Friday, October 7, 2011

Seniors in the Church

As I have probably mentioned in previous posts, one of the biggest transformations in my theology and thinking since entering into full-time vocational ministry and then seminary is my view of the role of the Church. I continue to wrestle through what role the Church has in the lives of the people who are part of it. The Church is the only organization that SHOULD focus its attention and resources on the people who have not yet come to be a part of it. I'm pretty sure that the percentage of churches that actually do that is smaller than most church-going folks would be willing to shamelessly admit.

As a people watcher, it's very interesting to watch people as they interact within church. It's also interesting to hear certain comments and complaints from people. People's perception becomes their reality and the lens through which they view the world. It doesn't necessarily matter to them that their perception is wrong, if it's their perception, it seems right to them. I'm not advocating relativism, all that I am saying is that people's perception has a huge impact on their view of the world, and in this particular case, the Church.

Both in my last church and in my current church, I have had the privilege to work with our senior adults. At my last church, I went into it kicking and screaming. I admit, I needed some shaping and molding of my attitude because I only saw it as an inconvenience and a time waster. Boy did they show me. In fact, when the time came for me to leave that church, one of the groups that I missed the most was that group of seniors who had taught me some invaluable lessons, lessons that I will not easily forget.

When I came to my current church, the pastor who had been there for 20 years had been leading a hymn sing with the seniors once a month. When it came time for him to leave, he said that he wanted me to take over for him. Thankfully, God had done some work in me and I seized this opportunity as a blessing and privilege.

Of course, I haven't regretted a moment of it. When my mom died nearly three months ago, some of the seniors to whom I minister came all the way to Williamsburg (not a big trip for a younger person, but an hour drive for seniors is a bigger commitment) to show their love and support to me and my family. In fact, every month when I meet with them, it's almost like I get to spend a few hours with my grandparents...the good kind of grandparents, not the cheek-squeezing and scolding kinds, but the "can I spoil you a little more" kind.

My hesitation to get involved with seniors when I first entered ministry was due to things that I was hearing people say about them. It seemed like I was hearing a lot of complaints from "them." Upon further probing though, I found out that it was never really the seniors that were complaining, it was always someone else complaining on behalf of the seniors. It was almost as if people didn't think that they could speak for themselves, which seemed fairly ironic to me.

The irony really came in the fact that there was a growing perception and concern that they weren't being cared for, loved, and appreciated and that there was nothing for them. I thought it odd that the people who were bringing these concerns felt that they needed to be the voicebox of people who were perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. In fact, by not allowing them to speak for themselves, was that taking something away from them?

As I spent time with the seniors, I tried to reconcile the complaints that I was hearing with what I was experiencing in my time with them. They didn't seem to add up. Not to say that they would always tell me everything, but I was not hearing from them what I was hearing from others. As a learner and people watcher, I observed and watched to see what I could understand and learn.

I came to the conclusion that as long as the seniors felt that they were being cared for and loved and felt that they were still a vital and integral part of the church, they were pretty tolerant. They might not always like changes that would occur, but there is hardly a demographic within the world who has experienced more change than seniors. They know that it is an inevitable part of life, what they are concerned with is that people at least inform them of the changes that take place, let them know what will be happening so that it doesn't come as such a surprise to them. Communication is vital and it needs to be two-way communication, allowing them to work through their thoughts and feelings about the change.

The other part of the conclusion was the realization that the seniors were still an important and vital part of the church. The problem seemed to be that so many of the ministry opportunities that were presented to the overall body were focused on things that were much easier accomplished by younger people. In order to allow for these seniors to still remain active, it becomes necessary to think outside the box. This thinking isn't something reserved to the church staff either, it's a two-way street, everyone needs to be part of it.

Seniors have more available time during the day than most other people within the Church. There are things that can be done by them that can't be done by anyone else just by the nature of their availability. A lot of the ones that I have worked with love to make phone calls and encourage people with cards and words. There is the opportunity for them to be "Paul" to so many young "Timothy"s within the Church.

As my mind pondered over this, I decided to try something. It's strictly in an experimental stage right now, but I will be anxious to see how it goes. Starting in January, we will have a new class of students who will be going through the confirmation process in our church. I decided that I would bring the list of these students to our seniors to allow them to "adopt" them. They could write them notes, send them cards, make phone calls to them, and just be encouragements to them as they journey through this process. They can be an important and vital part in the spiritual formation of these young people.

Like I said, I'm anxious to see how it goes. Regardless of how it goes though, I know that there will be some seniors who will know that they are still valued and that they still have something to offer to God's Kingdom work. I am hoping that out of this, there might be other thoughts about ministry opportunities for the seniors. No one ever retires from working for God, regardless of how old they are or how little they might think that they have to offer. All it requires is a little "out-of-the-box" thinking. I can only hope that one day, when I'm much older, that I will find opportunities to serve the Lord. The opportunities might not be what they used to be, but I'm sure that they will still serve an important part in the overall body of Christ.

Next time you encounter seniors in your church, if you've struggled with where they fit, try looking at them through a different lens. Remember that they might not be able to do some of the things that you can do, but they also have a lot to offer that you can't. The collective wisdom among them is a resource that desperately needs to be tapped into if we are to avoid allowing history to repeat itself within the Church. If you think that they just sit around, sing hymns, dream of days gone by, and expectantly await Christ's return, maybe it's because they've not been given the opportunity to serve in a way that better fits their abilities and stage of life.

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