Post 10 of 11 in a series on the 10 Principles of Older Adult Ministry (banner image by Raul Petrie from Unsplash)
I love TikTok. It is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Several times a week, I contemplate taking the video sharing, social media app off my cell phone because I can easily spend hours scrolling through one-minute dance and pet videos. But one of the reasons that I have resisted deleting the app is the unexpected intergenerational aspect. I absolutely love seeing the #over70club share videos dispensing wisdom, recipes, advice, and dance routines.
Many of the videos that pop up on my “For You” page are older adults offering encouragement and blessings for youth and young adults who feel overwhelmed by societal expectations and demands. While most comment sections on the internet can be awful and negative places, the comments on the videos of these older adults can be surprisingly wholesome. Ranging from “I really needed this message today” to “We must protect this grandpa at all costs,” the comments almost always offer affirmation and appreciation for the offerings of these content creators. In these small online interactions, I see something that our culture is hungry for: the wisdom, help, and the blessings of older adults.
In Malidoma Patrice Some’s The Healing Wisdom of Africa, she cites “the power of blessing” as one of the primary duties of an elder in the Dagara Community of West Africa; a responsibility that is only given to the old and wise. An elder’s assistance and blessing are vital to the functioning of the entire community. Bestowing a blessing gives the elders a sense of purpose and call in older age, while also offering much needed perspective to the younger in the village.
In my own work as a hospice chaplain, I have seen how this sense of call and purpose extends throughout the end of life. “I just don’t want to be a burden,” is one of the things I hear most often when I am caring for people in hospice. After lengthy conversations, I have come to see that the concern is more nuanced than it seems on its head. Underlying the fear of being a burden is also a strong desire to be a blessing, even when death is near. Plagued with life limiting illness, so many people still want to find ways to offer love, hospitality, and blessings to those around them and beyond. Witnessing the enduring call of Christ’s discipleship even for those in hospice care has been deeply inspiring and sustaining to me. With vision, care, and creativity, I have found that there are always ways to ensure that older adults feel like a blessing, not a burden.
While the blessings of older adults need not be contained in one-minute TikTok videos, I do think those short videos can be instructive for the Church in harnessing the service and gifts of older adults. One of our roles in Christian education can be providing specific, time bound opportunities for older adults to be of service that emphasize blessing, story, and connection. And a little dancing never hurts.
Post 9 of 11 in a series on the 10 Principles of Older Adult Ministry (banner image by Raul Petrie from Unsplash)
Older adults are not the only ones who benefit from multi-generational interactions. Faith formation research has begun to demonstrate how important intergenerational experiences are for people of all ages.[i] Often, though, our church programs are divided by age group. Prior to the pandemic, worship was sometimes one of the only activities in the church in which people of different generations regularly participated together. Multi-generational ministry should not be isolated just to worship.
How can the church offer more ministry opportunities that cross generational lines, building authentic relationships and benefiting all ages? Sometimes it’s as easy as seeing what skills or experience older adults have and matching those with needs in your ministries for children, youth, or younger adults. One church preschool has what they call VIPs (Very Important People) who volunteer to read to children, cut out and copy items for teachers, or help during center and snack time. The older adults love interacting with the young children. Special relationships are built that continue outside of preschool. When you plan programs for children and youth, be intentional about inviting older adults to participate in ways they are able. This could include chaperoning a mission trip, serving in the nursery, being a confirmation sponsor, volunteering to help a family with new twins, or writing birthday cards to the younger children in your congregation. It takes broadening our expectations of who can serve in particular ministries and listening to the needs, gifts, and limitations of our older adults to find ways they can serve. You may be surprised to find that special life-long relationships are built between people of different generations through these ministries.
