Older adult conference urges churches to address aging population

By Tom Gillem, Special Contributor…

NASHVILLE, Tenn.­­—With Americans reaching age 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day, congregations must become even more intentional about providing appropriate ministries for older adults, according to the Rev. Richard H. Gentzler Jr. director of the Center on Aging & Older Adult Ministries at the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD).

The Rev. Richard Gentzler, director of the Center on Aging & Older Adult Ministries at the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD), speaks at the Symposium for Conference Leaders of Older Adult Ministries.

Dr. Gentzler presented a Comprehensive Plan for Older Adult Ministries for 2013-2016 to representatives of 52 annual conferences who recently attended the Symposium for Conference Leaders of Older Adult Ministries sponsored by the Committee on Older Adult Ministries, which is administratively related to GBOD.

“Our youth-oriented culture makes it difficult for us to truly appreciate the significance of aging and older adults,” Dr. Gentzler said. “As a result of that, it becomes critical for us to be intentional in older adult ministries.”

About 40 million Americans were age 65 or older in 2010, but with the Boomer Generation starting to reach 65 in 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau says that number is expected to be 72 million by 2030—or one in every five persons, Gentzler said.

The Comprehensive Plan for Older Adult Ministries calls for leadership training and resourcing in three vital areas:

The Comprehensive Plan for Older Adult Ministries calls for leadership training and resourcing in three vital areas:

The “new seniors”: how to minister to Baby Boomers, who are now joining the ranks of older adulthood. By 2016, leading edge Boomers will begin turning 70 years of age.

“Old age poverty”: examining issues of poverty, including financial exploitation, among growing numbers of older adults in late life and identifying ways churches can be in ministry.

Intergenerational ministry: blurring the lines of separation among generations and encouraging learning, growing and sharing among young people and older adults.

Ministering to the Baby Boomer generation will be different than ministering to earlier generations of older adults, Dr. Gentzler said.

“Most Boomers do not think of themselves as ‘older adults’ or identify with labels such as ‘older,’ ‘senior’ or ‘elder,’” he said. “They also have little or no interest in existing ministries identified as ‘old.’ Now what does that mean for older adult ministries if this group of new seniors do not identify with an existing older adult ministry program?”

Poverty is also a constant issue with elderly people. In 2010, nearly six million, or 15 percent, of Americans age 65 and older were living in poverty or near poverty, and that number is expected to increase 33 percent by 2020, Dr. Gentzler said.

“I believe there is a growing gap between the ‘ill-derly’—those who are older and poor and subject to chronic illness—and the ‘well-derly’—those who are physically and financially well off,” he said. “And that gap is growing, not only in our communities, but in our congregations.”

Participants in the symposium also heard from colleagues who shared how they’ve operated successful older adult ministries in their conferences: Karla Woodward, a licensed local pastor on staff at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., and founder of its Silver Link Ministries; Wilma Williams, chair of the Council on Older Adult Ministries of the Southwest Texas Conference, and Nancy Metz, formerly a leader on the Florida  Conference Beyond 50 Ministries Task Team.

Other presenters included the Rev. Joy Thornburg Melton, an attorney and ordained clergy in the UMC, who has written a new book entitled Safe Sanctuaries: The Church Responds to Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of Older Adults, which will be published later this year.

“Every year, one in every seven older Americans is abused, physically, emotionally or financially,” said Ms. Melton, who encouraged congregations to conduct programs about elder abuse and to start safe sanctuaries for older adults.

Craig Kennet Miller, director of pastoral leadership at GBOD and an editor of the book Gen2Gen: Sharing Jesus Across the Generations, also spoke.

“When we talk about sharing Jesus across the generations, it’s not just the older generations sharing to the younger generations,” he said. “It’s also the spirituality of the young generations that impacts the spirituality of the older generations.”

Mr. Miller added, “My encouragement to you is that regardless of what generation you find yourself in, you

Finally, Barbara Bruce, a member of the Committee on Older Adult Ministries as Northeastern Jurisdictional representative from the Upper New York Conference, cited biblical references that support people thinking about their lives in terms of mind, body and spirit.

“Whatever we do for our brain, we do for our bodies, and the spirit is entwined in everything that we do,” she said.

Programs supporting continued development of the mind and body are important for aging adults and are available from both church and secular organizations, Ms. Bruce said. But spiritual support is reserved for congregations.

“They can get most of these other things at the town hall, at the senior center,” she said. “But this (spiritual support) is something we can give them that other folks can’t.”

Each quadrennium the Committee on Older Adult Ministries has presented an award to a leader in Older Adult Ministries who has provided exceptional commitment and service. At this year’s symposium, the Committee presented the award to Dr. Gentzler, who was recognized for his outstanding leadership in older adult ministries. In addition, the award was renamed for all future recipients as the “Richard H. Gentzler Jr. Older Adult Ministries” award.

 Tom Gillem is a freelance writer for GBOD.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
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