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Trinity Presbytery’s Vital Congregations Coordinator says older Presbyterians have plenty of wisdom to share

Dr. Phyllis W. Sanders discusses her work, ‘Gaining Wisdom through Vital Conversations: Voices of the Aging’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Clive Surreal via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Dr. Phyllis W. Sanders, Vital Congregations Coordinator for Trinity Presbytery, took on the study “Gaining Wisdom through Vital Conversations: Voices of the Aging” because of what she calls “my innermost desire to continue to learn from the elderly.”

The seven women and men Sanders interviewed for the project are between the ages of 91 and 104. The report is the second installment in an Older Adult Ministry Project Report.

“I chose to interview the oldest adult individuals because they make up the largest population in most churches, especially since the pandemic,” Sanders wrote in her report. “Yet, the clarion call that is being made is for younger people.”

For Sanders, an important consideration was, “How do church leaders utilize older adults to gather information about their experience, wisdom about what the church has done in the past, and thoughts about what the church can do to grow in the future.”

Each of the seven people Sanders interviewed has been with the Presbyterian church for more than 70 years. “Should their thoughts and opinions be ignored?” Sanders asked. “Their lifelong discipleship formation has been shaped by the Presbyterian Church. They are living a long life, and they recognize there are reasons for their longevity.”

Asked about what they attribute to living their long life, a 103-year-old woman said, “God’s grace.” Two others — one age 104, the other 91 — said it was healthy eating, while the 104-year-old added, “having fun and staying who you are and having good friends.”

The 103-year-old is still in her home and has lived in the same community for more than 60 years, in a neighborhood where everyone knows her. All five of her children call her every day and make one or more visits each day. She remains politically involved with city and state officials. She attends church most Sundays, and members bring her food and goodies on a regular basis.

When fellow members of her church visit people who are sick or shut in, the 104-year-old often accompanies them.

When asked how churches can become more vital for meeting the needs of the congregation, one 95-year-old responded with, “churches should have mixed music, hymns and gospel music.” Another 95-year-old suggested “there needs to be more teaching in the preaching for both adults and children to learn and apply it in their life.” A 91-year-old believes that the churches “must keep God at the center of our lives” and that Satan “wants to stick his head in the church, and if the church allows him to stay, people will have lots of trouble.”

The 103-year-old contended that these days, “churches are like social clubs, with no respect for worship.” Many churches “have lost their vitality for discipleship and fellowship,” this woman said. The 104-year-old said, “Sitting at home on the computer for church does not have the same effect as being in the church among others.”

“Preaching things contrary to the Bible is wicked, and God is not pleased with wickedness,” said a 91-year-old man. “Be careful with who you put in the pulpit. It can destroy a church rather than build a church.”

Dr. Phyllis W. Sanders

“This practicum experience was most meaningful,” Sanders wrote in the report. “It allowed me to review the research and apply it to what I observed, heard, and felt during my time with seven men and women who have lived to be in the ninth decade of life.”

Asking questions, according to Sanders, “can be the single most important factor in stimulating and enlivening participation in adult discussions.” It “was interesting to hear,” Sanders said, “that all of the interviewees had daily interactions, either with family and friends or through activities, telephone calls and group games.”

Leaving a legacy “was important to each of the interviewees,” Sander said. “They wanted their legacy to serve as valuable life lessons for their family, friends, community and congregations.”

Here’s how the seven interviewees want to be remembered:

  • “Remember me for walking in my Christian faith. It will help you to know the importance of how to love one another.”
  • “Remember that I believed in doing unto others as I would have them do unto me — and most importantly, being humble before the Lord.”
  • “Remember me as an easygoing Christian man. My advice is to always trust in the Lord with all your heart and all your soul.”
  • “Remember me as a seamstress and a hairdresser, always trying to make women look pretty while telling jokes to make them laugh and relax. Always love your neighbor and pray more often.”
  • “Always remember that the Lord is your shepherd. You are to forgive others of their debts, as they forgive you and as Christ forgives us all.”
  • “Remember — if you can’t say good, just don’t say anything.”
  • “Remember to read your Bible on how to live. Learn to love the people you don’t like … and plant good seeds along life’s way.”

Dr. Phyllis W. Sanders is Vital Congregations Coordinator for Trinity Presbytery, a Matthew 25 presbytery. Among those Sanders thanks for their participation in the “Vital Conversations: Voices of the Aging” project are Corine Lytle Cannon of the Presbytery of Charlotte; Jean Bell, Herbert Croxton, Willie Pollin and Nancy Scott, all of Trinity Presbytery; Sarada Mitchell of National Capital Presbytery; and Margaet Spinks of Salem Presbytery.

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