Churches should also intentionally plan ministry opportunities where several generations learn, serve and grow together. Your church might plan a church-wide mission day that gathers people of all ages in small groups to serve together. Some ideas are baking cookies for community helpers, sewing blankets for the children’s hospital, or packing “Gift of the Heart” kits for Church World Service. During the pandemic, some churches began pen pal programs with families with young children or teens and isolated older adults. This type of “Adopt-a-Grandparent” program can foster relationships that last for many years, bringing joy to everyone involved. Some congregations offer grandparent/grandchild camp, a VBS type experience for children and older adults (either biological or adopted) to hear and respond to Bible stories together, learning from each other along the way. One church offers “Sharing our Stories of Faith,” an opportunity for adults from 18-100+ to share their faith stories in a multi-generational group. It has brought together adults of all ages for deep faith conversations, allowing them to better understand those of different generations and consider ways to support and nurture each other.
What ways might your congregation intentionally bring together older adults with those of other generations to more fully live into the kingdom of God on earth?
Post 8 of 11 in a series on the 10 Principles of Older Adult Ministry (banner image by Raul Petrie from Unsplash)
“These are key opportunities for fostering spiritual exploration, inviting growth, empowering resilience, developing coping strategies, providing special care, connecting to a small group with similar changes or needs.” (Joyce MacKichan Walker-Principle 7)
Some of Rev. Joyce MacKichan Walker’s earlier principles highlight the wide variations that can be found within older adults (e.g. understandings of Christian faith, and religious-spiritual identities and needs). A person’s condition, for their age is also subject to wide variation; we all know people who we regard as young for their age while others are deemed “old” for their age. While few, if any, of us like to think about or discuss growing older, the silver lining is that it is arguably the one and only thing that unites us as humans, irrespective of color, race, creed, geography etc. So, maybe it is a worthwhile subject to not only embrace but also talk about with our fellow humans. After all, we quickly find that we have a lot in common! If we think in a counter-intuitive manner about aging, we first start to realize that becoming old is a privilege that not all humans get to experience. Moreover, despite our declining mental and physical abilities, we can start to discover, recognize and use our spirituality so that it becomes our “front and center” sustainer in our “Third Thirty” years.
Inevitably, “events” will happen in our Third Thirty. Perhaps the historic reluctance to think or talk about aging is because we know these events (illness, loss of spouse, falls, etc) will occur at some stage; we just don’t know when, but we know that the clock is ticking. Additionally, our egos are fed by our continuing to conduct activities that we have previously performed (climbing ladders, yard work, driving ….. ). Our spirituality, deep within us, can help us to accept the loss of physical or mental acuities with grace and peace of mind. It can also help us to be at peace with the finality of life and to find the strength and will to prepare everything so that our loved ones have an easier time after our death. By gracefully accepting that our abilities are declining, we can find the means to accept help when offered, or ask for help, rather than our intuitive egos believing that to do so is a sign of weakness. The counter-intuitive result of accepting help or asking for help is that we give to the person assisting us; how wonderful is that?!
Our spirituality can also help us determine when the right time is to let go of doing certain tasks by being mindful and “listening to our body”. We thus become willing to let go of things that we have previously believed to be important, be they material things or past grudges. Uppermost for many of us will be the courage to stop driving when the time comes and feel at peace that life can indeed go on without being at the wheel. We can also pass on legacies and experiences either by writing them down as a “life review” exercise or by creating precious memories with loved ones by carving out time, one-on-one, with them and story-telling. All these things take mindfulness and conscious acceptance of the stage of life that we are in.
The reality is that many more transitions will likely occur in our Third Thirty than happened in our second thirty. Finding and using our spirituality can help us to accept that unwelcome fact, and do the things to prepare as much as we can for the final third of life to be as enjoyable for ourselves and our loved ones as possible.
A Note from the Editor: Chris Pomfret’s curriculum, “The Third Thirty” is available free of charge, by contacting him either through the Hope4CE contact page on this site or through a private message to him directly on Facebook.
Post 5 of 11 in a series on the 10 Principles of Older Adult Ministry (banner image by Raul Petrie from Unsplash)
Older adults find community in family, friends, “neighborhoods”, church, small groups, social gatherings, and the list goes on. Being in relationships with these types of groups is so important as we age. Most of us need to be in some sort of community and this is especially true of older adults.
