Sunday, March 9, 2014

Elderhood in Religious Congregations: the elder among the generations

Since the fall of 2008 I have been engaged in study toward the Doctor of Ministry degree. My dissertation project is entitled, A Heart of Wisdom: Embracing the Vocation of Elderhood within a Congregation. The project seeks an understanding the nature of elderhood within the context of a multigenerational congregation. The study develops an approach for drawing out the voices of a specific population within a congregation, for congregational ministry and for use in developing ministries. And it is intended help us understand how to include members of a particular population as a vital part of congregational life.

I focus this study on a particular group within the congregation: men over fifty-five years of age. This is a group within the congregation who are less often heard on the issues involved in becoming elders. The focus on older men provided a clear limit to the scope of the inquiry. It focuses attention on a less verbal and less transparent population. Despite their reticence in volunteering information about their inner lives, older men have something to say. The diversity of experience found among a relatively focused set of interviewees highlights how worthy they are of attention. Twelve years ago an older group of men at another congregation invited me to join them for their monthly lunch. As I discovered, similar as a group of older men may look to the outsider, the breadth of experience and insight they have to offer can be a part of the pastoral adventure of working with this population.

We need to hear from these people and make their voices more audible. How are they aware of the vocations of elderhood? How they are embraced by and within the context of congregational life?  But – best to ask for elders’ own perceptions.

And so I have been asking older men active in the congregation a few questions.

·      How has your faith developed as you have gotten older?
·      How has the congregation participated in this growth?
·      What calls you now as a vital way to live out your faith?
·      How does the congregation embrace or celebrate it with you?

Having now listened to a dozen and a half of the older men active in the congregation, in leadership, worship or service, I am aware of how grateful I am for their participation and their presence in the congregation. As I evaluate what they have said to me, both common themes and unique perspectives, I am glad to be honoring their voices.

In this paper I will discuss what I am learning from listening to elders, in light of social-science theories and theologies of the human person, with an eye to how congregations and their leaders can become better at serving and serving with their older constituents.

In evaluating research interviews for this project, I found that I was dealing with two different senses of elderhood, no matter how closely I had defined the term in the preliminaries of the conversation.

On the one hand, for some of the interviewees, elder simply meant older, as in older than. They identified elderhood with seniority. In other words, they conflated chronos time with kairos time, duration with fulfillment, and persistence with responsibility.

On the other hand, several other interviewees approached a meaning similar to the characterization of a functional elder offered in a recent book on ritual: an elder with a vocational “ministry of wisdom and presence within the faith community.”

In other words, an elder is someone who has gained wisdom based in reflection on experience, and who is recognized and affirmed (however informally) by their community for the call to serve others – in active sharing or modeling of wisdom, or more subtly in their prayerful presence in the consciousness of their community’s members.

Communities affirm calling; the called contribute the gifts of their callings to community.

Church was for some interviewees primarily seen as a type of voluntary association, in many ways a mutual benefit society. This leads to an inadequate vision of church as civic institution, service organization or club. As a friend remarked in conversation, the problem with thinking of church as a family is that it too easily collapses into a club.

Church and pastoral ministry must be something more. As one senior pastor remarked:

The work of the priest is not to produce bulletins, nor administer, nor even visitation. All of these are means to a greater end. The purpose of ministry in a secular world is to proclaim the message: the reign of God has come, which is characterized by love. Some of us clergy used to discuss whether our brethren ‘had a message.’ If we do not have a message, then the institution that we serve becomes a secular organization or a club. [The parish] is not a club, it is a point of light where Jesus Christ is proclaimed and loved and ‘where prayer has been valid.”

The interviewees who saw most clearly elderhood as a vocation shared some characteristics:

  • They had a clear sense of vocation themselves;
  • they actively expressed their vocation in ministry, service, or work;
  • they exhibited a lively seeking faith: faith for them was dynamic and challenging, not static and not always comforting; and
  • they somehow stood apart from the “core” of the congregational family system.

