Housebreaking Ageism in the Church | By the Rev. Paul Graves

A few months ago, I invited us to consider naming the unidentified elephants that live in our lives. My aphoristic comment: “Until you name the elephant in the room, you have no chance to housebreak it.” So consider with me naming one of the elephants in our lives, and in our churches: Ageism!

Ageism is the mentality that puts you down in so many ways simply because you’ve reached a certain calendar age. Ageism is the tendency to buy into a cultural stereotype and cultural behavior that relegates older adults to what feels like second-class citizenship.

Ageism happens in our society. It happens in our communities. It happens in our churches. And it can happen within our own hearts and minds. Don’t let it happen anymore!

Ageism irrigates a lie. That lie is that older persons are not worth as much as younger persons.

Joan Chittister offers a pithy and thoughtful essay on Ageism in her 2008 book, “The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully.” She wisely observes that while stereotypes absolutize age-related characteristics, persons who are externally old tend to smash those stereotypical barriers with their vitality.

My 85-year-old cousin is one of those barrier-smashers. He retired from his insurance business only 2 years ago. He keeps himself in good physical shape, occasionally shoots his age on the golf course (always a good thing!), and is a vigorous husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and a contributing volunteer in his community.

That kind of vitality in countless persons we know – and hopefully are! — makes ageism a “big fat lie”. So how do we spread the word that ageism is both a lie and an elephant in the room that needs to be housebroken?

Three things come to mind: 1) use self-talk to remind you of your vitality; 2) model aging to others as a life-phase to be achieved rather than a death-sentence to be feared; and 3) challenge yourself to challenge ageism whenever and however you can, confident that your challenge is an act of faith and hope.

Make self-talk part of your own faith journey. Remind yourself that God is with you as you age. But God isn’t there to rescue you from aging; rather, God honors you for achieving your age and encourages you to remain a vital and giving member of your family, your church, and your community.

If you hear persons denigrate you or someone else because you are old, present your argument by living in a way that shows the wisdom and compassion you have gained through the experience of your years. Two questions: 1) Who showed you what aging can be like? 2) What do you want to show others about aging? Let your answers help guide how you model aging to others.

Ageism is often a sneaky foe! It might be disguised as solicitous concern (“Can I help you up the stairs?”) or as impatient decision-making, or any number of subtle messages. Don’t let what you feel as an ageist remark or action go without some kind of challenge.

For instance, I try to remind leaders in our churches and in our Conference, that the emphasis we place on “getting young people involved” is important. But don’t do it at the expense of abandoning the older members.

As we fuss about worship styles, education, community service, etc., we get too easily caught up in Generational Myopia. This is when our vision is fixed so much on our short-term irritations and not “being heard” by another generation that we defensively fight for “my generation’s experiences” are the most valid!
If we are going to transform the church, it will happen more likely when generations see the value in each other’s passions, ideas, and commitment. My bias is that older adults in our churches need to lead the way in this effort. Our experience shows that ageism is a lie, and that working together works best.

The Rev. Paul Graves serves as
the chair for the Conference Council on Older Adult Ministries.
Respond to this article at
This article was originally presented in Channels 57. Download this issue, here.


  1. I appreciate Paul’s message, and find it very timely. We are blessed in this conference with some very dynamic and gifted young leaders, both clergy and lay, and I am sure we are not alone. While I am delighted to see them having more and more opportunities to not only join in important conversations within the conference but also lead them, I do find myself experiencing nagging concerns about ageism. Here in Vancouver at the Bishop’s Symposium that concluded today, the few worship services we enjoyed together were led exclusively – and beautifully – by ‘young clergy.’ Likewise, only young clergy, albeit Bishop Grant invited all of us to self-define, were invited to have a private breakfast meeting with our speaker. Again, I have absolutely no complaints about the work done; it is the underlying principles and the beliefs expressed by them I question. In particular, it seems we are under the impression that only young clergy and laity have the skills, charisma, and natural connection to attract younger members to our churches. The additional implication seems to be that either those young clergy will also be equally skilled at relating to and serving with older members, or those older members will simply have to adapt or step aside. My hope is that we can find a more balanced approach to living into our future as a denomination and part of the Body.
    Thanks again to Paul’s insightful invitation to “housebreaking this elephant in the room.”

    • Thanks so much for responding, Terry. I agree…as a 34-year old falling into the young adult bracket, I know well enough we all gotta move forward together…younger, older, etc. Thanks so much for responding! I am going to let Rev. Paul know you chimed in! -JNL

  2. I add my Thank You to you, Terry! I was not able to be at the Vancouver event last week, so I did not see how the younger clergy were more in visible leadership. But I join you in hoping that Bishop Hagiya and others will recognize that some generational balance in both visible and background leadership might be well received for multiple reasons. Clergy of all ages need to be reminded — regularly — that how we model an intergenerational model of leadership can have very positive impact in our local churches. Let’s walk the walk! — Paul

Leave a Reply to Paul Graves Cancel reply