The fact is that older adults today are more engaged in learning and interested in contributing to their communities. Keeping older people involved in their community can substantially reduce the anticipated drain on financial, health care, and housing resources associated with an aging population.
A key issue in aging is social integration, the extent to which a person is actively connected and engaged with their family and community. Cross-cultural evidence shows that older adults are able to maintain a fairly high level of physical and emotional well-being when they have something considered valuable by others in their society, whether it be customs, skills, knowledge, or economic resources.
Today’s older adults want more than to simply “keep busy.” They want meaning. Meaning has to do with feeling that your life still matters (to yourself, at the very least) and that what you do makes sense. It has to do with the conviction that your life is about something more than simply surviving.
When my father died 3 years ago, it became of utmost importance to my siblings and myself to move my mother from her home of 51 years, the house I grew up in, to a new place. Because so much of her life was tied to her life partner and to our home, this was going to be a difficult move. My parents had been married for 64 years and so much of who my mom is was tied to my father. They were a team and now she needed to develop new relationships and find new communities in which to participate.
While mom had wonderful support from her family, her friends and her church community, living on her own in a large house, was just not an option for her children. She needed to be in a larger community where she would be in contact with others on a daily basis in order to build new relationships.
Studies have shown that as we age, we need communities even more. Yes, most of us have the foundation of faith that we learned as children and young adults, but now, maybe even more than before, older adults need to be in community to continue to build on their foundational faith. Learning does not just take place in the school aged years but in all of life. Being in healthy adult relationships allows older adults the ability to share with one another all of life’s up and downs.
I am blessed to serve a congregation that has a healthy relationship with a Senior Adult Living Community. This community offers a full continuum of living options. During the pandemic, it was so hard for the residents as it was for the disciples of my congregation, to get in touch with one another. The facility was on total lockdown to help keep their residents safe. The isolation was unbearable for all! What could the church do? Normally 2 van loads of residents would be in worship every Sunday. Normally, there would be at least 10 disciples who made weekly phone calls and visits to the residents. Normally, those who were still driving would be at the church during the week for Bible studies, book clubs and other events.
The church had banners ordered to place on the lawn of the facility to show our love for both the residents and the healthcare workers. The children of the church made pinecone bird feeders and delivered them to the various buildings to be hung outside so the residents could look outside and see God’s creation and know that they were still thought about and loved.
Being in relationship and in community and continuing to seek to learn in the last third of life is essential to adult faith formation.
Post 4 of 11 in a series on the 10 Principles of Older Adult Ministry (banner image by Raul Petrie from Unsplash)
I work primarily with children and youth and in many churches with the budget, there will be a dedicated person like me on the paid staff. We are there to walk along with the young people as they begin their faith journey. We are there for the emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual needs during those important ages and stages. The things is, this journey is for life. It never ends. We are always learning, exploring, questioning, and needing someone to walk alongside us. As adults we plan a little more of that journey on our own. Gathering for Bible studies, worshipping, involving ourselves in committees with some Pastoral Care to help us when times are tough.
But what about those of us who are getting older and we begin to have varying degrees of mobility and energy? When we cannot engage in the ways we used to, how will the church walk alongside us then?
I know that in early retirement we often get a burst of energy in our congregations. People suddenly have more time to share their talents, attend Bible studies, and serve on committees. Then comes the next stage when mobility, transportation, and even medical issues can limit our involvement or may require some assistance from others.
I worked at a church who was blessed to have a Parish Nurse. I was in awe of the work she did. From taking tours of assisted living facilities with our members, to helping them secure in-home medical equipment, to driving them to doctors appointments, to setting up groups to share their grief, she worked tirelessly to meet the needs of our older members. Still engaging them and connecting them to their beloved community. It was amazing how many people relied on her and grew to love her so. Not unlike my job with youth, our older congregants may need a little more assistance on that faithful journey.
As churches, it is important that we are still meeting those important needs of our members as they step into a new season of their lives. This is why I think intergenerational ministry is so important. It feeds spiritual needs of all ages. It connects us to one another and to God. Faith formation is concerned with all of one’s life, but the needs may not be so different. As you think about your adult educational opportunities for the fall, I encourage you to think about ways you can cross the generations.