To paraphrase a Eucharistic prayer, they come to the Holy Table not for solace only but also for strength, not for pardon only but also for renewal. (Book of Common Prayer)

In Stages of Faith and other works, James Fowler correlates ongoing growth in faith with stages of the human life cycle. The family system of the study congregation seems to have an established norm of synthetic–conventional faith (Fowler stage III) and these six people appear to have reached the level of individuative–reflective faith (Fowler stage IV) at least. The system will resist this departure from the norm. Indeed most of these people, as much as they have tried to work within the system, have found their most fruitful and creative outlets for the expression of their faith in other venues.

I would look for these characteristics of potential elderhood: sense of vocation expressed in active ministry, experience of transformation, and ongoing growth in faith and life. Growth for which they take responsibility: each is an actor and not simply a recipient in their religious life.

An elder plays an active part, prominent or not, on the stage of life, and does not simply stand by as a supernumerary present to augment the volume of the crowd.

Elders have lively, seeking faith; engaged beyond parochial boundaries in their ministry or expression of vocation, they stand outside or somehow independent of the core family system of the congregation. Even if deeply involved they do not draw their identity from role or relationship within the group. This may indicate a shift from conventional faith to an individuated faith, at least. Certainly they have taken the life of faith as a gift of God to be received and applied rather than taken as personal validation and kept to oneself.

What can we take away from this? An active faith seeking understanding in the company of friends, an orientation toward service to others, and a living curiosity expressed toward life, all are signs of dynamic vocation.

Growth and development can continue throughout life’s changes. Congregations can make room for that growth to occur in a context of faithful community. One opportunity for congregations to encourage that growth is during the character-formative years of young adulthood.

Reading my great-grandmother’s psychology textbook, I came across this observation: “The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way.” William James, writing for college students 120 years ago, was urging his readers to look to their own moral development during their twenties – before character has set like plaster. He saw habits of the body and the mind forming and setting by the age of thirty. James urged his readers to make nature their ally instead of their enemy in this formation of character. (James, William. Psychology. American Science Series, Briefer Course. New York: Henry Holt. 1892. 149.)

The challenge for congregations and pastoral leaders is to encourage throughout the life cycle the development of habits of continuing growth toward God. This can be done through many means. Pastors may create a context by active, in-depth listening. Congregations may create a context for transformation, by establishing a place for worship, fellowship, and prayer, and by collective acts of service beyond their borders.

See also:

Listening to your Elders


American Academy of Religion - Western Region

Psychology, Culture and Religion
Ministering to the Marginalized: Immigrants, Elderly, and Veterans

“Elderhood in Religious Congregations: the elder among the generations”

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Integral Years

Embracing the Vocation of Elderhood within a Congregation:

The Integral Years: Psychology of Emerging Elderhood.

Much of the impetus for my study of elderhood as vocation came originally from the teachings of Donald L. Gelpi, S.J., specifically his theology of the human person (Gelpi, 1978). Gelpi outlined stages of faith, as identified by James Fowler, Sam Keen, and others, and connected them to human development theories of, notably, Erik Erikson and Carl Jung.

Gelpi showed how the stages of the human life cycle and the stages of faith development could illuminate our understanding of an individual human person’s growth in faith.  Further, he showed how those individual life cycles could interact through the gifts of the Holy Spirit as well as the temperaments and God-given personality types with which each human person is endowed. Life transformations, and shifts between stages of faith, can occur not only in religious experience but also in moral, social-political, intellectual, and emotional spheres. (Gelpi, 1978)

From that study I came away with an appreciation for the individuality and complementarity of human development, including the possibilities for a variety of experiences of God in and throughout a life cycle. Growth in faith often bears its finest fruit not until late middle age or early late adulthood.

Life Span Development

Erik H. Erikson, working with Joan Erikson and others, developed a theory of life–cycle stages, which grew to encompass eight stages throughout the lifespan, from infancy to older old age. Each stage of this cycle represents a particular phase of psychosocial development, including the basic conflicts the personality confronts. Unresolved issues continue to follow the individual through life and color later stages. The basic issues that arise at the earlier stages are recapitulated in the senior years.

