adult ministries growing with population Â
By Cecile S. Holmes
As just-turned-70 Bob Dylan croons, â€œThe times they are a-changinâ€™,â€ he could be singing about older adults and older adult ministry in The United Methodist Church.
|First United Methodist Church member Barbara Heaton enjoys her birthday cake at a party held for her at Wesley Acres in Des Moines, Iowa. Helping her celebrate is Christine Anders.|
|INTERPRETER PHOTO/CHRISTINE ANDERS|
Baby boomers, the same generation that 50 years earlier brought an explosion in ministries for children and youth is now causing churches to reconsider ministry with older adults. Adults who were once considered a single group are now segmented into interest and ability groupings and several generations.
Ten years ago, when Wilma Williams started working in older adult ministry at First United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, a lunchtime program with a speaker and a trip or two each year were sufficient, she says.
â€œWe still have programs,â€ Williams says, â€œbut we also have more activities. Older adults are the most active group in our church.â€ Their projects are multiple, ranging from giving â€œblankets of loveâ€ to every child in the church to a â€œcaregiverâ€™s day-outâ€ program.
Changing needs and changing demographics among older Americans drive todayâ€™s older adult ministries, says the Rev. Richard Gentzler, director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries for the General Board of Discipleship in
Average life expectancy has increased from 48 years to 78 years in the past 100 years, he says. â€œThat has had a profound impact. Not only are we living longer than 100 years ago, weâ€™re living healthier,â€ he says. â€œThe older adults who are with us now are really pioneers.â€
The churchâ€™s early ministry to older adults took the form of Â building nursing homes to care for clergy
widows. It is now multi-dimensional, ranging from supporting those who are homebound to sponsoring classes and studies to organizing crews of retirees to serve in tornado-devastated communities. Age alone no longer dictates what ministry older adults need â€“ or can provide.
Two women in their 90s are among the most active participants in OWLS, Older Wiser Laughing Souls, at Reidland United Methodist Church in Paducah, Ky. The church began the ministry in 2006 after its volunteer co-coordinators, Cathy Burkhead and Lynda Karnes, both retirees, attended a workshop. Reidland realized that more than 60 percent of its 400 members were over age 55, Burkhead says.
Karnes obtained a license to drive the churchâ€™s bus. Burkhead took the lead generating ideas.
â€œIt took two heads on this one to be successful,â€ says Burkhead.
Redlandâ€™s older adults complete an annual survey to help the coordinators select OWLSâ€™ speakers, programs and trips. Older adults conduct a yearly worship service and play in an eight-member musical group, the Owleluia Chimers, and engage in a host of other ministries.
Living longer, seeking purpose
In general, todayâ€™s older adults in the United States not only live longer, they are also Â healthier and wealthier than previous generations. At the same time, most people older than 65 have or will experience multiple transitions brought on by lost roles, a loss of a spouse, lost income and even the loss of a driverâ€™s license.
Â â€œOne of the great difficulties as we age is finding purpose and meaning in life,â€ says Gentzler.
We hear some older people say, â€˜I donâ€™t know why God keeps me here.â€™ What theyâ€™re saying is they feel they no longer have purpose or meaning in their lives.â€ Ministry with older adults needs to consider all of these issues.
The church should respond to the differences among older adults creatively, say experts including Missy Buchanan, an active member of First United Methodist Church in Rockwall, Texas. She is the author of three books related to aging, including â€œDonâ€™t Write My Obituary Just Yet: Inspiring Faith Stories for Older Adults.â€
â€œThe one-size-fits-all approach to older adult ministries won't work in the future,â€ she says. â€œPeople tend to forget that today's older adults are a very diverse group.â€
|Making blankets for a shelter for homeless women and children was among the activities when several generations came together for the spring Womenâ€™s Retreat sponsored by First United Methodist church in Des Moines, Iowa.|
|INTERPRETER PHOTO/CHRISTINE ANDERS|
â€œAn active older adult who can ballroom dance and play golf is very different than one who is frail and spends his days in a recliner,â€ she says. â€œBut both need to be nurtured and encouraged by the church.â€
Vibrant, healthy churches know where their older members are, Buchanan says. They do not forget the once-active adults who Â now live in assisted living and care centers, unable to get to church because they
do not drive or do not have the physical energy to attend.
These churches offer ministry through regular visits and â€œfind ways to bring â€˜churchâ€™ to them.â€ They also
encourage those who cannot be present in person to continue to serve by praying for those on the church prayer list, writing devotions for Lent and Advent and leading or participating in Bible study in care centers where they live.
Consider more than age
At First United Methodist Church in Des Moines, Iowa, staff member Christine Anders says the church has tried to do away with age-related labels, and let people â€œself selectâ€ from varied adult programming.
People know their own interests and physical abilities, she says. â€œYou can have 80-year-olds who want to
participate in a canoeing retreat and 30-year-olds who want to attend a funeral-planning workshop.â€
Experts say older-adult ministry organizers must recognize that the baby boomer generation (people born from 1946 to 1964) resists any label that hints of the word â€œold.â€
Baby boomers will seldom participate in a group with a â€œcutesy name: Golden Classics,Â Old Timers,
etc.,â€ Buchanan says. â€œBottom line, boomersÂ do not want to be associated with theÂ same group as their aging parents.Â Today's younger older adults are focused on doing whatever it takes to stay young and active for as long as possible.â€
Pam Jaco, director of senior adult ministry and evangelism at First United Methodist Church in Jackson, Tenn., agrees. â€œOne of our biggest problems is that we donâ€™t like to admit we are aging,â€ says Jaco, a baby boomer.
Involving boomers in older-adult ministries is a challenge, says Jaco. She has had success with two-hour trips to Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., Â to see Broadway play tour companies and equal success with longer â€œdestination trips.â€
For an active group of 75-90-year-olds, Jaco coordinates day trips, such as a river cruise, tour of an
automotive plant and a gallery and garden visit.
Senior volunteers at Jackson First also deliver video players and DVDs of Sunday services to the homebound, and soon will take communion to shut-ins.
Parish nursing ministries can assist older adults who want to remain in their homes when health problems
arise, says Pat Magyar of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
Parish nurses can provide information about services to help coordinate home care for the older adult and to meet other needs.
So many issues affect life as one ages, Gentlzer says. â€œA good older adult ministry program is truly empowering â€“â€“ equipping older adults to live out their faith as Christian disciples in the world.â€
--Cecile Holmes is a veteran religion journalist and associate professor at the University of South Carolinaâ€™s School of Journalism and Mass Communications.