Older members make wonderful Confirmation mentors
Have your older members share their stories with your youth and children as part of Sunday school
Create opportunities for all ages to break bread together
Participate in a service project together
Have a monthly or quarterly intergenerational Sunday school
In our church we have 2 weekly caregivers, who members and friends of our church can contact throughout the week for meals, rides, prayer, whatever. It is a great way to connect our congregation while taking care of one another.
I encourage you to create environments where everyone learns from each other. Of course we have things like VBS and Sunday school where we need volunteer teachers. Those are always powerful ways to connect the generations. I also encourage you to create the above opportunities where we gather and are community together. Young learning from older and older learning from our wise young people.
Faith formation is concerned with our entire lives. We are always learning and always growing. There is a woman in my church who plays the glasses. Literally has a set up of wine glasses in different sizes that she plays and it is incredible. My daughter saw this on display one Sunday and was in awe. The woman invited my daughter over to her home to show her how to play. My daughter is a musician and picked it up quickly and the two of them played music all afternoon together. My daughter was taught how to play glasses, but my daughter was also part of this woman’s faith journey. Spending time with someone who missed her own children and grandchildren and was able to share something that gave her so much joy. These holy moments can come where we are forming faith and we don’t even know it.
There are so many ways we can continue to form faith throughout all the ages and it may never involve a Bible or a curriculum. Get creative in connecting with our older members because those may be the ones that surprise you most.
Post 3 of 11 in a series on the 10 Principles of Older Adult Ministry (banner image by Raul Petrie from Unsplash)
“…those who are religiously/spiritually committed and engaged in the faith community; [and] those who are less religiously committed and participate occasionally in the faith community.” In their circles of connection, our congregants will also encounter, “…those who have left established churches and religion, but are still spiritual and spiritually committed, [and] those who are unaffiliated, uninvolved, and claim no religious identity.” (From Honoring and Enriching the Lives and Spiritual Journeys of Older Adults)
It is a good reminder that not every older adult has a church background. We may assume they grew up in church or have attended more Bible studies than the Pastor – but that simply is not true in all cases. We must provide varying opportunities for engagement, Bible study and worship.
Middle-aged people who are having religious stirrings for the first time, or at least for the first time since they were young may find these urges confusing and even troubling, especially if they moved away from faith earlier in life.
These seekers usually believe their spiritual yearnings are unusual, but they aren’t. Research from the United States shows that religious attachment commonly decreases in young and middle adulthood, but then increases through one’s 40s and beyond. The theologian James Fowler explained this pattern in his famous 1981 book, Stages of Faith. After studying hundreds of human subjects, Fowler observed that as young adults, many people are put off by ideas that seem arbitrary or morally retrograde, such as those surrounding sexuality. They may also become disillusioned by religion’s inability to explain life’s hardest puzzles; for example, the idea of a loving God in the face of a world full of suffering.
As they get older, however, people begin to recognize that nothing is tidy in life. This, according to Fowler, is when they become tolerant of religion’s ambiguities and inconsistencies and start to see the beauty and transcendence in faith and spirituality—either their own faith from childhood, or some other. Fowler’s later research asked whether the stages he found in the 1970s and ’80s held against modern developments (such as decreasing religious participation in the U.S.); he observed that they did.
For those who embrace faith at this stage, it is a joyful epiphany; religious and spiritual adults are generally happier and generally suffer less depression than those who have no faith. And the benefits of finding faith as an adult go beyond life satisfaction, according to research on the subject: Religion and spirituality are also linked to better physical health. This could be in part because the majority of studies find practitioners are less likely than others to abuse drugs and alcohol.
