything as we’re a smaller generation numbers-wise.

    – I’m challenging myself this year as a campus minister to talk to more non-involved students AND to challenge the involved students to invite their non-involved peers. I can invite students, but it has a very different meaning when it’s coming from someone their own age.

    -I wish we could make so many of our ministries “look” so “hard” that they scare people away. It was always so refreshing in talking to potential catechists and other volunteers when they realized they knew more than they thought they did and they were just as qualified as the person doing it for 20 years – last time I checked, baptism is a gift from God that calls us into a universal priesthood.

    – In the parish, I always found myself reaching the parents through the children – it was when their child had a good experience in formation or other activities that the parents got more involved.

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  5. A few reflections as a soon-to-be middle-aged woman:
    – I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve been at gatherings in ministry settings and am the youngest. It was fine when I was 25, but it’s not fine when you’re 43.

    – the situation you describe is going to become more dire when us happy Gen-Xers become the middle-aged people doing everything as we’re a smaller generation numbers-wise.

    – I’m challenging myself this year as a campus minister to talk to more non-involved students AND to challenge the involved students to invite their non-involved peers. I can invite students, but it has a very different meaning when it’s coming from someone their own age.

    -I wish we could stop making so many of our ministries “look” so “hard” that they scare people away. It was always so refreshing in talking to potential catechists and other volunteers when they realized they knew more than they thought they did and they were just as qualified as the person doing it for 20 years – last time I checked, baptism is a gift from God that calls us into a universal priesthood.

    – In the parish, I always found myself reaching the parents through the children – it was when their child had a good experience in formation or other activities that the parents got more involved.

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  6. OUCH!!! Mike – you did it again! I read this and passed it on to all my white middle aged church friends…women all of them!

    But, other than a mea culpa, I can say that this is one area that we do a good job in here at St. Mark’s at UBC. During term time, when we have a larger student population, we invite, we train, we welcome, we schedule the students and younger people and know that the oldster crowd are always there, willing to serve if necessary but willing to take a back seat as these are the training grounds for the Church and World of tomorrow. In fact, it is the olders crowd that keep me honest -if I ask them to do something, they will gently but firmly remind me that there is a student who can do the same thing. The only thing I worry about is that we train them up and send them on and their offer to help gets refused in the parishes by these very same people who are whining about not having enough help! Perhaps one of the messages those of who work in this area need to send is that when you are called to one of these ministries, you do not OWN it….God will call you forward and you may then be called to step back, to allow someone else to come forward and use their gifts to build up the church of the future.

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  7. As a soon-to-be-middle aged woman, this isn’t helping my malaise at finding a parish on the east coast any. Why should I bother, when I’m not wanted and am routinely blamed for the problems of the Church?

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  8. Good post Mike,

    not that i have traveled as much as you have, but I do see many more middle aged women being involved in the mass. I guess I never found it as a problem, I just accepted it. I personally would like to become more involved in the mass (i.e. a eucharistic minister)and maybe someone pushing me to do so would do some good. I think this has a good message, but I don’t feel left out at all by the middle class baby boomers. I guess I am just kind of blessed at my parish, the ladies are super nice support anyone getting involved in the mass.

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  9. Amen! No question that (some and possibly even many) parishes have not fully engaged the Jesus approach to ministry – personal invitation. In some parish settings, I have heard “we have too many lectors, this is my Mass and we really can’t change the way we schedule our ministers.” Have some engaged memebers become too possesive of the ministry? One by one the invitation must continue – many 20 & 30 somethings long to be recognized by the community.

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  10. Mike, you say:
    “But you state that those who come for sacraments are often all you see. Well, that’s a great place to start then. And you don’t start by overwhelming them with things. You start by making that the best experience that the parish has to offer. THEN they’ll ask you how they can be more involved. We should talk. We just revamped marriage ministry and it’s taken off like fireworks. Tons of people getting involved off of that springboard.”