The stages, with their basic conflicts and emerging strengths, are:

Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

I. Infancy:  Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust.  HOPE
II. Early Childhood:  Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt.  WILL.
III. Play Age:  Initiative vs. Guilt.  PURPOSE
IV. School Age:  Industry vs. Inferiority.  COMPETENCE
V. Adolescence:  Identity vs. Identity Confusion.  FIDELITY
VI. Young Adulthood:  Intimacy vs. Isolation.  LOVE
VII. Adulthood:  Generativity vs. Stagnation.  CARE
VIII. Old Age:  Integrity vs. Despair, disgust.  WISDOM

(Erikson, 1982: 32–33, 56–57)

Hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom: these are the virtues, or ego strengths, which can be gained in each stage, as the individual human person encounters a series of crises, or challenges, which may be resolved positively and build on each other: trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, generativity, and integrity.  Or they may not be. Adverse outcomes may include mistrust, shame, doubt, guilt, inferiority, identity confusion, isolation, stagnation, self–absorption, despair, and disgust. Each of these crises and virtues and potential dangers has its primary phase but all also recur in each stage.

These are the standard eight stages. To them Joan Erikson added a ninth (Erikson, 1997):
IX. Older Old Age, recapitulation of earlier conflicts, possibility of gerotranscendence. Joan Erikson speaks of elders, people in their eighties and nineties, coming “to terms with the dystonic [negative] elements in their life experiences in the ninth stage.” (Erikson, 1997: 114). The hope she holds out is of gerotranscendence, (Erikson, 1997: 124) and she quotes the definition proposed by Lars Tornstam and his colleagues:

Simply put, gerotranscendence is a shift in meta perspective, from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one, normally accompanied by an increase in life satisfaction. Gerotranscendence is regarded as the final stage in a possible natural progression towards maturation and wisdom. (Tornstam)

Stage IX, Older Old Age, can been seen as an extension or refinement of stage VIII, in facing the end–task of preparation for death, preparation for mortality and eternity. But should this be the task of only older old age? Perhaps that is where it most frequently and most compellingly falls, in the course of time, but as part of the work of the church should we not prepare others and ourselves, at all ages of life, for mortality and immortality, through ritual – funerals, festivals (saints’ days) – and preaching? “We proclaim his death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26) 

For our purposes the seventh and eighth stages, and the transition between them, are the most apposite. This transition between adulthood and old age is the time Mary Catherine Bateson describes as “Adulthood II” (Bateson) and Peter Laslett describes as the “Third Age” (Laslett). This can be a harvest time of liberation, a celebration of generativity and a commencement of integration – or, as the Eriksons pointed out, of stagnation and a mounting despair and increasing disgust.

Stage VII. Adulthood: Generativity vs. Stagnation

The seventh stage is characterized by the challenge to overcome stagnation with generativity, developing the personality strength identified as care. This generativity is not simply the creation of biological progeny: it includes any effort to extend the scope of one's creative energies beyond the self to the betterment of others.

“Live first for others” might well serve as the motto for this stage. Perpetuation of something larger than one’s self – a sense of meaning and purpose beyond seeing to the service of one's own needs and desires – becomes a key to life.

Indeed, decades ago I remarked that happy grandchildren were a sign of a well–lived life. The friend I said this to recently introduced me to one of her own happy grandchildren. We can all have “happy grandchildren” if we do not confine the set to our own progeny. This is one of the basic insights to be gleaned from the development through the ages of understanding the promise to Abram that his children would be as many as the stars. “‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He added, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” (Genesis 15:5. JPS)

Generativity is not simply about genetic progeny. The apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, drew on the promise inherent in John the Baptist's remark that God could raise up children to Abraham “from these stones.” (Matthew 3:9) 

“Informing the developmental challenges of integrity vs. despair is the hope ‘that we may gain a wise heart’ (Psalm 90:12) in late adulthood and finish our life span in a manner that is a testimony to our faith.” (Kelcourse: 17)

In Erikson’s view, we live faithfully by negotiating life’s predictable crises and finding in them opportunities for greater trust, a stronger will and sense of purpose, with confidence in our competence and fidelity as we mature.

