NEWS FEATURE: Overlooked: the spiritual needs of the middle-aged

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ They have interesting jobs and loving spouses. Their children are successful and their homes are comfortable.

Still the question grows in their minds and touches their souls until it is too powerful to ignore: “Is this all there is?”

At its core, the midlife crisis is a profoundly spiritual struggle, forcing people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s to take stock of their lives and their relationships with God underneath the first shadows of mortality.

Yet it is a question churches, synagogues and mosques have not been particularly good at handling.

Youth and the elderly have their own programs. Middle-aged folks are expected to be the bulwarks of religious institutions, teaching Sunday school and serving on church councils to keep the place running until they again take their turn in the cycle of special ministries.

“We’ve been a voice crying in the wilderness for a long time,” said Sister Anne Brennan of Brick, N.J., co-author with Sister Janice Brewi of “Mid-Life: Psychological and Spiritual Perspectives.”

“Some religious groups think if you’re religious, you don’t have a midlife crisis.”

The two nuns founded Mid-Life Directions in 1981 to help people over 35 embark on a process of midlife discernment. Since then, they have led hundreds of workshops and have trained more than 100 consultants to lead workshops across the country.

People embrace the opportunity to talk about the issues they face in midlife, said Judy Cannato, one of the spiritual directors trained by Brennan and Brewi.

“It helped me to name my experiences, to say this is normal,” said Cannato. “If culture had its way, we would stay in the first half of our life forever.”

After leading hundreds of workshops, Brennan said not one has gone by without a person coming up to her and remarking, “Thanks, I’m not losing my mind.”

Successfully negotiating middle age doesn’t mean you finally will win that Olympic gold medal or meet the idealized spouse of your dreams. What it does mean is discovering what Cannato calls the “best part of me” at each point in your life.

At about midlife, particularly as they become aware the years ahead are fewer than those left behind, people feel a certain urgency to evaluate the road chosen and decide what to do with the rest of their lives, midlife spiritual advisers say.

Some face the midlife crisis by trying to relive their youth, many in relatively benign ways such as buying a sports car or getting a hair transplant. Others may search for happiness in a younger spouse or consumer goods that leave them buried in debt.

At the other extreme, some people are unwilling to contemplate change, according to Brennan. Many find themselves stuck in a rut, holding on to old resentments and what-might-have-beens until they die.

At the turn of the century, the average life expectancy was 47, so no one was thinking in terms of a “second adulthood,” Brennan said. Even the field of adult developmental psychology is relatively new.

Some people question the need for special midlife ministries.

Purdue University sociologist James Davidson says people he knows in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are busier than they have ever been and do not appear to be suffering any midlife crises.

“Even though I’m 55, I haven’t experienced it yet. I guess I’m waiting for the guillotine to fall,”he said.

However, there are signs outside institutional life that people want to talk about midlife issues. There are dozens of self-help books focusing on life in middle age. And movements such as the Promise Keepers for Christian men are thriving in part because they give many men their first opportunity to talk about serious issues of faith, marriage, family and career.

“I think that the new interest in spirituality we’re seeing around the country is that baby boomers are taking these issues more seriously,” said C. Kirk Hadaway, a researcher with the United Church of Christ. “But I don’t think the church has responded very well in terms of providing the small-group experiences that are needed.”

It is socially acceptable to pray in church to recover from illness, Hadaway said. But when was the last time you heard someone pray out loud for help with marriage problems, the loss of a job or a general malaise?

“Part of the problem in the church is it is not OK to talk about it,” Hadaway said. “Your own personal spiritual struggle is taboo.”

A midlife crisis may be triggered by an event such as the death of a parent, the loss of a job, children leaving home or even a 50th birthday, but often it first manifests itself in something as simple as a feeling of being out of gas or a general sense of malaise. Left unattended, the feeling can tend to overwhelm individuals.

“You are an image of God and your uniqueness is going to make an impact on this world _ so get with it,” is Brennan’s message to middle-aged believers.

“It’s never over. You live on and keep uncovering all the gifts that are there.”


Cannato, one of three spiritual directors in Cleveland leading the conferences developed by Brennan and Brewi, recently led a four-day retreat on midlife spirituality at St. Joseph’s Christian Life Center here.

Among the participants were a social worker, Geraldine Jones, and a minister, the Rev. K. Dean Myers.

“I know I’m not going to live 63 more years,” said Jones, 63. “I’m trying to be more satisfied with the person I am becoming than the person I was. I’m learning how to accept some of the decisions I’ve made.”

In particular, she is no longer angry with her children for not following the life plans she had set out for them.

“I’m a child of God, and I don’t always do what’s expected of me,” she said. “I’ve had to change and love them regardless.”

“The reason we came is not because we’re desperate; it’s because we’re hopeful,” said Myers, 55.

At the beginning of the retreat, Myers was contemplating what he wanted to do in the final stages of his working life. As a young pastor, he was concerned some clergy spent their final years at a church winding down.

What he discovered in the workshop was a renewed desire to stay where he is, realizing he still has a lot to offer his church. That includes being more sensitive to midlife issues among congregation members.

“In preaching and teaching, it certainly would be helpful to raise the issues that I suspect they’re all thinking about,” he said.


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