Last week in our #AmplifyWomen series, Helen Lee addressed the need for diversity in discipleship. This week, Michelle Van Loon turns our attention to the gap in discipleship for middle-aged and retired women.
Four years ago, I asked readers of my blog over age 40 to respond to my informal survey about their relationship with the local church. After querying survey respondents to gather some basic demographic data, I asked them if they were more, less, or just as involved today in their local church as they’d been a decade earlier. Then I asked why.
I anticipated getting 50 responses, but instead I received more than 500. Two-thirds of those respondents were women. Slightly more than half reported they’d maintained or increased their church involvement, but nearly that many reported they’d downshifted their involvement or exited the institutional church entirely. “My church seems to focus on involvement in programs and projects that have little lasting spiritual impact in the lives of those served,” one told me, echoing the concerns of others. Another response was typical of those I received from people no longer able to serve because of health problems or caregiving responsibilities. “After 18 years of membership and service in the same church, my husband became ill and disabled and I became his caregiver,” she said. “We are unable to actively serve the church any longer, so we are ignored.”
George Barna presents sobering data reflecting the quiet exodus from the church among boomers and gen x-ers. The data indicates it isn’t just millennials leaving the church but sizeable numbers of those at midlife and beyond. In their recent book Church Refugees, sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope also bring hard science to explore the reasons driving this exodus among those who say they’re done with the institution but not done with Jesus. Though the study includes people across all age groups, their work affirms and expands upon what I’d been hearing anecdotally: In local churches, there’s often a discipleship gap for older members.
When I hit my own midlife faith crisis a decade ago, I leaned into the long-established habits and core spiritual disciplines I’d practiced throughout adulthood, hoping they’d reconnect me to the kind of faith that had characterized my life to that point. Although I wasn’t exactly having a dark night of the soul nor was I battling clinical depression, I may have been heading in that direction and didn’t have language to describe my sense of spiritual dislocation. During that time, James Fowler’s Stages of Faith and a complementary book called The Critical Journey by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich gave me the language I’d been searching for to describe the changes taking place in my life.
The stages of faith according to Fowler include:
- I believe! New believers are willing to do whatever a strong leader or church group says is necessary to grow in faithfulness.
- I am learning about God in the context of belonging to a church. I am also learning what gifts and talents I can contribute to the church community.
- I work for God. As I grow more secure in my role in the church, I demonstrate my commitment with action. I show up, serve, and evangelize.
- I hit “The Wall.” My old practices aren’t netting the same results. I wonder if there’s something more. I feel ashamed (where’s my faith?), struggle with doubt (what if God really isn’t there?), or discouragement (what’s the point?).
- I am living with God. On the other side of The Wall, fresh surrender to God comes with a renewed sense of my vocation or ministry, a deepening of my faith, and a less-frenzied relationship with the church.
- I believe again, and I love as God loves. As I move toward life’s end, I detach from the stuff and stress of life. I receive God’s love and shalom and am sharing it with those around me.
For many women, hitting midlife often coincides with hitting the fourth stage. Although The Wall itself is not a midlife crisis, it often appears during those years, especially if we’re growing spiritually. More often than not, it doesn’t feel anything like growth, even though it is. (For me, it felt like an experience of loss for a very long time.) The catalysts, of course, are numerous: an empty nest, vocational frustration, spiritual stagnation, medical crises, and changing family relationships. “I wish I had someone to talk to when I hit the wall,” says author Lesa Engelthaler, who struggled with doubt and confusion in her mid 50s. “I had no framework for what was happening to me. It turned out The Wall was a gift from God, but there was no context given to me by the church for this gift.”
Anecdotally, most of the church leaders I’m in touch with admit they haven’t given much thought to what discipleship might look like for their older members (especially women) beyond maintaining the spiritual growth from their youth. Writer and speaker Melinda Schmidt, too, has observed that some leaders are more comfortable with familiar discipleship tools geared toward young believers instead of mid-lifers and retirees. “I once proposed that the ministry in which I served adopt Hagberg and Guelich’s work as a metric for vision casting future ministry efforts,” says Schmidt. “Instead … they preferred to see measurements in terms of how often one reads the Bible, tithes, prays, attends church, etc. While these valuable out-workings of the life of Christian faith are supported in Scripture, they are the hallmarks of early-stage spiritual development.”
If a local church focuses primarily on young families in the builder stages (one through three) of their lives, the roles available to older women are often limited to serving in the nursery or making coffee at coffee hour. In her essay “The Invisible Generation,” Sarah Bessey captured the problem when she noted that “women in the middle of their lives … felt invisible and ignored by the church, the same way they feel invisible or ignored in our culture. … I heard their hurt, sorrow, and stoicism about life within the church.”
These women often feel marginalized both as disciples and disciplers. Who, then, is asking what discipleship looks like for them? And what do middle-aged women want their discipleship of others to look like?
First, we might start by affirming the life experience of these women and celebrating the often-unrecognized contributions of what Megan Hill calls “the casserole-toting church ladies” and so many others. We can offer pastoral care and guidance from a spiritual director. (Sharon Garlough Brown’s trio of novels, Sensible Shoes, Two Steps Forward, and Barefoot, present an accessible model of spiritual direction at midlife.) We can also offer community support in mixed-gender small groups, intergenerational groups, and women-only discipleship groups. In a recent essay, Trillia Newbell emphasized the Titus 2 model of equipping older women to disciple younger women. Done well, this model involves more than quick and easy spiritual matchmaking and offers mutual discipleship to the benefit of both old and young.
Nurturing growth among older women also means supporting women in their pursuit of theological training and then giving them opportunities to use what they’re learning. Older women are a growing group in seminaries. Additionally, many older women (especially retirees with time on their hands) are actively involved in ministry outside the church, caregiving an aging relative or volunteering in the community. Highlighting their service signals to the rest of the congregation that their ministry matters. Some churches have found that partnering with organizations like Stephen Ministries gives older members a way to provide practical care for other members of their congregation or community and also offers high-quality training, support, and fellowship opportunities for public service.
Organizing online groups for mid-lifers—like the Perennial Gen, a project I’m involved with—is another way to provide discipleship support. Our mission states that “maturity is not an age or stage but describes the loam of spiritual formation and life experience that leads to fruitfulness.” We find this vision in Scripture, which affirms the importance of growth in every season of our lives:
The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him (Ps. 92:12–15).
While we need the collaboration and care of pastoral and lay leadership, those of us at midlife and beyond are in a place where we can step into the gap and develop a vision for discipleship that doesn’t stop short of The Wall. Our experience and wisdom are incredible resources that can help others grow to maturity and become fruitful in every season.
In our own lives, we need to be challenged toward generative maturity, and it is up to us to call for and cultivate models of lifelong discipleship in our congregations and small groups. Recognizing how people grow from stages one through six can reframe the conversation about discipleship so no one is left behind in a congregation.
Michelle Van Loon is the author of four books, including Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith (NavPress, 2016).