A lady asked that question some years ago on a Christian message forum online. She was asking why older women didn’t serve within the organized church programs. I don’t remember what I answered in response then, but it is a question that has stayed with me, and I wanted to share a few thoughts.
First, I think we need to be careful of blanket statements. Maybe there truly were no older women serving at her particular church, depending on what she meant by “older,” but that’s not to say no older woman serves anywhere. I’ve known some wonderful older women serving in various capacities, even through daunting physical problems.
Secondly, not all ministry tales place within organized church programs. More on that in a moment. Christians are to live a life of ministry, but that may look different at different phases and among different personalities. There are many ways to mentor.
It is true that sometimes older people can have the mindset that, “I’ve served my time, let the younger people do it.” “Serving my time” sounds like a prison sentence, which is not the joyful service a Christian should exemplify. As “older” ladies (however you qualify that), we do need to remember that we are called to minister to others, to exercise the gifts God gave us, to live out the Biblical “one anothers,” and we’re specifically called to teach younger women certain things. God has a function for everyone in the body of Christ. There is no retirement from serving the Lord, though that service may change as life changes.
But it is true that some of those life changes may indeed affect how we serve. It may not involve standing in front of a class, leading a seminar, or any number of “public” ministries. Here are a few reasons why older women may not serve as they did in younger years:
There is a wide range of what’s “normal” at various stages of aging. Many of us probably know globe-trotting octogenarians who seem as sharp mentally and almost as able physically as people half their age. But we also know people who are nearly disabled by age-related problems in their sixties.
But even beyond known physical problems, like diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, etc., there may be physical problems an older woman may not want to talk about, like bladder issues or a gradual loss of control of some bodily functions. Forgive me if this is too much information for some of you, but it’s a reality for many women. One dear lady in one of our former churches came to Sunday School and church, but if we tried to persuade her to come to any other kind of ladies’ meeting, she would say, “Oh, I would love to, but I have such problems with gas, I don’t dare.” We went away chuckling to ourselves, but years later when experiencing some of the same problems, it wasn’t so funny. It’s hard to stand in front of a group when you’re afraid you might have to make a mad dash to the restroom, Kegel exercises notwithstanding. I’ve wanted to tell pastors when they make comments about people sitting near the back of the church that some of us have good reasons for being there!
This might be considered a subset of physical issues, but it carries emotional overtones as well. Some women seem to have smooth sailing through menopausal waters while others experience severe storms, either physically or emotionally or both. For some, the years leading up to menopause can be worse than menopause itself. I could give you details…but I’ll spare you.
As people age they generally lose a certain amount of “oomph,” physically and even emotionally. There is pressure in ministry, and some might get to a point where they can’t handle it as well as they once did. Stress can affect the physical and emotional problem mentioned earlier. A woman may feel she is too wobbly and unsteady to take care of babies in a nursery. I’ve also known women who drive less as they get older, first at night and then generally.
Middle-aged women are often in that “sandwich generation” where they have a parent in declining years who needs increasing care while their children are going through their teens or college years or navigating life on their own or getting married and having babies. I know one older couple who retired partly because all of their adult married children as well as their aging parents lived in other cities, and they wanted to be able to go help their kids when new babies came and they needed to be available to go at a moment’s notice to help their parents.
One wife I knew had a husband who traveled frequently for meetings, and after the kids moved out, he wanted her to travel with him.
Serving in other ways.
One lady used to apologize to me frequently because she couldn’t come to monthly ladies’ meetings. She had an adult son who was disabled physically and mentally, a widowed mother who depended on her for almost everything that needed to be done around the house, and she seemed to be the “go-to” person for anyone in her extended family needing a baby-sitter. Her whole life was a ministry despite the fact that she couldn’t come to “official” ladies’ meetings.
Another older lady whom I’ve looked up to as an example retired from teaching in a Christian school and led a ladies’ Bible study. She did a wonderful job, but she stepped back after a year or two (I didn’t ask her reasons). But I noticed and admired many “behind the scenes” ways in which she served. She noticed a new lady sitting by herself in one church service, greeted her, and invited her to sit with her and her husband. This sparked a friendship which eventually led to both the woman and her husband becoming vital members of the church. She had ladies over to her house for lunch and fellowship, one or two at a time. She and another lady from church visited my mother-in-law and another woman in an assisted living facility almost every Friday for years. For whatever reason she did not participate in public or organized ministry programs other than teaching a children’s Sunday School class, but she had a vibrant ministry.
As women face the “empty nest,” sometimes they have a new freedom (depending on their family situations, as mentioned above) since they no longer have the everyday care of their children. For some that means taking classes or traveling or doing things they haven’t been able to do for years.
