The ‘New Old’: Seniors bring new life to the church

 

Redefining golden years — and ministry

By Paul Seebeck | Presbyterians Today

The Rev. Ethelyn Taylor Michael Shepherd

Baby Boomer Pat Baker has been working in the field of aging for 45 years — mainly with the federally funded Older Americans Act programs, which have been providing seniors with services such as meals, caregiver support and transportation since 1965. When she first started, she was seeing people in their 60s and 70s participating in the senior programs. But now, as she herself retires, she has noticed a change. Participants are now in their 80s and 90s.

“People from 60 to 75 don’t seem as old as I remember when I got into this,” Baker said. “I saw more active people in their 90s than I saw in my first 20 years of work — and more people over 100 are participating in the senior center’s activities.”

The senior boom

There’s a joke heard at almost every milestone birthday that goes: 60 is the new 50, 50 is the new 40 and so on. Laughter aside, there’s truth in that jesting that churches need to take seriously. That is, today’s older Americans are more active and youthful than their parents or their parents’ parents. Thanks to healthier eating, active lifestyles and advances in health care, 70 really can be the new 60. Studies also show that there will be more of these youthful seniors in the coming years looking to contribute to their communities.

According to gerontology expert Dr. John Holton at Concordia University Chicago, there will be a “tsunami of aging” in the next decade, with 3.65 million Americans reaching their 65th birthday.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the stats — every eight seconds, someone in the United States turns 65,” he said. “That’s 10,000 a day. We have so much untapped wealth [not just money, but wisdom and talent] around us.”

Holton describes a conversation he had with then-98-year-old “Sister Jean” Dolores Schmidt, who, as team chaplain, became the face of Loyola University Chicago’s miraculous run through the 2018 NCAA basketball tournament to the Final Four.

“I said to her, ‘I should’ve bought your bobblehead and had it autographed. I could have sold it for a lot on eBay,’ ” Holton recalled. “She replied, ‘Yep, you sure could have.’ ”

And then there was a woman Holton met at her 100th birthday party. As she came down the stairs to celebrate — without her walker — she was standing up straighter than he was.

“Let’s savor and embrace these moments,” Holton said. “Because in 20 years, it won’t be that extraordinary.”

Older adult ministry

Today’s older Americans don’t have rocking chairs reserved with their names on them. In surveys cited by Holton, 70 percent of seniors say they would like to do engaging work in retirement. Baker is one of them. Recently retired from the health and human services field, Baker is now vice president of the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network (POAMN), where work is underway for new ministry programs that focus on strengthening intergenerational connections and caregiver support. She is also putting her years of working with older adults to good use, developing an older adult ministry at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Tucker, Georgia.

“We have a lot of people in the congregation that are quite old,” Baker said. “But they are active and still coming to church.”

Baker began last fall by surveying the congregation and conducting focus groups to discern congregants’ vision of an older adult ministry. Baker asked what the church should offer and how participating in such a ministry would benefit them.

“I also asked the congregants what areas they thought they might want to be involved in as this ministry is not only for older adults and caregivers, but with older adults and caregivers,” she said.

While many of the respondents, most over 71 years old, felt that their talents were already being utilized by the church, they indicated that one of the benefits would be that the church could help them to keep serving and be active.

One of the biggest challenges, however, that Baker is aware of when it comes to a vibrant older adult ministry is transportation.

“Often, persons who have been very active in their churches eventually find that night driving or driving long distances is not possible, especially in a big metro area like Atlanta, where there is lots of traffic and congestion,” Baker said. “They either look for rides from others, move to another church which is closer, or stop coming to church altogether. One of the first things I’ll be working on is to find out which members are not attending activities because of transportation issues.”

Baker believes the ministry she will be doing at St. Andrews Presbyterian will span people from their 40s — the caregivers — to those in their 100s. That’s a marked difference to the older adult ministries she organized in the 1980s. Back then, older adult ministry participants were in their 60s and 70s, Baker says.

God’s not done yet

Pastor nominating committees often seek young pastors to turn their struggling churches around, but in 1994, the Rev. Ethelyn Taylor came to Oxford Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The church had dwindled down to 35 members. Taylor was 61 years old, and Oxford was her first call.

The Rev. Ethelyn Taylor, 86, spends her “retirement” years shepherding new leaders at Oxford Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Courtesy of Oxford Presbyterian Church

In 1990, after retiring from a 30-year career in education, Taylor thought, “What am I going to do? All I know is teaching.”

She sat on her porch, looking toward the sky. “God, I’ll do whatever you want, for the rest of my life,” she prayed. “Just don’t put me in a wheelchair or let anything happen to my hands or feet.”

Taylor, who had been active in church all of her life, as an organist, choir director, deacon and elder, felt God encouraging her to continue using her gifts. She enrolled at Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.

Teaching had always been her passion. Now she would continue teaching as a preacher and Bible study teacher.

As Oxford’s first female and African-American pastor, Taylor remembers being interviewed by the session. While never saying they weren’t looking for a woman, one elder asked, “Well, do you think you can do the job?” She replied: “You’ll never know unless you hire me.”

Getting hired was just one of the challenges. When Taylor saw that there were only four children in Oxford’s Sunday school, she began walking around the community every day, showing up at the bus stop where the kids got off, asking them if they needed help with their homework.

