by Barbara Harper
Years ago a lady on a Christian message forum asked why older women didn’t serve within the church. I don’t remember the responses, but the question has stayed with me.
We need to be careful of blanket statements. Maybe this women’s experience lacked the presence of older women, but that doesn’t mean older women never serve. I’ve known some wonderful older women serving in various capacities, even through daunting physical problems.
Not all ministry tales place within organized church programs. Ministry may look different at different phases and among different personalities. There are many ways to mentor.
It is true that some older people have the mindset, “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. Older women 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. 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 affect how we serve. It may not involve standing in front of a class, leading a seminar, or any number of “public” ministries. There are other important reasons why older women’s service may change or diminish over the years:
Physical issues – 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. Most of us experience more physical problems the longer we live.
Menopause – Menopause affects mind, body, and emotions. Some women seem to have smooth sailing while others experience severe storms. For some, the years leading up to menopause can be worse than menopause itself.
Diminished capacity – As people age they generally lose a certain amount of “oomph,” physically and emotionally. There is pressure in ministry, and some can’t handle it as well as they once did. For example, a woman may feel she is too wobbly and unsteady to take care of babies in a nursery. Others drive less as they get older, meaning they’re not available in the same way they once might have been.
Family obligations – Middle-aged women are often in that “sandwich generation” responsible for caring for a parent in declining years and adult children or grandchildren who all need help. This ministry may not leave much time or energy for church responsibilities.
Serving in other ways – One women used to apologize to me because she couldn’t come to women’s gatherings at our church. She had an adult son who was disabled physically and mentally, a widowed mother who depended on her, and relatives needing a baby-sitter. Her whole life was a ministry despite the fact that she couldn’t come to “official” church gatherings.
New opportunities – Sometimes empty-nesters have new freedom, taking classes, traveling or doing things they haven’t been able to earlier in their lives.
The woman on that discussion forum who noted that older women had disappeared from church activities mentioned that some of the women she knew had instead chosen to put their energies into craft classes and such. She felt that if they could take classes they could serve at church. She hadn’t considered that perhaps their ministry focus had changed, and the new relationships they were building in settings outside of church were a part of their ministry at this time of their lives.
Burnout – We’re more apt to feel burnt out when:
- We’ve taken on way more than we should
- We don’t have adequate help
- We’re serving in our own strength rather than the Lord’s
Many leaders heap more responsibilities on someone who is already serving because they’re doing a good job, until this servant is carrying more than they can handle. Those who feel heavily burdened don’t know where to find help or feel comfortable saying no. And all of us are prone to the temptation to serve in our own strength .We need regular reminders to confess our weakness and appropriate His grace and strength moment by moment. (Editor’s note: It may give someone else an opportunity to serve if you step back from ministry. If the ministry can’t go on without you, then it may not be a ministry that needs to continue in its present form.)
They may not feel wanted – Once a younger woman confided to me that she and others her age didn’t come to our monthly womens’ meetings because it seemed only “older” women (40s and above) were in attendance. I have to admit that hurt, and it has created in me a hesitancy sometimes to interact with younger women because I feel I’m not wanted. Thankfully 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 – Long before a “senior saint” goes to live in a nursing home or with family members, they might benefit from church ministrations. They might be hesitant to ask, they often don’t want to be a bother.
As older women, we do have to be mindful that our years of experience not turn us into opinionated old biddies who are critical of new ideas. Holding on to sound doctrine is something we’re called to do, but we must learn to adapt to new methods and styles.
We may not be able to serve the way we’ve always done, but we can seek God for how best to serve now. As long as the Lord has left us here on earth, He has 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. —A. Fox
Currently living in the Knoxville area, Barbara Harper has been married for 38 years to a wonderful man who makes her laugh and overlooks her foibles and a stay-at-home mom to three sons, now adults. In recent years a beautiful daughter-in-law and then an adorable grandson have been added to the family, and an ailing mother-in-law has been brought home. She has been blogging for 12 years about family, books, funny or interesting observations, and things God has been teaching her at Stray Thoughts (https://barbarah.wordpress.co