A new book encourages churches to rethink the way they attract, retain and minister to older members of their congregations.
The book was co-authored by Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, executive director of United Church Homes’ Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging; Rev. J. Bennett “Ben” Guess, executive director of ACLU Ohio and former vice president of the United Church of Christ’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM); Jan Aerie, a gerontologist, community health planner and family counselor; and RoMa Johnson, a hospice community chaplain.
“Age-Friendly Congregations takes a look at people who are age 65 and older because we haven’t been paying attention to the people who have made it to this point in their lives,” Beth said.
The book serves as a resource to help churches better minister to and provide programming for older adults. Chapters discuss aging, ageism, caregivers and creating an age-friendly covenant.
“People are aging in place and living longer. How do we reach out and make sure they are not isolated? How do we make sure we are part of their support system?” Beth asked.
Ben described an age-friendly congregation as one that recognizes that spiritual growth, intellectual curiosity and a passion to build a better world is a lifelong process.
“Vital congregations take seriously life-span development and strive to be places where multigenerational experiences are nurtured and where persons of all ages are honored and valued. Age-friendly congregations are serious about confronting ageism,” Ben said.
Jan said congregations that want to become age-friendly should assess the demographics of their congregations, develop new models of ministry, affirm older adult members and area residents and their unique ministry and act on an age-friendly covenant process.
“An age-friendly congregation is one that recognizes, celebrates and affirms the place that older adults have in ministry and mission. Specifically, age-friendly congregations intentionally and regularly present intergenerational classes and programs building awareness and knowledge of facets of aging, and sensitivity to reaching out to meet the needs of many people,” Jan said.
Older adults make up more than half of most congregations. They are the backbone of churches, but often are taken for granted by ministers who assume they always will have them as members, Ben said.
“Many churches incorrectly assume that attracting and retaining older members is a given, so little conversation is invested in how to minister well to seniors. Today’s retirees are looking for meaningful engagement and that requires intentionality on the part of our pastors and local churches,” he said.
Beth said older adults should not be lumped into one group with an assumption that they all have the same needs. Stereotypes in pop culture about the “church lady,” a senior who is against change, also must be dismissed.
Churches need to understand the wealth of knowledge that older adults have and use it to support their ministries.
“We are limiting the wisdom that is present in our pews; the gifts that older adults offer. We should be inviting older adults into new roles. If we change the language and invite older adults to experience new opportunities, we will be surprised at how the spirit can work through them,” Beth said.