NEWS FEATURE: Aging Members Present Challenges, Opportunities for Religious Congregations

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

MOBILE, Ala. _ Sunday mornings, Frankie Wood stops by an area nursing home to provide transportation to Kingswood United Methodist Church for a fellow church member. And once a month, from September through May, she lends a hand for meetings of the “Keenagers,” the church’s senior citizens group.

“I feel like I’m a helper _ to be able to get to some of these older people who are in their upper 70s and 80s,” says the 63-year-old Wood. “I just like doing that. I just love doing things for other people.”

Oftentimes, she says, they’re a group that’s ignored within the congregations they helped found and support.

Today, more than one in eight Americans _ some 33 million people _ is at least 65. In 30 years, about 20 percent of the U.S. population will be more than 65 years old. As a group, they have better health, better education and better financial security than any of their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.

For countless congregations, these men and women have offered lengthy spiritual, academic, social and financial support. But when they turn to their pastors, priests, rabbis and imams, some may find the opportunities to serve _ or to receive some assistance _ lacking.

Charles Arn, co-author of “Catch the Age Wave” and president of Church Growth, Inc., in Monrovia, Calif., says “ageism” pervades many contemporary churches.

“We did a survey a few years ago,” he says. “For every one senior adult pastor on a staff, there are 48 youth pastors.”

In many cases, Arn says, congregations’ senior members are simply taken for granted. As a group, seniors are loyal to institutions, unlikely to move and generous with their financial contributions. Their children and grandchildren, generally, are less loyal, more transient and not as economically supportive of their congregations, he says.

For those and other reasons, Arn says, religious communities often can be heard bemoaning the “aging of the church” and doing just about anything to capture elusive Boomers, Busters, Gen Xers and the teen-agers and young children of Generation Y.

“One of the reasons that there may be greater attention given to the younger generations is the likelihood that without that attention, the younger generation will take off,” Arn says.

Even so, Arn says congregations need to be more mindful of their senior members, both in terms of services congregations need to provide as well as services older members might render.

“If they view seniors as basically requiring caretaking and attention and consumers of the church’s resources, it’s no wonder that they will do as little as possible,” he says. Ageism in congregations, Arn says, prevents many from realizing the untapped potential of the older members.

Still, some pastors say they cherish their older members.

The Rev. James F. Walters, pastor of First Baptist Church of Mobile, says concern for the elderly motivated his congregation to stay put downtown rather than join some churches in their flight to west Mobile.

“Some years ago, our church made a decision to stay downtown rather than move out to the suburbs,” Walters says. In so doing, Walters says, he and members realized that First Baptist could become “an older congregation.”

“Whether they’re old or deprived,” he says, “they’re just as important as young, thriving families in outer suburbs. Our church chose to stay and to minister and seek to reach out to people even though it’s harder.”

That reaching out includes not only providing portable hearing aids and extra handicapped parking spaces at the church itself, but a homebound ministry, opportunities for fellowship and travel, and volunteer support for Baptist Oaks Apartments, a Mobile facility for the elderly and disabled.

The Rev. G. Warren Wall, pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Mobile’s Spring Hill neighborhood, says he’s particularly concerned about housing for some aging members in his congregation.

“They’re living here in Spring Hill where they have lived and raised their children,” he says. “They’ve been here 40 to 50 years. They don’t want to leave the church. They don’t want to have to go across the Bay to live in some sort of residential facility. They’re not ready to live in a nursing home.”

In turn, Wall says he’d like St. Ignatius to help provide a residential facility for some of its older members. But for now, he says, members of his congregation are “preoccupied with the needs of children and youth.”

“It’s hard to get people to shift their attention to the older members of a congregation,” Wall says. “They’re sort of the hidden members. They’ve been the ones who’ve been there for generations. They’re expected to take care of things.”

Not until younger members recognize the growth explosion among older adults _ and their own nearness to the “golden years” _ will individuals begin to respond to seniors’ needs, Wall says. Until then, he says, “It’s like they have their heads buried in the sand.”

Arn, a church growth consultant, says he hopes congregations would be motivated to respond to the ballooning senior population for theological reasons rather than demographic ones.

“Ideally, the motivation is a realization that God loves seniors as much as he does boomers or busters,” he says. “If a church honestly believes in eternal life, then senior adults are statistically at least closer to facing eternity than any other age group. If there’s any motivation for saving souls, there’s a certain degree of urgency that should be there for older adults.”


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