Aging Well: Take a hike! Bringing the generations together in the great outdoors.


img_0120Retired United Methodist minister Bob Hayes has a reason to smile. An eighth grade boy just called him one of the coolest men he’s ever met. It is an unlikely title given a man who is about to celebrate his 80th birthday. Actually though, it is not unusual for Bob to receive such accolades. He often receives words of high praise from even the most reluctant youth who participate in the Outdoor Education program of Camp Wesley Woods, a Christian camp in Townsend, Tennessee, where Bob is a volunteer.

After serving forty years as a minister and eight more years as the chaplain at Asbury Place, a Methodist-affiliated senior living residence in Maryville TN, Bob discovered that he could use his love of the outdoors as a way to help bring generations together. Working with schools, church groups and scouts, Bob has found that taking the classroom to the great outdoors is his own late-life ministry, a way of breaking down age barriers and building relationships. Besides, he knows that his volunteer work is certainly more rewarding than sitting around in a recliner all day.

Since Bob and his wife Judy moved to East Tennessee in 1970, he’s been hiking the trails in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and other areas around the country. Each week he tries to hike at least ten miles, but often it is even more. As Minister-in-Residence and a volunteer instructor for Camp Wesley Woods for the last nine years, Bob says that most of the people he hikes with are one or two generations younger than he is. “The opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with my younger hiking buddies keeps me from getting hung up in the thought patterns of my generation. Through them, I have come to appreciate new perspectives on several social issues and even theological concepts,” he adds.

As an outdoor educator, Bob often helps students identify plants and trees along a 3-mile hiking trail which takes them across a ridge and through a gorge. The hikers taste edible plants and see first-hand how exotic species can cause destruction when introduced into the native ecosystem. Even more importantly, Bob helps the younger persons more fully experience the wonder of God’s world as they better understand the complex interrelationships among all living things. “The hiking trail gives me an opportunity to bond with young people in a setting of natural beauty,” he adds.

As the elder statesman of the Outdoor Education staff, Bob admits that most of his staff counterparts are in their twenties. Yet many of the younger staff members have admitted to Bob that they want to be like him when they grow up. “They see that I find fulfillment in my work at camp and in my frequent hikes as well as in my relationships with family and friends,” he says.  The younger staff persons say that Bob has inspired them to stay in shape so that they can still hike when they are in their later years, too.

As a role model and influencer, Bob has gone ice climbing in New Hampshire, driven a dog sled in Minnesota, and climbed Angel’s Landing in Utah’s Zion National Park— all since he turned 70. He also teaches a Sunday school class at Boradway UMC in Maryville TN and plays the piano for services at Asbury Place.

It should be no surprise that people of all ages are impacted by Bob’s passion for the outdoors and his zest for living. His peers at the senior living community where he and his wife reside find daily inspiration in Bob’s energy and enthusiasm. Even though he knows the day may come when he can no longer be as active as he is now, Bob chooses to do all he can to engage young people through his passion for the outdoors. It seems that if you were to look up the definition of aging well, you would likely find the name: Bob Hayes.

Missy Buchanan, UMR Columnist

Missy Buchanan is a sought-after speaker on topics of older adult ministry and spiritual creativity, she brings passion and humor to many events for churches, organizations, and women’s groups. She has appeared on Good Morning America with co-host Robin Roberts and is the author of books including Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults, Talking with God in Old Age: Meditations and Psalms, and Don’t Write My Obituary Just Yet: Inspiring Faith Stories for Older Adults. She has written for many publications including Presbyterians Today, Mature Years, Christian Association Serving Adults Ministries, Entrepreneur, and The Dallas Morning News.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Larry Scollard

Bob is truly an inspiration! I first met him 15 years ago through the Emmaus community in East Tennessee where he has also volunteered many hours of time in ministry. It was clear early on that Bob is a man filled with the Holy Spirit who is not afraid to live out his faith and calling. Thanks Bob for living a true model of the Christian life and faith.

Kevin Witt
Kevin Witt

Thank you for your leadership and ministry Bob! You are an inspiration.

Karen Tiller

This is an amazing article and I’m proud to call this man Grandpa! 🙂

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