“Living faithfully in adulthood allows us to love and care, and gives us a heart of wisdom. Through faith we express our capacity for mutuality in relation to others and, ultimately, in relation to God.” (Kelcourse: 36)

Generativity, Erikson writes, “always invites the possibility of an energetic shift to productivity and creativity in the service of the generations.” (Erikson, 1982: 53)

Transition between Stages VII and VIII

Part of the job of moving from middle adulthood to later adulthood – that transition between Erikson’s stages VII and VIII – is coming to accept the life one has had as the life that one will have, and yet understanding that “it is never too late” to develop character and undergo continuing faith transformation (or to grow in faith and wisdom).

This phase of life allows for not only a developmental task transition from generativity to the wisdom born of integrative reflection on, and acceptance of, experience but also offers the potentiality of a faith shift from one earlier stage of faith to another and possibly accompanied by a parallel moral development. The transition from adulthood to old age can be a fruitful time. And it can involve painful realizations and new insights.

Stage VIII. Old Age: Integrity vs. Despair

The challenge of old age, in psychosocial development, is to reconcile the issue of integrity vs. despair. This task, properly accomplished, results in wisdom. Integrity involves the acceptance of the inevitability of the life one has had. Hence “Erikson’s description of an elder as someone who has ‘come to the point of being able to understand his place in the world and the life he has lived in it.”’ (Richmond: 48)

An elder, in terms of psychosocial development, is a person who has achieved (successfully accomplished) the life task of integrity, that is, reconciling the crisis between self–acceptance and despair, which resolves in wisdom.

Others may indeed have rejected – or failed to confront – this developmental task and receded into “dogmatism, a compulsive pseudointegrity that, where linked to undue power, can become coercive orthodoxy.” (Erikson 1997:64) Others may experience this fragile rigidity, and find themselves on the receiving end of angry assertions, which are being brandished as a replacement for considered argument.

Anger, anxiety, frustration, fearfulness, and depression – these accompaniments to loss, decline in health or personal power, and the inevitable advance of mortality – may be reflected beyond the homes of the elderly. While it is those who are coming to the end of their days with an unexamined or static faith who are most likely to arrive at this place of anxiety, the factors that provoke negative emotional responses have an impact on all elderly. Just as those negative responses do. Anger, anxiety, fearfulness, and despair: these are the manifestations of a failure at life’s last developmental tasks.

Review of life – reflection on life’s experiences, taking an inventory of the past – happens for people when they confront their mortality, or personal failure. This can occur earlier in life, if illness or tragedy strikes or external forces intervene. In old age a review of life’s challenges and gained strengths – or accumulated weaknesses and disappointments – may be a prominent feature. Then the challenge will be to accept life as it was and has been – and to welcome the future with hope.

Dag Hammarskjöld, on an early page of Markings, his aphoristic private journal, wrote:

Tomorrow we shall meet,
Death and I—
And he shall thrust his sword
Into one who is wide awake.

But in the meantime how grievous the memory
Of hours frittered away.

But later he came to a resolution, a sense of gratitude and acceptance:

“— Night is drawing nigh—”
For all that has been— Thanks!
To all that will be— Yes!

 (Hammarskjöld: 6, 83)

Structural Development and Stages of Faith

Another, quite different, theoretical school offers complementary insights into human development. Following the work of Jean Piaget, structural development theorists emphasize cognitive development.

The stages of structural change are seen as sequential, logical, invariant, and universal. “Faith in the understanding of structural development has to do with the ability to find and make meanings as the sequential phases of our lives unfold.” (Kelcourse: 25)

Structural theorists have found that stability, not change, is dominant for much of adult life, and for many, progress only goes so far. Is this a tragedy or realism? Accepting others the way they are, where they are, is itself part of the wisdom that comes with the transformation of the aging process into a journey into elderhood, from simply accepting age as fate to embracing elderhood as vocation.  “In a structural system,” Elizabeth Liebert reminds us, “there is no theoretical necessity for change.”

