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Growing Old Gracefully

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Older members make up a sizable portion of many congregations. Churches can find help online for meeting their spiritual needs.

Churches typically devote much attention and resources to the children and teens among them. But at the other end of the age spectrum is another key component of congregational life.

These days, 30 percent of the typical church’s regular worshippers are 60 or older, according to the latest National Congregations Study.  That presents an entirely different set of ministry opportunities and challenges.

What special needs do older members have? What religious services might hold particular meaning for them? How might their spiritual maturity and life experiences benefit others in the congregation? How does spiritual life change with age?

Linda Wolf Jones offers some helpful advice for those starting out. Jones holds a doctorate in social welfare as well as a master of divinity degree, and she serves as assistant pastor for senior ministries at Concord-St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Bethesda, Md.

The hallmark of a strong ministry for these members, she says, is not so much activities, though of course those can be important.

“The main quality, I think, is intangible. It’s knowing that when you get your aches or pains or crazy fears or moments of depression … that there’s somebody that you can call or reach out to, who is there for that very purpose. Who will accept your call, ease your fears, comfort you at that moment or just make lighthearted silly conversation.”

Some older adults are challenged by a struggle with questions about God. For others, physical decline, especially pain or mobility issues, may keep them from participating in congregational life to the degree they’d like. Another common challenge can be concern about imposing on relatives or other caregivers, and spiritual resources can help the older member accept the situation with grace.

“Finally, I guess, aside from all of the practical issues, there’s the issue of looking back on one’s life and dealing with some regrets,” Greer says. A strong ministry can help those individuals come to terms with the past and be at peace.

Whether current trends will hold or new challenges will arise as baby boomers enter old age is a matter of speculation for now. Both Greer and Jones suspect new challenges will emerge.

The swiftly disappearing “Greatest Generation” has been characterized by a lifetime of devotion to God and country, Jones says. These eldest of the elderly have had “more of a belief in what one was supposed to do, and one went out and did it.”

Baby boomers, on the other hand, grew up “in a world that was being torn apart in many ways,” she says. “Civil rights, women’s rights, Vietnam, the Summer of Love … you name it. And as everything else was being torn apart, questioned, discarded, to some extent that faith was also.”

So, while the Greatest Generation may be hewing to lifelong religious beliefs and practices in their twilight years, baby boomers may find themselves returning to a long-discarded childhood faith – or perhaps doing something entirely different.

Indeed, Greer wonders whether old age might prove to be vastly changed for those next in line. “There might be a bigger emphasis on independence in baby boomers,” she says. “I also wonder if there’s going to be more dissatisfaction with and resistance to aging. Boomers have been identified for so long with youth and vitality. It’ll be interesting to see what the spiritual struggles are.”

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