ONE of the biggest challenges facing America’s 300,000 congregations is our own aging as a population. We’ve got to stop thinking of aging as a problem to be solved—and realize that it’s a major part of our lives to be explored. There are spiritual gifts of aging, not merely aches and disabilities.
Missy Buchanan is a pioneer among Christian inspirational writers in focusing her work, both online and in book form, on helping religious leaders rethink the way they relate to older men and women in their congregations. For Older Americans Month, we invited Missy to write these …
10 TIPS FOR BETTER MINISTRY
Celebrating the Spiritual Gifts of Aging
By Missy Buchanan
GET READY! America is graying. People are living longer than ever before. According to the U.S. Administration on Aging, one out of every nine Baby Boomers will live to at least age 90.
In spite of this aging population boom, however, we live in a culture that values youth over age.
Just take a look at the number of anti-aging products on the market. For many Americans, growing old is perceived as something to be dreaded, even pitied. Without the love and encouragement of family and faith communities, it’s understandable that senior adults often come to view aging as a bleak prospect, not a blessing.
It’s also no wonder that older adults feel out-of-step with the rest of the world. Most are dealing with the rapid-fire changes that come with longevity. As health declines, there is a loss of independence. Many older adults relocate to senior care centers, leaving behind familiar homes and support systems. They grieve the deaths of spouses and longtime friends. They worry about having enough money to last their lifetimes and fear becoming dependent on others for basic hygiene. Even newscasts are unsettling with talk of strange things like Facebook, You Tube and Twitter. Feeling that they have outlived their usefulness, older adults, especially frail elderly, struggle to find purpose.
Ask church leaders about the implications of this huge demographic shift toward an aging population and you’ll likely get a shrug of the shoulders. Most are aware of the statistics about aging congregations and declining memberships; few know what to do. All are feeling the pressure to revitalize the church by attracting young adults and young families. But with so much emphasis on the young, there is a danger of forgetting the old.
So what can churches and individuals do in response to a fast-growing aging population? Here are 10 tips for better ministry with the older men and women in our congregations.
1.) Encourage a range of different senior groups when working with older men and women. Age ranges may be helpful categories. You can’t lump all who are 65-plus into one
ministry. The needs and interests of an active 70-year old are not the
same as a frail 85-year old. Remember, though, that another category is physical ability. Age alone can’t be the
primary factor for defining ministry groups. A health crisis can
cause a younger senior to be aligned with the frail elderly. Some seniors live at home; some live in institutions. Some can drive; some can’t. Build
ministries that best meet the needs of each group.
2.) Unleash the power of laity. Pastors have good intentions to minister with
older adults, but often they are pulled in a thousand directions. If
your church doesn’t have strong older adult ministries already in
place, take the ball and run yourself. Consider Bible studies and
special senior-friendly worship services at church and at senior-care
centers. Adult sons and daughters with parents in care centers are
often good candidates for helping in this ministry. Active seniors are
also a wonderful asset in ministry to their less-active counterparts.
3.) Be consistent. Occasionally churches start senior adult ministries with
a gung-ho attitude only to fizzle out in a few months. Some visit elderly men and women in care centers at Christmas and Easter but fail to minister to
them the rest of the year. Design an on-going ministry plan for various
senior adult groups—and follow through. Older adults need to know they
can count on the faith community.
4.) Remind seniors that they still can minister to others. As seniors
age, they may wrongly assume that they have nothing to
offer in ministry to others. Even if people become frail, you can provide a weekly prayer list from church
and ask them to pray for the people who requested prayer. Remind them,
too, that they can lift the spirits of other seniors with a smile and
an encouraging word. For those who can sew, paint, knit or carve, give
them a stash of supplies so they can make items for others. Those who are healthy, agile and mobile can help at all levels of ministry.
5.) Celebrate long life. Don’t wait for a milestone birthday or a
funeral to honor older adults. Create your own moments to celebrate long life. Ask family and friends to send letters,
photos and cards for a senior. Compile them in an album so they can be
easily read and re-read. Create a DVD using pictures as a timeline of a
person’s life. Or make a video that features people sharing stories
about the impact the older adult has had on their lives. Remember,
though, that some elderly may need help in using a DVD player—or may not have access to one. Host an
in-room party for the bedridden. Hire a barbershop quartet to sing a
special tribute to an older adult. Share a joke-a-day. Be creative.