Without sufficient dissonance to require a new structure, the person will not change stages. Therefore, stage change does not inevitably result from advancing age. In fact, substantial empirical data suggests that many adults do not change structural stages after their early twenties. Because stage change in adults is relatively rare, permanent developmental equilibrium is quite possible, and a single transition over the entire period of adulthood is not out of the question. Therefore, though simplistic attempts to move people to more complex stages will most likely prove futile, developmentally sensitive environments can create a context that encourages change. (Liebert: 30)

Structural stages are stable, representing as they do a whole outlook on life; and yet under certain circumstances they may become inadequate to experience, and a new way of seeing life may be sought as a result. “Certain predictable or unpredictable life tasks, such as leaving home or receiving a diagnosis of cancer, may provide a context for constructing a new meaning-system.” (Liebert: 31)

It is the work of the church, not to push or provoke these occasions, but to receive those who experience them in a community of welcome, of hospitality and insight, so as to assist the people undergoing transformation, to help them bear into the world – their world – a new and richer way of seeing that world.

Drawing upon such psychological systems as the aforementioned, including structural development theories, and upon extensive research interviews, James Fowler and his colleagues developed a sequence of stages of faith development.

Fowler's Structural Developmental Stages of Faith (Fowler, 1992a: 16–17)

0. Primal faith (infancy)
1. Intuitive–projective faith (early childhood)
2. Mythic–literal faith (childhood and beyond)
3. Synthetic–conventional faith (adolescence and beyond)
4. Individuative–reflective faith (young adulthood and beyond)
5. Conjunctive faith (early mid–life and beyond)
6. Universalizing faith (mid–life and beyond)

James Fowler puts his finger on the desire to reach a final integrated understanding and conception of life in faith. Yet at the same time as he identifies the stages of faith as sequential, Fowler cautions that this is not a way to judge people who are different from ourselves but a way to understand each other.

One reflection on the Fowler stages of faith is the reminder that not everyone proceeds through every stage of the sequence. Among adult congregation members will be people who have come to rest at any stage beyond the primal. These can be of similar age and appearance. Impatience for all to reach an idealized stage (4 or 5 or 6) will not make it happen. Serenity, courage, and wisdom should be the pastor’s watchwords here.

Properly used, Fowler advises, stage theories should not pigeon-hole or stereotype:

The stage theories should facilitate our understanding of persons whose ways of being in faith may differ significantly from our own. It is possible to point to persons of serenity, courage, and genuine faith commitment who would be described, even as adults, in terms of any stage from intuitive projective to universalizing, inclusively. (Fowler, 1992b: 370)

Present in the same congregation will probably be older people at different stages of faith. In other words, most folks will not be at the same place. Each stage represents a way of making meaning of the world and finding purpose within it. What the pastoral leader may wish to focus on is not expectation that people will “move on” from their current stage but preparedness to guide those people who are experiencing transitions, to making them in a healthy and life–giving way.

Congregations and Stage Theory

Fowler points out that congregations may not only have people within them who are at different stages but asks an important question for further study: “the question of whether congregations exhibit what I have called ‘modal developmental levels,’ expectable levels of development in adult faith.” (Fowler, 1992b: 382) If, then, the characteristic level of a congregation's leaders is stage 3, “the synthetic–conventional stage of faith and the interpersonal stage of selfhood,” this will color the experience of the whole congregation.

