Ministering to Parishioners Over 65

Richard P. Johnson

Our Church is aging. We are in the first act of a historical drama that is destined to transform our culture and Church in ways we have yet to imagine. The number and percentage of elders occupying our parish pews increases weekly. This phenomenon will continue for at least the next 25 to 30 years. Indeed, the phenomenon is likely to remain a permanent fixture in the demographics of our faith communities.

Senior Group vs. Maturing Adult Ministry

Most parishes have senior groups. They serve seniors primarily on social, entertainment, and on recreational levels. If one were to investigate the major “work” and yearly schedule of most Church senior groups, one would most likely find dinners, card parties, trips, games of chance, prizes, more trips, an occasional speaker (usually from a local funeral home, cemetery, or hospital), and of course, more trips. Notably absent from most parish schedules would be social justice projects, spiritual reading discussion groups, any comprehensive faith formation events specific to the needs and concerns of maturing adults, or any participatory, liberating, or transformational learning.

In short, most parish senior groups see themselves as “get-together groups” that just happen to meet at the church with little effect upon, or even expectation of, true interior growth. It’s time for a change. We desperately need to go beyond senior group thinking and toward maturing adult ministry. We need to realize that the number of bingo parties, bus trips, or brownie and cake sales in the parish does not measure success for maturing adult ministry.

Maturing adult ministry is an organized curriculum of learning experiences designed to assist each maturing adult to align their own unique life experience with the teachings of their faith tradition as they meet the ongoing spiritual growth mandate in their own senior years.

Author Jane Regan identifies five presumptions of adult faith formation in her book Toward an Adult Church. Regan speaks about adult faith formation. I have modified her words and meaning into maturing adult faith formation/ ministry. I thank her for her original work.

Principles of Maturing Adult Ministry

1. Maturing adult ministry is not simply about establishing new programs in the parish, but about shaping a new vision of maturing adult ministry as a vital component in a shared learning community.

2. Maturing adult ministry curriculum is not about Church documents or formal theology (although these can serve as points for reference). Rather, maturing adult ministry curriculum comes from the lived experience of its members in a faith context.

3. True learning, learning that is genuinely transformative, involves some measure of re-shaping of self. Maturing adult ministry needs to aim at the very heart of the maturing adult; new motivation, new understanding, new confidence, and new life are all goals of maturing adult ministry.

4. Maturing adults learn best when in dialogue. If we expect to succeed in transformative learning with adults we must be personal, practical, and relevant.

5. Maturing adult ministry is marked by hospitality. Hospitality means to be welcoming in all aspects of our human experience – socially, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. As we mature our spiritual pace is supposed to quicken. With advancing maturation we are called to shift our perceptual focus more toward our interior life, the place where God resides within us. As we mature we grow closer to that transcendent understanding of living in the world, while not being of the world. This paradox is only one of many that begin to connect and bind together the patches of our life into a wonderful quilt of many colors. This masterpiece quilt keeps us warm and secure in wholeness and authenticity.

As the years, may exact a physical toll on us, our need for an advancing appreciation for the intangibles of living only increases. Intensified focus on adult faith formation has been a continuing call from many segments of the Church community for years. Yet, meager headway has been made toward this much discussed goal. Perhaps we need to better understand the inner spiritual developmental needs of maturing adults and how these needs can be additive for the entire parish mix.

1. Maturing adults can help us better understand that we are all one, that all the various age groups in the church are intertwined. Church intergenerational connections are like family systems theory. If one ingredient (cohort) in the mix doesn’t express its flavor then the others cannot express themselves fully either.

2. Maturing adults need to be lifted up as mentors to help us along the way lest they become antagonistic critics.

3. Maturing adults can help the parish learn how to pray. This arises from their advancing wisdom, a wisdom that requires that we arouse the contemplative within us and learn to rest in meditative silence so this wisdom can be gradually discovered and its power unleashed within the entire faith community.

4. Maturing adults help the parish gain much needed focus of a historical perspective. Maturing adults offer guidance, instruction, and dialogue with others on deeper spiritual levels so all members can construct the most enriching life meaning possible. Perhaps the best response to the call for change, indeed for personal transformation of elders, is in constructing a true learning community in our faith communities. Indeed, one could argue that unless the faith community is also a thriving learning community, it is destined to find distortion and dysfunction. Eventually it may even unravel. We cannot have fully functioning and truly faith-filled maturing adults without lifelong learning. Where will the leadership come from for this expanded vision of maturing adult ministry? The talent for such an endeavor resides right in the parish. The talent is waiting to be ignited by a new vision, animated by new learning, and motivated by a new commitment to excellence.

Richard P. Johnson is founder and director of The JOHNSON Institute, an independent school awarding certification in “Spiritual Gerontology” and “Faith Formation for Maturing Adults.”