The Question That Can’t Be Asked

Working in the Boat Yard

A few years ago, Jan and I were looking for a new congregation to serve. The whole process was fascinating. I share an entire book of “Proverbs for Preaching” with young people who want to enter the ministry. The first one, of course, is “No congregation is stronger than her leaders.” By that, I mean the care and nurturing of elders and other leaders must be a top priority.  The second proverb certainly was in play during the candidate selection process we encountered: “It takes seven times longer to get anything done in church than anywhere else.”

The reason for that is easy to understand. Congregational committees only meet once a week, so the first half of the meeting is generally spent “bringing everyone up to speed” or reviewing last week’s meeting. This is especially true when selecting a new preacher. One congregation told me, “We’re going to take about a year to choose someone new.” At least they were honest! Other churches set aside three or four months to collect applications and then began the process of “weeding them out.” For ministers who are out of work and living on savings, that might be a little long. Of course, if they are looking to lure someone out of a pulpit to their congregation, it doesn’t matter, except to the congregation losing their minister!

But I stray. Generally speaking, the first question I was asked was a question that legally can’t be asked. “How old are you?” One elder acknowledged that, so instead, he asked, “In what year were you born?” (I’m not making this up!) I just sigh and tell them, but my wife, Jan, has come up with a great response. “Tell them you are a decade younger than Paul McCartney, 13 years younger than Chuck Norris, seven years younger than Sylvester Stallone, and six years younger than Arnold Schwarzenegger. You are the same age as the Apostle Paul when he wrote most of the New Testament, and you are a year older than Christie Brinkley.”

So how important is age? One congregation I met with announced the average age of the church was over 70, so they wanted to hire a youth minister and a young preacher “so young people will come back.” It’s a lovely thought, but a little late. I believe congregations should minister from their strengths, not their weaknesses, but that is a subject for another blog.

I admit some limitations come with age. I can’t run the mile in under five minutes anymore, and my hair is silver (although I earned every one of them!) However, we don’t generally think about the limitations of youth in ministry. For example, young ministers often have young families that rightly require more attention and time. Those pressures don’t apply to “empty-nesters.” A young man may have more energy, but an older minister typically has more time.

All of this doesn’t consider the matter of experience and maturity. Why didn’t God use Moses at 40 to lead the Israelites to freedom instead of waiting until Moses was 80? Likewise, people often wonder, “How many years does he have left to work with us?” They are polite enough not to ask the question directly, but I’ve had them ask obliquely, “When are you planning on retiring?” or (another illegal question), “Do you have any health issues?” So how old was the Apostle John when he wrote Revelation? Why did Paul tell Timothy and Titus to appoint “Elders in every church” rather than “Youngers”? Perhaps Oscar Wilde put his finger on it when he said, “I’m not young enough to know everything.” Finally, Lyman Bryson observed, “The error of youth is to believe that intelligence is a substitute for experience, while the error of age is to believe experience is a substitute for intelligence.”

John McKeel

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