As we plan Adult Education classes, studies and worship it is imperative to remember our older adults may have grown up in the church, may have fallen away from the church, and are now revisiting or perhaps have never taken a Christian Education class. We should be aware of the vast experiences and biblical understanding each participant may have. It cannot be assumed every older adult knows who Rahab, David, Esther, Paul or Lydia are, their stories or how God used them to share God’s message of love and hope. It may be better to circle back to the basics to help those who may not have a lot of biblical background, and while doing this you are reviewing and helping other “veteran learners” to remember without making anyone feel uncomfortable.
Post 2 of 11 in a series on the 10 Principles of Older Adult Ministry (banner image by Raul Petrie from Unsplash)
I have two friends, who are post-retirement and might be classified as active older adults. They approach their faith and life in vastly different ways. We’ll call them Jean and Karla for the sake of this article. Both are musical. Both attend the same church and are active members. Jean is Caucasian and Karla is African American.
Jean finds her connection to God through her work with immigrants. She is actively involved in advocacy work and service to this population, often housing immigrants released from detention in her home and escorting them to the airport to connect with family members in other parts of the country.
Karla finds her connection to God through gardening and baking for others. She is known for her pound cakes and is always delivering them to folks celebrating birthdays or other life marker events. She is a people person and dispenser of hugs and this time of physical isolation has been difficult for her.
In the past, developmental psychology would have placed these two women in the same category, because of their chronological age, but one can see from these brief descriptions that they live very different lives and consequently likely have very different beliefs about God’s work in the world and their vocation as disciples. They may share markers such as retirement, deaths of loved ones, and health challenges, but because of their life experience and faith journey, they are likely to have differing views on God, the church, prayer, and other issues of faith.
Dan Buettner, National Geographic Writer and Explorer, gave a TED talk in 2009, provocatively titled “How to live to be 100+.” In this talk he looks at Blue Zones in the world where people’s longevity is much greater than the average. One of these areas was on the northern portion of the main island of Okinawa. Here the older adults don’t have a word for retirement, but do for life’s purpose. It is “ikigai” roughly translated as, “what gets you up in the morning.” For Jean and Karla, it is clear what their “ikigai” would be based on the descriptions I have given. As you think about the older adults in your congregation, do they have a reason for getting up in the morning? Is it tied to their faith? How would this vocation link to their views on who God is and what the church should be? How might you differentiate the ways you approach older adults to more personalize the ways that you guide or walk alongside individuals on their pilgrimages of faith?
Last week, Joyce MacKichan Walker shared some resources from Lifelong Faith and elsewhere to address the growing population of older adults in our congregations. I’m adding to our resource lists with some denominational resources and curated collections and a Pew Research Study that gives a broad view of what older adults think of religion and specific questions of faith. Hopefully these offerings will build your library of resources, as we continue to think deeply about these principles of older adult ministry.
United Methodist Church– A blog post on creating a pen pal ministry between generations and the benefits for older adults
I’m sure there are many others. If I’ve missed particular denominational resources that you are familiar with, please feel free to pass these on to the learning community by commenting on this post or posting a resource within the Hope4CE Facebook group.
In this post-pandemic world, it is more important than ever to intentionally engage in ministry with, and shaped for, older adults. Those without technology skills and equipment feel left-out. Those without families to encourage and surround them feel left-behind. Those outside thriving, connected, senior adult centers feel isolated. The places they called home, their church and the multitude of organizations of which they were a part, despite super-human efforts to stay connected in the midst of extraordinary circumstances, are just now beginning to open their doors and welcome them into the warm embrace of friends and stories and empathy and beloved community. What an opportunity to extend the reach of God’s love into a world of grief and mourning, fear and disorientation, longing and desire for deep connection!
Photo by Gabriel Porras from Unsplash
Who are these older adults and what engages their interest and commitment? Whether you define “older adults as 60-100 years, in categories of “mature” and “seasoned,” or as “elders” or “third-thirties,” there are 6500 more people over the age of 65 in America every day. These ten principles may offer you real keys to re-opening the doors of Christian community to them with renewed purpose:
Older adults’ understandings of Christian faith vary significantly.
Expect a great variety of beliefs about God, who Jesus was and/or is, the purpose of the church, how faith might affect one’s life, the aim of prayer, and what death brings, amongst others.
