N.C. woman, 70, becomes part of trend toward older preachers Miriam Marx ready to practice a profession it took a lifetime to find


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Whatever congregation hires Miriam Marx will get a minister with maturity, life experience and just one requirement:

"I'm an old lady," said the 70-year-old preacher-to-be with white hair and high hopes. "I need a nap."

Once she's refreshed, though, watch out for this woman who represents the growing movement toward older preachers.

Marx has started work as intern minister at Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte. For six months, she'll help minister Doug Reisner meet the spiritual needs of 900 church members. Then she intends to find a Unitarian congregation willing to hire a widow who heard late in life the inner voice that led her to the pulpit.

"It was just a constant stirring, to find a place for myself to use all the talents I knew I had," Marx said. "I don't think every church is going to want a 70-year-old, but I think some will say, 'She'll bring a grandmotherly wisdom.' "

Not all Unitarian Universalist churches wanted to hire Marx as an intern, even though one of the guiding principles of the small, socially and politically liberal denomination is: "We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being."

Said Reisner: "They thought not enough people in their congregation would relate to her. The kids wouldn't relate to her."

The Charlotte church, though, welcomed Marx as part of its heritage of accepting nontraditional interns. The last one, Dee Graham, is a lesbian.

Marx comes to town with a colorful past.

Born to Russian immigrants in Philadelphia, she spurned her Orthodox Jewish roots to take up a faith 25 years ago that allows each follower to believe in his or her own concept of God. "Unitarian Universalism affirms all peoples, all world religions, seeks to find commonalities," Marx said.

She was married for nearly 20 years to Werner Marx, a German Jewish immigrant who fled the Nazis in 1939. They lived in Philadelphia, then settled in Champaign, Ill., where her husband taught German literature at the University of Illinois and they raised their three children. Miriam Marx had to support her family by herself after her husband died of a heart attack in 1965.

She moved from one job to another, 25 in all. She taught English at the university, edited a college journal and computer software programs, worked as a secretary, even sold tickets at a performing arts center.

"A mighty struggle," she calls her working life.

It wasn't until she became a lay leader in the 1980s at her Unitarian Universalist church in Urbana, Ill., that the light of ministry began to flicker on. She helped plan worship, even delivered a sermon or two, and discovered that the congregation of 400 cared about what she said and believed.

"People said, 'Miriam, you should think about being a minister.' I thought, 'Wow, maybe I should.'

"I've always had a million questions that I kept looking for answers to," she explained. "About God and about faith and what is our relationship to God and to one another. Why are we here?"

Her curiosity landed her in Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Ind. In May, four years after she enrolled, Marx accepted her master of divinity degree in front of a crowd that included a carload of friends from church.

"Oh, she was beaming, boy," Karen Folk recalled. "She was so delighted. I think someone got up and said, 'Yea Miriam!' I had never seen her as happy as I saw her that day."

Now she finds herself in Charlotte, ready to do ministry, ready to practice a profession it took nearly a lifetime to find.

Marx will share the work of the church with Reisner - preaching sermons, visiting the sick and counseling the needy. She recently returned from a retreat with lay leaders, whipping some in her favorite game of pingpong.

After six months in Charlotte, she'll begin looking for a job at one of the nation's 1,000 Unitarian Universalist churches. The trend toward older preachers is to her advantage. Among 230 U.S. and Canadian seminaries of various denominations, 57.7 percent of the student body was 35 or older in 1995, up 13 percent from 1991.

A growing number of seminary students today are second- and third-career men and women who have left jobs in the secular world to pursue their passion for doing God's work. Their job prospects in ministry, whatever the denomination, are better than ever. Reisner and others have grown to believe that an older minister can use experience to compensate for any lack of youthful vigor.

"Sometimes churches think they get this energetic 30- or 40-year-old," Reisner said. "But a 30- or 40-year-old may not know what he's doing. A 70-year-old may have more focus."

Said Marx: "I know myself. I can be very focused. I don't have to delve through a lot of details before I know where I want to go."

Marx said she's willing to go anywhere to convince believers that "God is present always, and God is present within us."

She's willing to go anywhere as well to convince believers you don't have to settle for life in a dull groove, even at age 70.

"Don't accept what is common," Marx said. "There's no point in being fearful. You can severely limit yourself by your own fears. I've never felt the world wasn't open to me. I don't feel limited."

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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