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Be a great elderly church — address actual needs


If yours is a typical mainline church, your congregation’s average age is pushing past 60 and moving toward 70. Every Sunday, you see more “gray” in your pews and more empty spaces.

So what do you do? You have three choices:

1. Do nothing: Keep on keeping on, don’t change anything, keep the shrinking flock happy, try to avoid spending all of your endowment. Likely outcome: last one out, turn off the lights.

2. Wait for younger adults to enter your doors: This is the magical-thinking option. In their current state, most mainline congregations have little appeal to younger adults. Change your congregation’s state, and maybe you could change some minds by being able to tell a fresh story about yourselves. Likely outcome: current leaders and constituents won’t tolerate changing as much as needs to be changed. Last one out, turn off the lights.

3. Be the best elderly congregation you can be: Respond boldly to actual needs among the elderly. Likely outcome: energy, purpose, success, a revitalized congregation – with one enormous proviso, namely, you must see that Sunday worship isn’t the answer to any of the critical needs you should be addressing.

The best approach, obviously, is number 3. It’s the only one that keeps your congregational alive and well. But it will require diligent attention to actual needs – see below – and that will require your clergy to stop expecting so much of liturgy and coffee-hour pastoral care and to start working at community development, program development, recruiting and networking. Your lay leaders will need to do the same. This fresh focus will be counter-intuitive to grasp and difficult to actualize.

What are the actual needs of the elderly? They are many, of course, some of them basic human needs not unique to any age group, such as safety, adequate financial resources, decent housing. But there are two needs that strike me as uniquely relevant.

Read this article in The New York Times about an “epidemic of loneliness.” Living alone is daily reality for one-third to one-half of your people and other elderly persons in the community. Loneliness affects as many as half of those over age 60.

The answer to loneliness isn’t an invitation to attend Sunday worship. Church is a passive experience, not interactive or deeply relational. Insiders talk to each other and have little interest in outsiders. Coffee hours require social skills that elderly people don’t necessarily have. Many elderly, especially as they push past 80, lack the mobility, hearing and chattiness that Sunday socializing requires.

Instead, think about making telephone calls to the elderly. Not once a month, but once a week, maybe every day. Make personal visits on those who welcome them. You could recruit a small team to do this work, but even better would be a “buddy” system where members each sign on to connect with one, maybe two, elderly people on a regular basis.

This is a great mission and growth opportunity. Let’s say you have thirty people living alone. Recruit 30 people to connect with them, and then ask each person you contact to name a friend or neighbor who’s also living alone. (I’d suggest avoiding the term “shut-in.” It sounds patronizing.)

Note the different responses to loneliness among men and women. The woodworking shed mentioned in the Times article, for example, deals with the different ways that men experience and express loneliness.

When they retire from work, many elderly lose their primary sense of purpose in life. When their spouse dies, they lose another. As children and grandchildren move around the country, even more purpose is lost. Why keep trying?

The answer isn’t to recruit elderly people to help around the church. They need purpose in the hours they spend alone at home, not the monthly hour they give to church. Your callers need to be trained in how to draw out whatever purpose they feel and to guide them to deeper purpose. Ask them what they did today and what felt good. Ask what books they are reading, what favorite TV shows they are watching, what writing they have done, what meals they enjoy cooking. What gets them out of bed in the morning?

Too many elderly people allow their world to shrink to medical issues and finances. Those matter and often are vexing. But there is much more to life. A “buddy” could take an elderly person to the doctor and then go out to lunch. Enjoy friendship. Don’t just see the elderly as a problem needing a solution, an array of symptoms requiring intervention.

My hunch is you already have people doing these ministries in your congregation. The challenge now is to reach people you don’t know well – who weren’t around when they were younger or maybe have never been part of your congregation.

Your caregivers will notice other needs, too. Nutrition is likely to be a major one. So is financial insecurity. So is distance or alienation from family. Some congregations do “meals on wheels” ministries for the elderly. Some provide expert assistance in accounting, tax preparation and accessing available benefits. If your caregivers meet occasionally to share experiences and insights, you will identify other ministries that even more members could provide.

(Spoiler alert: If you do these things, the word will get out: these folks really do care. Not just about institutional survival or being right, but about people. That narrative will draw people to you.)

About the Author

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of A Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns.


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