At the seminary where I teach, I offer a course on “Ministry with Older Adults,” designed to help participants learn about the theology and practice of ministry with aging folks–of whom there are many in our congregations!
The statistics point to older adulthood as one of the primary, and growing, demographic groups in churches today. They also suggest that this is the group most likely to be financial supporters of churches. But increasingly, in the highly mobile U.S. it is possible to grow up into young adulthood without much contact with elderly family members. And when in addition, young adult lives are structured around higher education or workplace environments, the combination of these factors means that many people in their twenties and thirties have relatively little if any contact with persons aged 65 or older. For that reason, it seems important in theological education to help students learn about this time of life, and to begin to understand both its commonalities and intersections with other parts of the lifespan as well as its distinctiveness.
The course that I teach is therefore designed to bring participants into contact with important questions like: How do changes in health or declining mobility impact relationships with others? What is it like to make transitions from work to retirement, from being a driver to giving up one’s license and no longer driving? How does the existential reality of having more years of life behind than in front of one alter perspectives and experiences of daily living? In what ways do understandings of God change in the later years of life? We reflect on older adulthood from theological, gerontological, psychological, sociological, educational, and economic perspectives, among others. We do so with the help of some important texts, but also with the aid of “older adult mentors,” seniors who agree to spend an hour or so each week with a student. Students bring a semi-structured interview to that time, learning from their mentor about some particular aspect of aging through focused questions. And they develop a relationship with their mentor that becomes one experiential-relational entry point into the world of older adulthood.
This year, it looks like I will just barely have enough students enrolled to teach the course. At lunch a few weeks ago, I asked some students to help me understand how they make decisions about electives such as this one. One student said point blank, “If I have a course about aging or older adults on my transcript, my standing committee will be asking me why I am wasting my time on that instead of taking something focused on youth or young adults, since that’s what we need to grow the church.” Another said that the problem for her is that her bishop would not see this as an addition of new or better skills for ministry: “There’s this ‘anybody can do that’ attitude when it comes to ministry with older people in congregations.” Other students simply noted that in a curriculum with limited electives, they cannot give a full semester course’s priority to this subject area when there are so many other important kinds of skills and knowledge to develop for ministry.
I agree that there is a lot to be learned for the work of ministry. And I understand that a course focused on a particular population is not equally appealing, necessary, or useful to every student. The part that disturbed me in these conversations was the attitude reportedly held by those having oversight over seminary students’ professional formation that learning about ministry with older adults is a waste of time. Such attitudes parallel the more general discounting of the importance and value of older adult persons found in secular society. It’s just especially sad to me to see it happening in the churches, where longstanding traditions of honoring elders and caring for those who are vulnerable are both important parts of our theological heritage.