The woman I mentioned in the first paragraph went on to say that she had seen some of the same women who had “dropped out” of serving go on to take craft classes and such, and it seemed to her that if they could take classes they could serve at church. If those women are in “retirement” mentality, letting the younger women serve because the older women have already, she’s right. But it may be they don’t feel they can handle some of the stress and pressure of organized ministry, yet they can be a testimony in a more relaxed setting like a craft class.
That’s not really a term that I like, but people do feel “burned out” in the Lord’s service sometimes. And this is another area where we can’t make blanket statements, but for me, anyway, and at least for some other people, we’re more apt to feel that way when: 1) We’ve taken on way more than we should, or 2) We don’t have adequate help, or 3) We’re serving in our own strength rather than the Lord’s. I would encourage pastors and ministry leaders to watch out for the first two. Sometimes we seem to heap more responsibilities on someone who is already serving because we see that they’re doing a good job until they have more than they can handle, and sometimes people do things on their own feeling heavily burdened but not seeking help because they don’t know who to ask or feel everyone else is either too busy or doesn’t have time or isn’t interested. I love our current church’s method of having ministry teams for most areas of service in the church rather than just one person in charge of different areas. The third area, serving in our own strength, is so easy to do: sometimes we start off leaning on the Lord but then get frantic and run out on our own. We need to acknowledge our weakness and appropriate His grace and strength daily, sometimes even moment by moment.
They may not feel wanted.
Some years ago a younger woman confided to me that she and others her age didn’t come to our monthly ladies’ meetings because it was all “older” women (though most of us there didn’t think we were that much older). That was the only church I have been a part of where that happened – in most, the ladies’ group was a joyful mix of ages and life situations and one of the best formats, in my opinion, for us to learn from each other. And, happily, even in that church things began to change: one or two new younger married women started coming (unaware of the prevailing sentiment, I guess), and eventually a handful of younger women started coming. I pray the trend continues. But I have to admit that hurt, and it has created in me a hesitancy sometimes to even interact with younger women because I feel they don’t want me to. Thankfully that’s not the case, and I feel I have some wonderful friendships with younger women, but I have to battle against a fear of rejection.
It may be time to minister to them.
My in-laws were very generous in helping their extended family when they could, but as they got older, my father-in-law retired and was on permanent disability due to injuries sustained at work, and their income diminished. As we noticed some family members still coming to them for help, my husband and I remarked that the family needed to come to realize that things were changing, that we needed to have the mindset of seeing how we could help them rather than expecting they were always going to be able to help us.
That’s true in the church family as well. Long before a “senior saint” goes to live in a nursing home or with family members, they might benefit from church ministrations. One year our church ladies’ group collected items for gift bags for some of the “shut-ins” and older women in church, then we divided up the gift bags and visited the ladies and delivered the bags. The visits meant more to them than the gifts, though they appreciated the gifts very much, and we were blessed in trying to bless them.
We had an older middle-aged lady in our neighborhood whose church came over and painted the outside of her home. It was something she couldn’t do herself and couldn’t afford to pay someone to do, and this was a tremendous help to her.
Even just visiting older neighbors and church members with some regularity might open up areas of ministry: they might need little things done like light bulbs changed that they can’t reach or overgrown bushes in the yard that need a trim. They might be hesitant to ask, they often don’t want to “be a bother,” but if you just happen to be there and notice, an offer to take care of such a problem would mean a lot.
If you’re a younger woman who would love to benefit from an older woman’s wisdom, first of all spend time with older ladies. Go where they are. Ask them questions. Invite them over, talk to them at church, etc. You can ask them if they’re willing to serve in some formal way – some are able and willing. But if they decline, and especially if they’re flustered, don’t press the matter. Pray about it and ask the Lord to change their mind if it is His will or to lay someone else on your heart to ask.
And as “older” ladies, we do have to be careful that we don’t let years of experience turn us into opinionated old biddies who are critical of new ideas and who consistently say, “Well, the way we always did it was…” Holding on to sound doctrine is something we’re called to do, but we can learn to adapt to new methods and styles.
We may or may not be able to do the same kinds of ministries we’ve always done, but we can seek God as to what exactly He would like for us to do. As long as the Lord has left us here on earth, He has something for us to do, some way for us to bless others. Sometimes we can be dismayed by our limitations, but as Elisabeth Elliot once said, limitations just define our ministry: “For it is with the equipment that I have been given that I am to glorify God. It is this job, not that one, that He gave me.”
Two glad services are ours,
Both the Master loves to bless.
First we serve with all our powers –
Then with all our feebleness.
Nothing else the soul uplifts
Save to serve Him night and day,
Serve Him when He gives His gifts –
Serve Him when He takes away.
C. A. Fox
This post will be linked to Women Living Well.
Update: I followed this us with another post on Ways Older Women Can Serve.