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Dealing with an unintended consequence of our graying


I’d like to make an observation – not a criticism, not good or bad – and then reflect on how church leaders can respond.

I need to lay some ground. Bear with me.

In my years as a pastor – 1977 to 2009 – I served congregations that had the full spectrum of ages. Babies, young children, youth, young adults, middle-aged adults, active elderly, elderly in decline – the old saw about “hatch, match, dispatch” played out. We had as many weddings as funerals.

Ours were growing areas, such as Zionsville, IN, Charlotte, and Manhattan. Also, for much of this time, I myself was young or young-ish. I could initiate a softball team and take the field. My wife and I were young marrieds, we had young children and eventually teenagers for youth group.

I also worked at it. We entertained a lot in our home, and young singles and parents glad for a free meal and fun flocked in. I had lunch every day with parishioners, often young adults at their workplace. When older adults tried to stifle children or freeze out teenagers or glower at young singles, I intervened.

I noticed that young adults were enthusiastic community nurturers and networkers. They wanted to meet each other. They wanted their children to have friends. They wanted to network for social and business purposes. When they welcomed people to church, they were just glad to see them.

The elderly, by contrast, were less enthusiastic about meals in our home. Too much commotion, probably. They didn’t support sports teams or celebrate young families joining the church. One sneered at them as “Tom’s scalps.” Some complained about the noise and paint-scuffing that children inevitably bring.

The elderly tended to be poor welcomers. They would shake a hand, hand over a service bulletin, and leave it at that. They were more interested in talking with their buddies. At that age, they didn’t expect to make new friends.

The rituals of networking change constantly, and they weren’t up on the exchanging of email addresses, making lunch plans, arranging play dates for kids, sharing information on schools, meeting at the Y. They resisted the use of technology to nurture community. They didn’t need it themselves, and they felt awkward in the new rituals.

Once I figured this out, I assigned young adults to be welcomers and older adults to provide support. I made sure I was at the front door greeting the new. If I didn’t end Sunday with a stack of new email addresses, I hadn’t done my job. If we didn’t have an active flow of visitors, we weren’t reaching our larger community.

Now, here’s the situation. In general, mainline congregations have missed two successive generations of young adults. Funerals far outnumber baptisms and weddings. Our average age is pushing 65. Sunday schools and youth groups are sparse. Young families in our community don’t aim their SUVs toward us. Many church activities serving young families happen away from Sunday morning, anyway, which our Sunday-oriented elderly don’t understand or value. Meanwhile, the elderly are dealing with isolation, an epidemic of loneliness, and a range of health issues that only other elderly appreciate.

I get all this. At age 70, I understand the challenge of making new friends. When I try at church, I find myself among older adults who have no interest in welcoming me. I understand. I have seen this for nearly 40 years among elderly parishioners. I don’t take it personally.

The situation facing many congregations, therefore, is that ministries of community formation and growth don’t have their natural constituency to carry them out. Many elderly leaders see the need and want to do the right thing. But it’s like the rituals of mating or networking: there is a season in life for such things.

What can be done?

* Next time you hire a pastor, make sure he or she is young.
* Put community development initiatives in the hands of young adults.
* Don’t get in the way of the friendship-enjoying rituals of older adults, but also don’t let those become the norm that prevents rituals of networking, mating, family-connecting, and professional contacts.
* Be sure to do activities like sports that only young adults are likely to value. It’s okay to do things that the elderly don’t like.

In general, strive to be a big tent, where multiple strands of church life can co-exist and where the narrow needs of any one age cohort don’t dominate. You aren’t “declaring war on the elderly,” though some will see it that way. Rather, you are making room for diversity and moving toward a full spectrum of ages.

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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