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Q & A
Q&A: Dispelling myths about being older Bill Fentum, Aug 3, 2007
Growing up, the Rev. Rick Gentzler spent summers with his great-grandfather and says the man's "faith, demeanor and spirit showed me what it means to grow old in Christ." It also shaped his life as a United Methodist minister.
Dr. Gentzler is director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries for the General Board of Discipleship, which provides grants for church and conference ministries to senior adults. His books include Designing an Older Adult Ministry and The Graying of the Church.
He'll be the keynote speaker Sept. 4-5 at "Aging in the 21st Century and Beyond," a seminar with workshops on intergenerational ministries as well as church programs for seniors, at the South Central Jurisdiction's Mount Sequoyah retreat center in Fayetteville, Ark. He spoke recently with Staff Writer Bill Fentum about his 28 years in "religious gerontology."
Has ministry to older adults always been your passion?
No, when I started in seminary just after college I really thought I'd be a youth pastor. Then in my middle year at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, I served a parish on the eastern shore of Maryland. There were four small congregations with a total membership of 118 people, and all of them were older adults. Every Sunday I'd look out across the pews and see a lot of gray, white, silver, thinning, balding heads.
I'd taken a course on pastoral care where the only thing they taught you about older-adult ministry was, "Go to a nursing home and spend about 20 minutes with a parishioner. Sit there, read a passage of Scripture and have a word of prayer. Then you get up, go down the hall and visit the next person." But there I was in a parish full of older adults, and none of them were in nursing homes!
The same thing happened when I came back to my home conference, Central Pennsylvania. My first appointment was to two churches, again with very few children and youth, and many seniors. That's when ministry to older adults started to consume me. I went back to school in 1979, to do my doctoral ministry in pastoral care and counseling with the elderly.
It's an interesting focus, at a time when church leaders worry most about attracting young people.
Well, there's no question we need to reach out to children, youth and young adults. If we don't, we're not being faithful to God's command to our Christian witness. But if the church only says, "Woe is me, we don't have enough young people," then we're ignoring the issues and needs of older adults.
Is ageism a factor, too?
Absolutely. Pastors need to break down the myth that seniors are out of touch with reality. Even though Scripture speaks very positively about aging, we live in a culture where people try to defy getting older. We do everything we possibly can to avoid it, because we see growing older as useless or disposable. It's as if aging is a disease, or morbid, or unnatural. So we just decide we won't do it!
Oftentimes, pastors themselves are afraid to deal with their own aging. So they put off facing that reality by pouring all their energy into ministry with youth and younger adults. We've got to get over that.
What gifts are we ignoring in older adults?
Experience, faith and a willingness to mentor others. They don't want to see the church die. They worry as much as anyone about youth growing dillusioned in their faith. But sometimes we say and do things that make older adults feel, "Well, if there's no interest in my concerns, in what it means to grow older, then I'm disillusioned, too."
They have their own needs for spiritual growth. It's a mistake to think seniors are already spiritually mature and never need nourishment in that area. The truth is, with the losses they experience in life, the transitions they go through, it's easy for their faith to be shaken. That's a possibility we shouldn't overlook. Don't take them for granted, and don't be so sure they won't stop coming to church. Only 42 percent of older adults in this country are regular churchgoers.
Traditions sometimes get in the way, and seniors have to keep their minds open to change. But guess what: They know all about change! An 80-year-old woman or a 90-year-old man -- think of all the changes they've lived through already. People don't fear change so much as they fear the loss that sometimes comes with it.
One of the resources on your Web site (www.gbod.org/coa) alerts us to the problem of elder abuse.
That's a growing issue, and it's often underreported out of embarrassment and other worries. It's estimated there may be as many as 5 million victims every year.
What can churches do?
They need to be savvy about it. Congregations should be attuned to the different types of elder abuse: physical abuse, neglect, psychological abuse, abandonment. They need to stay in touch with older adults in the church. Know them as persons with individual needs and be aware of the risk factors. For instance, if they live alone, social isolation can make them vulnerable. Or even a low level of dementia -- it doesn't have to be Alzheimer's Disease -- let's say there's just some occasional memory loss or they're depressed. All those factors can contribute.
Some experts believe only one out of every 14 cases are reported. That, to me, is astounding. And if we aren't aware it occurs and [don't] look for these issues and report them, the victimization is going to increase.
What keeps abused seniors from telling anyone?
Part of the time it's out of fear. The abuser may also be their caregiver, as strange as that sounds. They may think, "Who else will take care of me if I say anything?" It's also thinking, "Well, I do have a lot of memory loss, and I must be a lot of trouble to look after. Maybe I deserved to get hit." Of course, we know that's wrong. But people can start to believe those things.
Also, they fall victim to all kinds of financial scams on television or from phone solicitors. They want to believe those people. Or someone comes to the door and tells them they need a new roof. They think, "I don't know if I need a new roof, but this fellow seems honest." When you've got 77 million boomers who started turning 60 last year, that's a whole age wave that's coming along. I'm sure we'll see a lot more elder abuse taking place, due to the changing demographics.
In churches that have strong senior programs -- field trips, exercise classes, game nights -- is there a risk they will be isolated from the rest of the congregation?
Well, you certainly don't want to ghettoize older adults or any other group in local churches. But I do think there are times when it's healthy and helpful for older adults to be together. Some churches start up "50-plus" clubs, trying to follow AARP's model of increasing membership by lowering the age requirement. They might have special programs on the needs people face as they age; for instance, Medicare Plan B, and all the confusion going on over that. Gosh, wouldn't it be great if a church hosted a workshop to help people sort that stuff out? If a lot of adults in a church are caring for aging parents, you might also hold a seminar about that -- you'd want to make it clear the event is meant for everyone.
Basing ministry only on chronological age is self-defeating. I know people in their mid-80s who have more energy and life than some 55-year-olds. If your church has a weekday Bible study, you may think, "That must be for retired people, because they're free to go to it." But it could be that people working part-time jobs or on different shifts could also get involved. So promoting it as a Bible study "for people 65 and over" does a disservice to everyone. It can really be an intergenerational, wonderful ministry if they don't think chronologically.