Not so long ago I sat listening to a young and gifted pastor tell his story of ministry. With rungs on the board, books to his name and much to be proud of, he’s a leader with growing influence. A line of youthful pastors-in-training were seated in the front row taking down his every word. I was inspired as they were, but I was also troubled.
When this pastor was asked about his priorities in ministry, he quipped, ‘Well, I certainly don’t sit around drinking cups of tea with little old ladies!’ There was an immediate chuckle across the room. This ‘image of irrelevance’, a well-used cliche in the church, was instantly recognisable to those listening. Its inference? When it comes to ministry that is ‘strategic’ and ‘missional’, there are certain activities that just don’t rate.
On one hand, his point is understandable. There is a valid need for the contemporary pastor to distance him or herself from the equally cliched image of the elderly country vicar sitting with genteel parishioners, teacup in hand and the village church across the field behind them. Nestled securely in the age of Christendom, the vicar’s primary task was maintenance. How different the place of the church today and how demanding the ever-changing nature of our task.
On the other hand, this young pastor’s image of irrelevance is deeply flawed and betrays a view of ministry that needs challenging. The diminishment of his words is extraordinary. The crass dismissal of age and gender to begin with; add the word ‘little’ and the designation is nothing short of insulting. And then, of course, there’s our understanding of what constitutes worth in the ‘investment’ of our time.
I do drink tea with old ladies, and with old men too. Granted, it’s a time consuming business, but I understand it to be as central to my pastoral calling as anything else I do. Oh, and not one of them is little. More often than not, when it comes to character and spirit, they tower above me. Very often these women and men have given their lives to the church. They are the shoulders upon which young pastors like this one stand. While they are certainly not saints to be venerated, they are gifts to be valued and esteemed.
Too often older people in our congregations become invisible to a church and its leaders infatuated with youth. The designation of ‘little’ speaks volumes about how older people in our communities feel and what priority we give to their voice, to their experience and participation. The truth is, when they are diminished, we are all diminished.
So, I’ll take mine with milk and one sugar thanks.