“Persons best described by these stages feel that their very selfhood is constituted by their roles and their relationships. Such persons long for harmony and conflict–free living in the community of faith. The maintenance of peace and the restoration of good feelings and unity within the community frequently loom as far more important to them than dealing with issues that might cause conflict.” (Fowler, 1992b: 375–376)

“The underlying metaphor for religious community most commonly held by persons described here is that of the ideal or romanticized extended family.” (Fowler, 1992b: 376) This is an attractive, and at the same time limiting, metaphor. Continued protestations by parish leaders, “we are a family,” indicate a strong desire to function at this level. For parishioners at stage 3, an invitation to recognize the possibility of a differentiated perspective may evoke anxieties about the destabilization of identity, of self in relation to others, that might come with a stage transition. “Persons in this stage are likely to experience a special kind of crisis at times of loss or threat to their central relationships and roles.” (Fowler, 1992b: 377)

Implications for pastoral leadership include cultivating an awareness of where people are, as well as a vision of what they might become, as a faith community, and embracing an opportunity to practice the virtues of elderhood, including serenity, courage, and wisdom. As colleague Robert Dietel pointed out to me (in conversation, November 13, 2013) for a congregation to work toward this vision may require substantial innovation and often uncomfortable effort.

Family Systems

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Tolstoy) However, some patterns are discernible. From family systems theory we gain insights useful here. Congregations function like family systems. The question is: how healthily do they function?

The same qualities that allow for ‘familiness’ (that is, stability) in the first place are precisely what hinder change (that is, less stability) when the family system is too fixed. (Friedman, 1985: 25)

Differentiation (maturity) means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say ‘I’ when others are demanding ‘you’ and ‘we.’ It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) nonanxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one’s own destiny and emotional being. It can be measured somewhat by the breadth of one’s repertoire of responses when confronted with crisis. (Friedman, 1985: 27)

Where inability to remain nonanxious, or to differentiate oneself from one’s peer group, would seem to indicate a lack of the gifts of growth in faith and in maturity required in a ministry of elderhood, the presence of these qualities would point to the possibility of a call to elderhood. It follows that in the family system of congregational life, as in one’s own household, there is a role for leaders, including elders, who exhibit the ability to “maintain the kind of nonanxious presence needed to keep the family on a course for change.” But, Friedman warns, “Anxious systems are less likely to allow for differentiated leaders, while leaderless systems are more likely to be anxious... It is the maintaining of self–differentiation while remaining a part of the family that optimizes the opportunities for fundamental change.” (Friedman, 1985: 29)

An interim minister recently observed:

Churches don’t cling to the status quo just because they’re recalcitrant; they cling to the status quo because change feels disadvantageous. The fear of losing something trumps any expectation of new benefits. In one sense, change is not just a spiritual hurdle, it’s a challenge to something that’s hardwired biologically. (Bullock)

Transition into Elderhood

By age 55 and older, many of life’s developmental tasks have been confronted, with lingering effects – whether in success or failure.

In late middle age, adults begin to turn from the concerns of generativity vs. stagnation and self–absorption, and may have gained the attendant virtue (ego strength) of care for others. This positive task of generativity, provision for progeny, progeny understood in the wide sense of future generations and faraway peoples, gradually gives way in old age to a more interior struggle, a journey to integrity, as the person reflects on experiences of life and comes to terms with them.

The challenge, to all of us who are growing older, is this: Do we accept the life we have lived as the only one that has been given us? Do we have the willingness to accept grace and receive forgiveness, to be blessed however undeservingly and to be willing, further, to extend that blessing to others?

The ongoing quest for the meaning and purpose of life is now in part reflective. The focus is on vocation, calling, in a new phase of life. How have we responded to the calling inherent in our humanity, in manhood or womanhood, and specifically in our calling to become the individual human persons we are called to be? Can we respond to that call, now, as the persons we are, rather than the persons we had hoped to be?

It is true, as it was in ancient days, that there comes a time in life when a man or woman is no longer contending for the highest rung that can be reached on a career ladder, is no longer the householder providing for the comforts of family and the raising of children, is no longer the active executive making day–to–day decisions, but has reached a place with different tasks and callings. These new tasks and callings may be voluntary. As one pastoral elder in his 80s said to me: “At my age a person knows what they are good at and that is what they do.” (Herbert O'Driscoll, personal conversation, January 30, 2010) Others just come. And so some, perceiving the change, step back from active executive leadership and “take their place at the council fire” among the acknowledged elders of the community, offering wisdom and insight gained by reflection on experience.

