Many seniors feel there is no place for them at church. How can that change?
I still remember the annual youth/senior crokinole tournament at our church when I was a youth. My partner and I faced off with Mr. Pierce, a war veteran missing a finger, and Mr. Brown, a grey-haired farmer. They trounced us. As they shot their discs across the board, they told stories and drew out of us what we were interested in, planning and needed prayer for. We often spoke on Sunday mornings after that.
The annual crokinole tournament was fun, but something more important was going on. The seniors were no longer "scary" and nameless grey heads to the youth. Instead they became Mr. Pierce whose wife was very sick, and Mr. Brown who taught me how important it was to be thankful for something every day. They kept track of the sports we played, where we had part-time jobs and how we did on exams.
I thought this happened in churches everywhere, but it doesn’t. Many churches have most of their ministries by age group and much of the time it seems the ages don’t mingle or minister to each other.
I spoke with seniors across the country for this article, and many shared they felt there was no meaningful place for them in the church. Many spoke out against modern worship and a lack of planned contemplative silence within services. Some complained people wore casual clothing like jeans to church – they found that disrespectful. Many said they would not invite their unchurched friends out on a Sunday morning. Services were too loud and confusing.
Marion Goertz, a registered marriage and family therapist in Toronto, hears these sentiments often in her own practice when she speaks with seniors. "I think that if health is there, health of mind and body, people of a certain age have a strong opinion and aren’t afraid to share it. You’ll often hear a diatribe against the casualness [of church],"she says.
Wearing jeans and having sometimes loud, contemporary music in church services probably is not going to change anytime soon. And of course, those things don’t bother every senior. But how can churches minister better to seniors who may feel disenfranchised – and also minister with seniors, recognizing them as gifted members with much to offer?
According to a 2011 Statistics Canada Census report, the average life expectancy in Canada has increased 24.6 years since 1921, with seniors staying active and healthy into their early 70s. That same report stated, "Centenarians were the second-fastest growing age group" in Canada.
Able and willing, but hard to find a place
Lyle Pennington, 70+ years old, attends University Drive Alliance Church in Lethbridge, Alta. In the last three years, he’s done construction-based mission trips to Swaziland, South Africa, Benin and Armenia. He’s able and willing, but says there are no opportunities to serve in his own church.
"The older people have been removed from their positions. It’s really sad," Pennington says. "We have young people teaching young people and old people teaching old people. There’s a lack of experience being passed on – a lack of mentoring. Paul did that with Timothy, but we’re not allowed to."
Noreen Edmonson, 67, is a retired nurse living in Moose Jaw, Sask. She says her church has a lot of activities for seniors, dinners and ice cream socials and old-fashioned hymn sings, which she enjoys. However, Edmonson wants to participate in ministry, not only be ministered to. She’s been to Haiti on a mission trip and plans weeklong backpacking trips.
"There aren’t many opportunities for seniors to serve in the church. We’re asked for financial support."
Edmonson played flute Sunday mornings at her last church for 57 years, but found there was no place for her in the music ministry at her new church. "I approached the worship pastor who is also the youth pastor, and the response I got was the flute doesn’t work very well [with the music they play]. I feel like I could be more integrated and really would like to be, and don’t know what to do."
Relationships are central
Goertz says relationships are key to helping seniors feel connected and part of the church community. "Take the time to get to know them. There’s a respect there that says, ‘We need to hear from you. What would be helpful?’" says Goertz. "Ask, ‘What is your spiritual life evolving to look like and how can we come alongside you?’"
Edmund Oliver co-ordinates the seniors’ ministry at Hope Christian Reformed Church in Brantford, Ont. The church offers two different seniors groups that are popular – one group is more social and the other focuses on intentional Bible study and discussion. "We target those aged 55 and over, and frankly have some difficulty getting younger senior adults involved."
Ruth Waring attends Fairview Baptist Church in Lindsay, Ont., and labels herself one of those stragglers reluctant to "move up." "I really don’t like thinking of myself as a senior, though I do occasionally go to the seniors’ events."
Waring doesn’t feel mingling the age groups should be mandated, rather they should be given opportunity where heart’s desire is present. She remembers three older ladies befriending her when her children were very young, but says those ladies did that because they had a heart for a young mom. "There are seniors who can’t do it anymore. There are those who don’t want to," Waring says. "But there are some who do."
RELATIONSHIPS ARE KEY TO HELPING SENIORS FEEL CONNECTED AND PART OF THE CHURCH COMMUNITY.
Everyone is looking for connection, acceptance and love. Forming ministries around age groups is great, but we also need to create meaningful opportunities for intergenerational mingling that’s not preplanned or part of an outreach event. Among seniors there’s "a lot of loneliness and disenfranchisement," says Goertz. "‘Who are we? Who are our people? Do we even matter? Is anyone even listening?’ Maybe we need more dialogue about where we’re going and about co-creating as we’re called to do."
Staying socially active is important, particularly to those seniors who have always been actively involved in ministry. "People who are socially involved tend to live longer and better. Social involvement is one of the key things," says Edmonson. Studies show a lack of social relationships in the lives of Canadians increases the risk of early mortality, on par with smoking, obesity and lack of exercise.
Provide opportunities to share skills
Some churches have an adopt-a-grandparent program, other churches pair seniors with youth as prayer partners and issue missionary-type prayer cards.
Many seniors have expertise that could be used in a church, like Lyle Pennington and his skills in the trades, or Noreen Edmonson in health care. Ruth Waring is happy to help out those a little older who have mobility issues because she says she understands their situation better than a younger person would. Those with a heart to mentor younger people in a variety of settings say they would welcome the opportunity to share their wisdom and experience.
Waring feels the seniors at her church are not neglected, but remembered and cared for. Her advice? "Depending on the size of the church, budget and so on, a church can hire a seniors’ pastor or an elder or deacon. Maybe there would [be] that type of an assigned position [for someone] who has a heart to do it."
Edmonson expressed grief over not being able to serve in the church. "Give me an idea and I’ll pitch it to the leaders," she says. "I’m not an idea person, but I have enthusiasm. Even though I’m a geezer, I can be involved."
Lisa Hall-Wilson is a freelance writer in London, Ont.
RECOMMENDED BOOKS AND VIDEOS
The United Methodist Church has an Office on Aging and Older Adult Ministries: www.aging-umc.org.
Amy Hanson (www.amyhanson.org) is author of Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults Over 50 (Jossey-Bass, 2010).
A Vision for the Aging Church: Renewing Ministry for and by Seniors (IVP Academic, 2011) by James M. Houston and Michael Parker.
John Roberto edits Lifelong Faith, a journal available free online at www.lifelongfaith.com/journal.html.
Senior Adult Ministry in the 21st Century: Step-By-Step Strategies for Reaching People Over 50 (Wipf & Stock, 2006) is a practical book by David P. Gallagher. —BILL FLEDDERUS