Congregational Based Ministry with Older Adults

By Richard H. Gentzler, Jr., D.Min.

 “In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap” (Psalm 92:14)

Many congregations are graying!  As a result of better health care, nutrition, job safety, physical fitness, and medical technology more people are living longer than ever before.  As a result, many of our congregations are enjoying the blessing of increasing numbers of older adults.

 Growing old is no longer synonymous with death.  For many older adults, old age is not a time of disability or disease; instead it is a time of generally good health.  As people live longer and retire earlier, the post-retirement period can last 25 to 35 years or more.  We are witnessing a historically unprecedented expansion of free time in the last stage of life.

Unfortunately, some congregations express a “myth-conception” that if they engage in intentional ministry by, with, and or for older adults, they will soon have no congregation left.  They do not realize that a congregation filled with older adults does not necessarily mean that it is dead or dying.  Rather, congregations may need to rethink and refocus their priority for ministry.  And, in doing so, many congregations have come to understand that the older adult population provides tremendous potential for vital ministry.

Older adults want to continue contributing to future generations and desire to feel valued because of their contributions.  Congregations that are intentional in their older adult ministries realize that the wealth of experience, wisdom, and faith that often abounds in older persons should not be lost or underutilized.

Intentional ministry with older adults realizes that there is no older adult population.  Rather, there are multiple older adult populations.  And each one is very different.  No single ministry-type reaches all the older adults in a congregation or community.  Not only are there many different age cohorts, from 55 to 105, but there are: married couples, widows, divorced, never married, healthy-active, frail-inactive, homebound, and residents of continuing care retirement communities, just to name a few.  As people grow older, they become less alike, not more.  Therefore, their needs and talents and their likes and dislikes are all vastly different.

One helpful model for congregations wanting to develop intentional ministry with older adults is a S.E.N.I.O.R.S. Ministry.[1]  The S.E.N.I.O.R.S. Ministry model, briefly described below, lists just a few of the many things congregations can do to develop a congregational base ministry.  The S.E.N.I.O.R.S. Ministry model includes:

S:   Spirituality            Plan and develop Bible study groups; prayer groups; adult religious education classes; life review classes; spiritual retreats; worship participation; rituals to acknowledge transitions dealing with change, separation, and new commitments; healing services; and workshops on “end-of-life” issues.

E:   Enrichment           Plan and develop seminars relevant to the specific needs and concerns of older adults in your congregation (e.g., community issues and current affairs; technology; and financial, legal and medical concerns, etc.); drama and fine arts; field trips; and, literacy programs.

N:   Nutrition/Wellness   Plan and develop a parish nurse program; congregational health ministries; low-impact aerobics and other physical fitness classes; health fairs; and, cooking classes.

I:   Intergenerational   Plan and develop opportunities for mentoring and tutoring future generations; “foster” grandparent program; and, multigenerational retreats, study classes, and service projects.

O:   Outreach              Plan and develop adult day service ministry; providing meals; minor repair and home maintenance ministry; home chore service; programs of interest to the whole community; and, specialized homebound and nursing home ministries.

R:   Recreation            Plan and develop activities for healthy and fun living; conduct golf, fishing, and other sport outings; walking, hiking, and camping/RV activities; gardening and flower arranging, card and board game parties, quilting; and traveling groups.

S:   Service                  Plan and develop opportunities for service including short term mission projects; participation in Habitat for Humanity; respite care ministry; prison ministry; delivering meals to the elderly; visitation ministry; and, community projects.

While these are just a few of the many ways congregations can be intentional in ministry with older adults, I invite you to use your imagination for a moment.  What do you visualize happening in your congregation that will increase the faith, witness, and service of older adults?  Then, with God’s help, lead on!

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(1The S.E.N.I.O.R.S. Ministry model is more fully developed in the book, The Graying of the Church by Richard H. Gentzler, Jr.  Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 2004)
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Richard H. Gentzler, Jr., D.Min. is the director of ENCORE Ministries a ministry of the Golden Cross Foundation – Tennessee Conference – United Methodist Church

Photo Credit: Marcel Oosterwijk