Ageism and the Amazing Grace of “Older” Women in United Church of Christ (UCC) Pastoral Ministry

Diane has been a Licensed Minister in our Association for many years. Widely respected and loved, she has served as an interim minister at several of our churches, and has sat on numerous Conference and Association boards and committees. Well-past retirement age, Diane shows no signs of slowing down;  indeed, she is currently one of our Members in Discernment, and will soon appear before an Ecclesiastical Council, as a final step toward ordination.

Jennifer was a student in a non-traditional theological education program, preparing for a second career as an ordained United Church of Christ (UCC) minister.  In addition, she was licensed to pastor a small, traditional congregation in a remote corner of New York State.  But the church had never had a “woman pastor” before, and the Deacon Board was highly critical of Jennifer’s ministry, eventually forcing her to tender her resignation. Angry and hurt, Jennifer gave up her dream of becoming a minister.

Angela is a creative ordained minister, and a gifted guitarist and song-leader.  After serving for a number of years as the Protestant campus minister at a small state college, she accepted a call to become the senior pastor of one of her Association’s “flagship” churches, where her warmth, charisma, and innovative worship services are attracting many new attendees and members.

Reverend Kathy had always thought of herself as a competent and effective minister, possessed of a deep progressive social conscience.  So, she was dumbfounded, a few months after accepting a call to a tall-steeple church in western Connecticut, when she began to hear criticism of her ministry.  In particular, Reverend Kathy’s strong voice and assertiveness seemed harsh to church leaders—but then, when she tried to function in a gentler, more deferential manner, she was labeled “timid,” and was deemed “unable to run the church.”  After a few difficult years of fighting this double bind, Reverend Kathy retired from pastoral ministry.

This is an article about the invaluable contributions of women—and explicitly, of “older” women—to the church, and to the American workplace. As the New York Times’ gender editor, Jessica Bennett, reminds us, “the news [today is] filled with [stories about] powerful women over 60”—including Nancy Pelosi, Golden Globes award-winner Glenn Close, Susan Zirinsky who runs CBS, and Maxine Waters.  “Older women, long invisible or shunted aside, are experiencing an unfamiliar sensation:  power” “I Am (an Older) Woman.  Hear Me Roar”.

“Men, of course, [are well-accustomed to] retaining their power and prominence into their seventh and eighth decades; but a demographic revolution [is now] occurring—both in the number of women working into their 60s and 70s, and in the perception of their expertise and value. Older women are now saying, ‘I’m still vibrant, I have a lot to offer, and I’m not going to be consigned to invisibility’” (Bennett).

Journalist Claire Cain Miller adds that “women are more likely [today] than in previous generations to work at almost every point in their lives. And they do it because they enjoy it.  Nearly 30 percent of women [aged] 65 to 69 are working, up from 15 percent in the late 1980s.  Eighteen percent of women [aged] 70 to 74 work, up from 8 percent “More Women in Their 60s and 70s Are Having ‘Way Too Much Fun’ to Retire, New York Times, February 11, 2017.

Women who are “college graduates are more likely to work into older age”—but “the participation rates of women without degrees are increasing at the same pace.  Those who are not working are more likely to have poor health, and to be dependent on Social Security [or] disability benefits” (Miller).

Even so, executive coach Bonnie Marcus is less sanguine about the workplace success of talented older women. “Beyond the celebrities in the spotlight, older women are struggling to keep their jobs due to ageism and sexism. The[y] suffer in silence as they are marginalized, passed over and pushed out” “The Next #MeToo Movement:  Older Women Confront Ageism,” Chicago Tribune, March 20, 2019.

“According to a 2018 AARP report, 64 percent of women say they’ve been the targets of, or [have] witnessed, age discrimination” in the workplace.  But infuriatingly, the vast majority of these employees have never “complain[ed] to a supervisor, human resource person, or government agency for fear [of losing] their jobs” (Marcus).