2. Older adults enter our congregations with a variety of religious-spiritual identities and needs:
“…those who are religiously/spiritually committed and engaged in the faith community; [and] those who are less religiously committed and participate occasionally in the faith community.” In their circles of connection, our congregants will also encounter, “…those who have left established churches and religion, but are still spiritual and spiritually committed, [and] those who are unaffiliated, uninvolved, and claim no religious identity.”
3. Faith formation is concerned with all of one’s life.
This includes one’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual realities.
4. Relationship and community are key to adult faith formation.
Older adults find community in family, friends, “neighborhoods,” church, small groups, and social gatherings.
5. Diversity of programming provides the depth to engage a breadth of situations and circumstances.
This includes a great variety of housing situations, and “family” relationships.
6. Older adults have a variety of preferred ways of learning; but will try new ways to engage.
Pay attention to offering choices, and plan for many abilities and needs for accommodation.
7. Many highly significant life transitions occur in the last third of life.
These are key opportunities for fostering spiritual exploration, inviting growth, empowering resilience, developing coping strategies, providing special care, and connecting to a small group with similar changes or needs.
8. Multi-generational contact for learning and relationships are highly valued by many older adults.
These contacts are beneficial to all ages and stages for life-story telling, learning to be sensitive to others’ needs, discovering ways to love and care, working together on a task, and experiencing joy and delight.
9. Helping others is a deep desire of older adults.
When searching for or creating opportunities to help, consider accessibility for many abilities, meeting needs for contribution and caring, creating relationship with others that can be life-giving, finding situations where continuing partnership is both possible and desirable and mutual benefits are optimal.
10. Older adults show increasing openness to the online, digital world for faith formation.
Advantages: Personalizing exploration and learning; offering a variety of entry points into learning; connecting isolated individuals though common interests; delivering content about every subject imaginable; guiding physical exercise, spiritual practices, worship, and training for particular ministries. But not every older adult has or is willing to engage with technology.
Each one of these principles offers rich opportunities to develop engagement and programming in conversation with older adults. Choose one or two that most describe your own context and make a fresh start in this post-pandemic world. Older adults are hungry for the Spirit, and the Spirit is willing and able to offer the food of community and connection that gives life.
A note from the editor: This is the initial post of an eleven part series. Each Tuesday this summer we will publish a post by a different author focusing on one of these 10 principles. We hope this enlivens your ministry with older adults.
Resources for planning ministry with older adults:
“Elders Rising” – Webinar “Ministry with Older Adults” with Dr. Roland Martinson (April 23, 2020)
Also, his book by the same name: Elders Rising: The Promise and Peril of Aging
“In this inspiring book, Roland D. Martinson draws on the folk wisdom and experience of over fifty persons between the ages of sixty-two and ninety-seven. He puts this wisdom in conversation with scriptural and theological understandings of elders in the last third of life and sets forth perspectives on aging for individuals, groups, civic organizations, and congregations to utilize in developing a vital, resilient, and productive quality of life for elders.”
The Seasons of Adult Faith Formation, Editor: John Roberto, LifelongFaith Associates, 2015.
2020 Older Adult Ministry Planning Guide, Presbyterian Older Adult Ministry Network (PCUSA), which contains an annual Worship Outline for Older Adult Sunday (May 3rd in 2020). Free download on POAMN site.
“What is the simplest this can be and still be effective?”
Over the last twelve months I’ve found myself asking the question above over and over. I’m exhausted by the realities of day-to-day living during a pandemic, and I’m guessing many families around the world would say the same.
As I was brainstorming what to offer for Lent in Vibrant Church Communications, the question of simplicity was front and center in my thoughts. As my thoughts tumbled around, the rough edges knocked against each other and smoothed into shape: micropractices.
On the surface, micropractices are simple. They are an action that can usually be taken in the moment or easily done at some point in the day. They follow the three pillars of Lent: praying, fasting, and giving. There’s an additional fourth category called “more” for practices that don’t fit into the first three.