As kids began to come to the church for after-school time, Taylor changed Sunday school to Saturday. Within a year, 65 neighborhood kids were coming — and many were baptized, Taylor says.

Taylor also made sure the church was open seven days a week, allowing community groups in the Philadelphia area to use the facility for meeting space.

The Rev. Ethelyn Taylor came to Oxford Presbyterian Church in 1994 at age 61. The church had 35 members. Today, the congregation has 200 members. Taylor still serves as its full-time pastor. Michael Shepherd

Now, more than half of Oxford Presbyterian’s 200 members live in the neighborhood, including about 40 retired teachers who helped create a scholarship fund — helping many of the kids at the church’s summer day camp and after-school program to go to college.

Oxford also has four adult Bible study classes. The one Taylor teaches has more than 75 people who come from all walks of life.

“They’re spiritually hungry for the Lord,” Taylor said. “I try to share joy with people I meet. There is enough gloominess and sad news.”

As an older pastor, Taylor brings with her years of wisdom. When people come for counseling, there’s nothing they can tell Taylor that she has not been through — like the loss of a child. Some 25 years ago, Taylor lost both of her sons.

“Things happen that we don’t understand,” Taylor said.

Taylor, who recently turned 86, says that if she “retires” again, she would love to set up Bible studies for people in assisted living communities.

Gifts to use

Eighty-five-year-old Hal Hopson grew up with a love of music. At 13, he was asked to be the pianist for his home church. But he found the hymns boring and started adding notes to make them more interesting. That child play eventually led him to a music scholarship at Baylor and then to Southern Baptist University for a degree in sacred music.

Hopson grew up Southern Baptist, but in the Army, he played for Catholic Mass during their worship services, where he got turned on to the roots and richness of worship and liturgy. He also found that Presbyterian chaplains were the nicest to work with — and the most informed theologically.

“So, I became Presbyterian,” he said, laughing. He and his wife, Martha, are members of University Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.

Hopson says one of his “life privileges” was working with a General Assembly-appointed committee on The Psalter: Songs and Canticles for Singing, which was published in 1993.

“Of the 151 settings in that book, 53 are mine,” he said. Hopson also wrote and arranged the Presbyterian psalm tones that are in the 2018 Book of Common Worship.

Hopson says he has spent his seven-decade career trying to set the sacred text in a way that helps people have a greater understanding of the inspiration behind the text.

“I’m always thinking of the person in the pew, in terms of where they are musically and theologically in their understanding of the text,” he said.

Despite health issues over the years, Hopson continues to write and compose music daily. “I’ll never stop until I die,” he said.

His current project is writing a handbell part or organ introduction for 80 percent of the hymns in the Glory to God hymnal.

Hopson credits his oldest sister, Merle, who was also his piano teacher, with inspiring him to work beyond retirement. She was the one who demanded him to always do his very best, Hopson says.

As a gift to her, Hopson made a copy of “Blest Be the God of Israel” from the Glory to God hymnal on parchment paper and framed it. To her dying day, in her room on her side table, his sister had a copy of a hymn whose tune was named after her — “Merle’s Tune.”

“She was my inspiration,” Hopson said, adding that his wife is, too. She “understands that I need to express myself through music.”

Vital congregations

Be it an older pastor, a senior with a love of writing music or an aging church population, the message is clear: God still has a purpose and plan for America’s older adults.

Baker has always believed that and has been advocating and promoting the importance of older adult ministry since the early 1980s, expressing to any minister who would listen, she says, the value of older congregants.

“Some seem to get it, but I still hear churches say that they need to get younger folks, or the church will die,” Baker said.

This belief, though, seems to be changing as pastors are encouraging their older congregations to stop lamenting about the loss of youth and the absence of children and embrace the season God has called them in right now. With a renewed outward focus on serving not just those within the church, but also those in the community, the Rev. Tim Harmon, of First Presbyterian Church in Lake Park, Iowa, has shifted his congregation away from saying, “We just need young people to grow the church.”

“They now realize they are the church and there are ministries still to be done,” he said.

The Rev. Mike Wilson of Prineville Presbyterian in Prineville, Oregon, has noticed an influx of retirees coming into the community, not the coveted demographic of young families.

Still, every Sunday the church has a “children’s moment” in the order of worship. It is now called a time for the “young at heart,” Wilson says.

“We have to play to our strengths,” he said, adding that while the church might not have lots of young families right now, they do have “50 sets of grandparents” who can care for the children in the community.

First Presbyterian in Bandon, Oregon, has a church filled with “community” grandparents. While its membership is aging, the congregation of fewer than 80 members has a heart for youth and, each year, uses a portion of the PC(USA)’s Peace & Global Witness Offering to help children.

In 2017, the church’s portion of the offering was given to the county child welfare service office to purchase gift cards for teens in foster care. The aging congregation has also given funds to local schools to help provide clothing to children whose families don’t have the means to purchase new clothing when school begins each year. Several members extend this commitment by serving as court-appointed special advocates.

Young or old, what is really needed, Baker says, is “no emphasis on any one age.”

“What we really need is a mix of all ages,” she said, emphasizing once again the importance the intergenerational ministries POAMN is developing.

“That is something I hope to encourage at my own church,” she said. “Ask me in a year how it’s going!”

Paul Seebeck is a communications strategist with the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Donna Frischknecht Jackson, editor of Presbyterians Today, contributed to this article.


Learn more

For more information on the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network, go to poamn.org

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