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I wish I had known these principles in aging ministry


Now that I am venturing onto the terrain called “aging,” I would like a do-over in how I responded to people over 65 when I was their pastor.

I don’t think I began to comprehend the complexity of aging. I viewed it as a single-track pastoral problem to be solved by regular home visits and the occasional group event, like a bus tour. I tended to treat the elderly as needy, more like patients in a hospital than self-differentiating adults. Some were hospital patients, of course. But I missed seeing the rest of their journeys.

I misread their attitudes about change and new ideas. I girded for a lot of complaining.

Okay, no do-overs. But I can share some principles that would have helped me then.

Aging isn’t a pastoral problem

It is a fact of life. It’s like adolescence or middle-age – it happens, it has certain predictable features, certain opportunities for care, but otherwise is a life stage like any other. It can be lived fully or poorly, confidently or fearfully.

A church’s senior ministry, therefore, shouldn’t be grounded in perceptions of feebleness and neediness – though both do occur – but rather as an organizational development challenge not unlike recruiting emerging adults for leadership positions. The key, as in any life stage, is to recruit – not the bland and meaningless “anyone who wants…blah, blah, blah,” but a recruiting process that treats the senior as uniquely skilled and needed.

Everyone ages differently

There is no single track through the years from, say, 65 to the day of dying. Health is a primary variable. Another is home life (living alone, living with a spouse or partner). Another is work and the sense of purpose that comes from work. Another is financial security or insecurity. Another is proximity to children and grandchildren. Plus the same variables that impact other age cohorts, such as political and cultural interests, new skills, and sense of well-being.

No one “seniors ministry” could possibly connect with these variables. Better to form a network of small groups and encourage seniors to affiliate with one. Better also to remove barriers to participating in activities open to other age groups. The focus should be on making a difference, exercising a purpose, not on staying busy.

Deal boldly and intentionally with loneliness

At some point, the vast majority of seniors will live alone, and many will feel the emotional and physical burdens of isolation and loneliness. For some that will come toward the end of life after a spouse dies. But for many – over half of those 65 and over – the senior years will be lonely throughout. The monthly or quarterly visit by a pastor or designated caregiver won’t come close to being enough. “Call me if you need anything” – is meaningless. Being on a prayer list is meaningless.

People need contact. Churches can do a lot to bring people together. It’s one of our strengths. But we need to be intentional about inviting and recruiting, not just post an all-hands notice. Contacts should be frequent and not necessarily lengthy.

Treat seniors as capable adults

Yes, seniors want to be heard. But they don’t need to be coddled, treated as fragile, always getting their way and therefore always irritating other people and being seen as complainers. In the push-pull of congregational life, they matter as much as any other group matters – and not more. They should be encouraged to speak their minds, participate in decisions, and then deal with the disappointments that will inevitably follow. They are adults, not toddlers.

Nor should they be seen as the “deep pockets set,” the moneyed folks who, if given their way, will bestow wealth on the congregation. That demeans them, and it elevates the importance of money. Any organization that can be “bought” by complaining and giving/withholding money isn’t going to be reliable or valued.

The key is purpose

In the aging years, as in any life stage, people need a sense of purpose. Not just activity that keeps them busy, but purpose, ways to make a difference, feeling needed. Seniors need to be building Habitat houses. They need to be providing food to the hungry, advocating for justice, comforting the victim and sorrowful, reaching into the isolation of the lonely. Active doing, not passive receiving.

Church leaders need to think beyond the annual event historically assigned to seniors, like the fall rummage sale. People need purpose every day of their lives. They need a reason to get up in the morning. Churches can do this in ways that no other organization can.

Would I have heeded this advice when I was a 40-something pastor? Hard to say. I just wish I had known it.

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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