    I guess I have a problem with the assumption that we don’t offer them the best experience that the parish has to offer. People are often very happy with the parish but they seem to have no interest in regular church attendance or even semi-regular.

    What did you do with your marriage program that had that impact?

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  11. My thought is that marriage prep in most places is done poorly. We have a good deal of the parish involved. Each couple gets a marriage mentor and they invite them to dinner and simply welcome them to the parish. We do a pre-cana day led by married couples and end it with a romantic candlelight dinner. And we use FACET and my wife and I mostly go over the results with them. They get a gift from the parish in the end. Of the 60 couples we have getting married here, only 2 didn’t like the process. The marriage mentors often hit it off with the couple and they stay at their homes later than expected and that gets them involved more. “So what do you do with the church?” is their next question.

    After the FACET inventory, I ask them what they’d like to do. Some don’t wish to be involved, for certain. Some do, but are time strapped. But many can’t wait to be more involved and just needs to know how they can do it.

    You should invite John Roberto to speak in ALbany if you haven’t yet. He’s been saying we have to think of all ways of engaging people in parish life. It has to be both virtual and non-virtual, small groups and big assemblies, at mass and outside of it. Perhaps they won’t come every week, but they might come once in a while and that’s better than not at all. It really about intention about going after them BECAUSE they aren’t seeking us. They have no reason to seek us. They don’t need us for community (there’s no young people here), they don’t need us for worship (I can worship on my own), they don’t need us for guidance (I have a shrink and a bunch of mentors) and they don’t need us to be married (my friend got a one day minister’s license online and he’ll do our outdoor ceremony).

    Sorry for the accusation, I’m sure you’re doing your best. Most places it’s done horribly. We’re still working at it. But when 58 out of 60 couples tell me that they “really enjoyed the day” that is was “something I was dreading because of what I heard about it, but was really pleasantly surprised” I know then that we’ve got the market cornered. We do 60-70 weddings a year and that was BEFORE the new program started. I can imagine requests going up now. It’s a lot of work, but I think being there for people at one of the most intimate moments of their lives is something that we need to do so well that people will never forget us for it. This year our project is further engaging them into ministry, so we’ll see how that goes. We’re already ahead of the game though.

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  12. VIA Facebook:

    Hortense wrote: “The “all are welcome” is unfortunately not practised as it should…..the cliques/fiefdoms are prominent in all groups…..the older ones don’t welcome outsiders into the mix……while the younger groups invoke the unwelcome signal that one is not in their 20’s or 30’s……so what’s a middle aged, looking to fit in…..to do!…….Those in charge do little to provide a “fix”.”

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  13. @Mike – thanks. We have had John Roberto here, he was just at Spring Enrichment in May and he has been here before. He is outstanding, no doubt. At work, wish I had more time. I will come back later.

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  14. Great post, Mike! At 41, it’s a shock to realize I’m in the “white middle aged woman” category, but you are absolutely right. There are a number of recent college grads from the catholic universities who are back home living in Brooklyn that we can tap into. Love your idea of tapping into the newly marrieds as well. Perhaps the parents of pre-k/k students as well?

    LOVE LOVE LOVE the challenge you put out there. I’m forwarding this to our pastor. He always says people love to be asked/invited to do something. Showing diversity in the ministries will only help our evangelization efforts.
    God bless.

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  15. Love the post, so true and I’m glad you set the challenge for all ministries and not just youth and religious ed. I think a key component to getting younger adults involved is by partnering up with a middle aged or older adult who is going to pour into them. You mentioned the unfamiliarity some of the younger generations have with Catholic tradition and ritual. While it might not have happened in the home the older generations can be there to pour into them.
    Great post.

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  16. extraordinary ministers of the eucharist are only meant to be utilized in extraordinary cases – i.e. huge mass attendance – they are not meant to be ordinary – i.e. every week; look around the lectors are women, the EMs are women, the altar servers are girls — and you wonder why men and boys are not interested; sorry but men like to team up with men – share in a manly activity – women don’t get it – and so i am left receiving communion from some woman showing cleavage – sigh

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