In their massive Women in the Workplace 2018 study, LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company concluded that while companies have been telling their shareholders and employees that they are committed to gender diversity, that commitment has not translated into meaningful progress.  From the outset, fewer women than men are hired at the entry-level.  And at every subsequent step”—from entry-level positions to top executive positions—“the representation of women further declines. For women of color, it’s even worse. Only one in five senior leaders is a woman, and one in twenty-five is a woman of color” Women in the Workplace 2018, Leanin.Org and McKinsey & Company.

“Attrition is not the reason [for] these disparities. Contrary to conventional wisdom, [women] are staying in the workforce at the same rate as men.”  The real explanation is that “women still experience an uneven playing field. They receive less support from,” and have less access to “managers [and senior leaders] than men do. Women of color receive [even] less support,” and have [even] less access—and “their accomplishments are less likely to [be] promote[d].  Lesbian women receive the same level of support as women overall, [but] they get far less help balancing work and personal demands” (Women in the Workplace 2018).

“For 64 percent of women, microaggressions”—everyday slights, like having their seniority or professional judgment questioned, or being talked over at meetings—“are workplace realit[ies]. Black women, in particular, [experience more] microaggressions, and are more likely than white women to have their judgment questioned.”  Over time, such slights can “have a major impact:  women who experience microaggressions [are more likely to] view their workplaces as [un]fair, and are three times more likely to think about leaving their job than women who don’t” (Women in the Workplace 2018).

In addition, “sexual harassment continues to pervade the workplace. In particular, women who do not conform to traditional feminine [roles] are more often the targets of sexual harassment.” This includes large percentages of “women in senior leadership, lesbian [employees], and women in technical fields.” (Women in the Workplace 2018).  Intriguingly, pastoral ministry may be yet another of those non-traditional roles that corresponds to an increased incidence of sexual harassment.

“One in five women within corporate America experiences herself as an ‘only’ woman, or as one of the only women, in the room. Eighty percent of Onlys experience microaggressions at work,” and Onlys are almost twice as likely as other women to be sexually harassed.  Women Onlys stand out in a crowd of men.” And they “often become a stand-in for all women—their individual successes or failures become a litmus test for what all women are capable of doing” (Women in the Workplace 2018).  As one woman noted:

“‘I feel like I have to represent [my] entire race. I need to come across as more proficient, competent, [and] capable.  I have to be ‘on’ all the time. Because someone could be judging the entire race based on me. And I don’t want anybody else’s opportunity to be ruined because I messed it up.  When white people make a mistake, they don’t feel like they’re representing all Italians or all Irish.  But Black Americans do. It is hurtful that despite the civil rights movement, I’m still the only Black person in the room. I think often about the history of Black Americans. People died so that I could [get] an education, [and] work where I’m working.  And I will not let their deaths be in vain. That’s important to me’” (Women in the Workplace, 2018). 

There are at least a couple ways in which women in ministry can find themselves becoming Onlys. Accepting a call to a church that has a patriarchal ethos, or that admits it “had a woman pastor a long time ago, but things didn’t work out” (and yes, there are still far too many such churches) is one way.  Another is when a newly-called pastor arrives at her church, only to realize that she has no friends in the congregation, and she feels little collegiality among the other (mostly male) ministers in her community and Association.

Happily, many women in ministry find that employment opportunities are more plentiful, and conditions are better, in the church than they are in the corporate world. Many UCC churches are pastored by women. And women are prevalent among UCC Conference and National staff. Moreover, many women in ministry do feel supported by their colleagues and congregants.  And UCC churches offer their ministers flexible working conditions—the church cares about ministers’ families.  But still.  I know of UCC churches that are still reluctant to call a woman as their minister. Why is that? And how many of the UCC’s “most important” and/or “prestigious” churches are led by women?

Here’s the truth: The contributions of ‘older’ women in ministry are positive, and they are enormous. These ministers are, as NBC News journalist A. Pawlowski writes, “engines of innovation” and “trailblazers [whom] others should be watching.”  Indeed, as the United Church of Christ gets older, “the future is female” (“Why Older Women Will Rule the World: The Future is Female, MIT Expert Says,” Today, December 29, 2017, https://www.today.com/health/older-women-will-rule-world-we-live-longer-t119645).

Chris XenakisRev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.

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