Help them find something to celebrate each day.
6.) Show respect for all older adults by honoring their reality. It’s important to acknowledge the reality of individuals. Many times, active seniors are embarrassed by cutesy or corny ministry titles for senior adult programs. Some even resist senior adult ministries altogether because they think it will make them seem too old. At the same time, frail elderly tend to be overlooked in ministry. They likely have strong feelings of vulnerability and anxiousness that come with mobility limitations. Don’t minimize the emotions of any senior, even if their feelings seem irrational to you. Listen carefully and respectfully to understand each person’s reality.
7.) Become an encourager. In most cases, nothing is more important to older adults than simply spending time with them. Sadly, many older adults go unnoticed as they become less mobile and quietly fade from church life. Maintaining connections between the faith community and older adults is vital to their spiritual well-being. Encourage them with large-print devotional books they can keep at their bedside. Ask the congregation to regularly send cards of encouragement. When possible, use the Internet or DVDs so that frail elderly can watch worship services. (There’s a significant upswing in multimedia and Internet use among older Americans—see what tools are appropriate for each individual.) Provide CDs of hymns or weekly worship services. And don’t forget about older adults who have no church affiliation. Many are wrestling with important faith questions but have no church family to help them sort it out. Find ways to embrace these older adults, also.
8.) Help older adults be mindful of God’s presence. As their worlds shrink to a single room or apartment, many older adults begin to lose enthusiasm for living. Help them to remember how God has been faithful in the past. Tell them how their life has shaped your life. Provide a prayer journal for those who are able to write. Offer them opportunities to seek God in nature, even if it’s just a stroll through the grounds of a center where they may be living. Encourage them to look for God’s presence in the daily events of their life.
9.) Engage older adults with a story prompt. Sometimes people shy away from visiting senior care facilities because they fear they won’t know what to say to residents, especially those they don’t know. Engage older adults in meaningful conversation by incorporating questions that trigger specific memories. What was your first job? Tell me about your favorite vacation destination. When possible, share a meal with residents and watch for brightened faces as their stories come to life around the table.
10.) Build intergenerational ministry opportunities. Ask children’s Sunday
School classes to make cards each month for residents of senior care
facilities. Invite children’s choirs or youth groups to perform at a senior center. Honor older adults with a special banquet at the church and ask
the youth to serve and provide entertainment. Encourage active older
adults to be involved in Vacation Bible School. Many churches do these things already. Reach out in new directions. Many young people use computers and multi-media devices effortlessly. Ask your youth group to help seniors with their own computer questions, perhaps setting up an easy email account with them. Or, have youth use their
computer skills to create personalized photo cards that seniors can send
to their friends and family. Any opportunity that helps to dispel the
stereotypes of aging and youthfulness will be helpful in bringing
Whoever said that growing old is not for sissies—was right. For many, it is not an easy journey. but I don’t think it’s mainly older adults who are out-of-step with the world. Maybe it is the faith community who has yet to find its sacred footing in ministry with aging friends, neighbors and people throughout our communities. We have heard the call. How will we respond?
Missy Buchanan is author of “Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults (Upper Room Books). She writes a column, Aging Well, for the United Methodist Reporter. You can visit her online at www.missybuchanan.com.
CARE TO READ MORE?
Here’s the Presidential Proclamation for this month.
If you want to start talking about aging with other people, here’s a great 5-page briefing paper you can download from the U.S. Census. It’s not dry reading; it’s designed for small-group use with lots of easily organized quick facts about the aging of our nation.
PLEASE TELL US WHAT YOU THINK:
This is a good time to sign up for our Monday-morning ReadTheSpirit Planner by Email—it’s
free and you can cancel it any time you’d like to do so. The Planner
goes out each week to readers who want more of an “inside track” on
what we’re seeing on the horizon, plus it’s got a popular “holidays”
Not only do we welcome your notes—but our readers enjoy them as well. You can do this
anytime by clicking on the “Comment” links at the end of each story.
You also can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube and other social-networking sites as well.
(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)