Steps for vital older adult ministry

Anytown United Methodist Church sponsors a regular monthly luncheon for older adults. In addition to the covered-dish meal, a speaker or program is held to entertain, inform and inspire participants. Normal attendance averages about 20, even though there are several hundred older adults both in the church and in the community.

The pastor would like to get more people involved in this particular program. After all, it's the only ministry the church has for older members.

Churches genuinely concerned about the faith development of all God's people will want to develop vital ministry by, with and for older adults. Unfortunately, when older adults see little interest directed at them by the church, they gradually lose their sense of themselves as having value and worth, which diminishes their faith development.

Churches have an opportunity to celebrate Older Adult Recognition Day during the month of May. However, this should not be the only time of year when congregations develop intentional ministry with older adults.

One important ministry model for congregations seeking to develop a comprehensive older adult ministry is the S.E.N.I.O.R.S. Ministry model. The seven components are Spiritual, Enrichment, Nutrition (Wellness), Intergenerational, Outreach, Recreation and Service.

Spiritual - I don't know anywhere in the Bible where it says that God takes away God's blessing when a person reaches the age of 65. God does have much to say in Scripture about aging, which is a gift from God and has a purpose. Job 12:12 raises the question of whether "Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days." An answer is given in Proverbs 16:31, "Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is found on the path of righteousness."

While we are all spiritual beings, not all older adults are religious. Helping older adults in their spiritual journey is vital for the later years. Worship, Bible study, prayer groups, church school, journaling classes and healing services are just some of the many ways congregations can be encouraging and instrumental in their faith development. Holding special Sunday afternoon worship services for the homebound, offering home Communion and making friendly visits are a few additional opportunities.

Enrichment - Older adults, no less than other people, want to continue learning. In our fast-paced and changing society, older adults need opportunities to continue the lifelong process of learning and growing.

Churches can help older adults learn and grow by providing information and classroom situations related to their needs and concerns. Issues around health and finances are important, as well as political concerns and the environment. Opportunities to learn about the latest technology can be especially endearing to many seniors. The chance to travel and join in mission can both educate and provide a sense of purpose to older adults.

Nutrition (Wellness) - The church plays an important role in the physical well-being of older adults. From providing meals to exercise classes to adult day services, congregations have found varied ways to foster the well-being of older adults. With changes in health care, pensions and federal insurance programs, congregations need to train volunteers to serve as congregational care teams, an increasingly necessary task of the church. Many congregations also have on staff a parish nurse, who not only takes regular blood pressure checks but also helps educate the whole congregation about wellness.

(From left) Ed Schellhaas, Gary Brand, Clancy Biegler, and Charles Barker, all members of Trinity United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio, traveled to Washington as part of Honor Flight. Photo by Jeff Fisher.
(From left) Ed Schellhaas, Gary Brand, Clancy Biegler, and Charles Barker, all members of Trinity United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio, traveled to Washington as part of Honor Flight. Photo by Jeff Fisher.

Intergenerational - When congregations place an emphasis on the faith development of older adults, this does not suggest that we are less concerned with individuals of other ages. We need one another, and this need expresses itself in healthy relationships as nurturing and caring opportunities. Old and young alike should be encouraged to work, play and study together.

Older adults should be invited and equipped to serve as volunteers in programs serving other age groups, such as mentoring youth and young adults, tutoring children or being a foster grandparent. Younger and older people can be teamed up together to provide particular ministries, such as working to clean up the environment, visiting people who are homebound or in prison, participating in short-term mission projects or attending a weekend spiritual retreat.

Outreach - The mission of The United Methodist Church is "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." In doing so, the church involves older adults in reaching out to other people in their communities, as well as the church reaching out to other non-churched older adults.

Older adults can be the purveyors of the Good News, but they should also be the recipients. All too often, our view of church growth is reaching out only to the under-35 crowd rather than to all ages.

Recreation - Older adults can literally think themselves into the grave by feeling bad about getting old. Attitude is an important index in prolonging life expectancy. The ability to recreate gives people the chance to re-create themselves at this stage of their lives. Laughter, fun, humor and play are all vital ingredients for the well-being of older persons.

Fellowship meals, game days and travel events are a few ways congregations can involve older adults in recreation. Holding golf or fishing outings, arts and crafts, quilting circles and senior theater are additional ways to energize older adults for fun and play.

Service - Helping to meet the needs of others can provide an ongoing sense of purpose for older adults. There are countless opportunities available for older adults to be in service: giving care, preparing meals, providing transportation, engaging in active listening, monitoring medication, teaching Sunday school or singing on the choir. Congregations must encourage older adults to be in service, and congregations must be willing to equip, train and support them in these endeavors.

Older adults are the fastest-growing age demographic in many of our congregations. We can remain behind the curve and ignore an important resource for church vitality and growth, or we can be enlightened to the special gifts that older adults offer to Christ and the church.

*Gentzler is director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries, United Methodist Board of Discipleship

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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