My sister’s husband recently graduated from university. Between working full-time and being a wonderful father to my two little nieces, it was a busy and arduous road to complete his education. We’re very proud of his perseverance. Among all of the young people, I felt rather middle-aged at his convocation.
I got married one week after my own university graduation, quite convinced of my maturity, and yet these kids looked like they belonged in junior high to me. Babies! in caps and gowns! Setting off on adventures, no doubt.
In a sea of shiny young people, I suddenly found tears in my eyes for the older ones among them. I don’t mean to take anything away from the young ones, not at all. I remember those days with tenderness.
But they wore their youth and bright future so carelessly, and I found myself applauding until my palms tingled for the men and women like my brother-in-law who had to battle through school with so many other demands on their attention, for the women older than my mother who have finally finished their degree long after their nests emptied, the middle-aged men with a circle of whiskers on their shining bald heads. I whooped when someone with gray hair under their black cap and tassel climbed the stairs for their diploma. I high-fived several grandmothers on their way up the aisle.
A few months ago, I requested stories or anecdotes about how it feels to be a woman in the church. I was more than a little overwhelmed by the responses, both the sheer number and the content, but I did my best to respond to each one. Women filled my inbox with stories—beautiful and horrible, hurtful and empowering—about their experiences within the institutions of Christianity.
After all my research, I thought I knew what to expect. And sure enough, there were the stories about women feeling marginalized because they are not married or do not/ cannot have children; stories about women who had men turn their backs when they stood up to preach their first sermon; stories about women who stayed in abusive marriages because of their church's teachings; a lot of affirming women who found their voice and healing within church.
But one theme emerged that I hadn’t looked for, over and over: women in the middle of their lives who felt invisible and ignored by the church, the same way they feel invisible or ignored in our culture.
These are women of my mother’s generation perhaps, maybe 10 or even 20 years on either side. And I heard their hurt and sorrow and stoicism.
I used to scan conference platforms and church staff listings, music festivals and seminary rosters for women and visible minorities. Now I find I’m scanning for older women, as well. And you know what? They were right. They aren’t there.
One woman told me about how she had led worship at her church for years. But when a new young pastor was hired, he wanted a cooler band to get more young people, and the first thing to go were the older women. “No one wanted to see old women on stage,” she wrote candidly without bitterness, and so she was replaced with young women in their late teens and early 20s. She misses leading worship.
Another woman told me about the sting of being passed over continually. She had very high levels of education, a seminary degree, a long history of teaching with many beloved students, but every teacher at her church’s education program was a young, charismatic man with half her education, let alone experience, despite their position of welcoming women in ministry.
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