Some folks will have worked through the issues of maturity as charted by Erik and Joan Erikson. Others will have stopped somewhere along the way. Indeed the Eriksons do not hold out the expectation that all will or even must reach the final stage of the cycle, as if it were the top rung of a ladder, or advancement to top rank. This charting of stages is intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive, of human development.

Sources as diverse as the psychologist James Fowler and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor speak of fullness as a benison of living. The letter to the Ephesians refers to the end or goal of life as a growing in faith – until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:13. NIV) 

Fullness, completion, perfection in life, a rounding-out of one’s years, in a way still keeping faith and finding joy, is a blessing we hope for, a goal we strive for, and sometimes reach.

In all humility we might call the story of growth in faith a journey toward holiness, seeking completion as human persons. Indeed, Donald Nicholl, as he taught and wrote on holiness in world religions, quoted the saying of Léon Bloy, “There is only one sadness, the sadness of not being a saint.”

Ordinarily we allow ourselves to be saddened by failures of every kind, the failure to become so famous as we had once dreamed of being, the failure to be rich or beautiful or a model of health. All these failures, and endless others, are constant and nagging sources of sadness to us throughout our lives. But when we reach the end of our lives we shall realize that none of these things which have caused us so much heartache are really cause for ultimate sadness – none of them matters any longer. The only sadness, now, is the sadness of not being a saint. (Nicholl: 28)

There is tragedy in human beings not reaching their human potential, not becoming in fullness of being what God is calling them to become. In reaching toward that fullness, however, there is joy.

When I worked in marketing, people would ask me what I did and I would say, “marketing.” They would respond, “Oh! You are in sales.” No, I would respond. In marketing we do not sell anything, we create the conditions in which sales can occur.

When I became a pastor, people would ask me what I do and I would say, “I’m a pastor.” Sometimes they would respond, “Oh! Are you going to try to convert me?” And I might respond, “We create the conditions in which conversions may occur.”

Of course by conversions I did not simply mean the stereotype of instantaneous one–time experiences so often assumed, I would mean ongoing conversion – growth in faith, leading to a continuing and lifelong transformation of experience of God, self, and other.

It is not that we pastors try to convert anybody; we work to create the conditions in which conversions can occur and lives can change and people can keep on growing in faith. These are the developmentally sensitive environments that congregations can become, which will allow people to find their way to broader ways of making meaning.

See also: 

aging resources

Number Our Days

Embracing the Vocation of Elderhood within a Congregation:

Number Our Days: Social and Cultural Context.

Our elders are growing in numbers. In the United States and other developed countries, the population is aging. In the 2010 U.S. Census, the number of people age 65 and over was 40.3 million persons (13.0 % of the whole) and grew at a faster rate (15.1 % in the past decade) than the population under age 45. In 2010, the median age increased to a new high of 37.2 years, from 35.3 years in 2000, with the proportion of the population at the older ages increasing similarly. The population is growing at a faster rate in the older age ranges than in the younger. (Howden)

When compared with the 2000 Census, the 2010 Census shows all regions grew in both the 65 and older and 85 and older populations. The region with the fastest growth in the population 65 and older was the West (23.5 percent), increasing from 6.9 million in 2000 to 8.5 million in 2010. The region with the fastest growth in the population 85 and older was also the West (42.8 percent), increasing from 806,000 in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2010. (United States Census Bureau)

By 2030, there will be about 72.1 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2000. People 65+ represented 12.4% of the population in the year 2000 but are expected to grow to be 19% of the population by 2030. (Administration on Aging, 2013)

This ‘longevity revolution’ represents an unprecedented change in the age structure of human societies and has significant implications for the practice and the study of religion and of psychology. (McFadden: 162)

The Global Picture

The rapid ageing of the world population is one of the major global demographic trends, driven by the reduction of fertility and mortality….
            In most regions and countries of the world the population aged 60 or more is growing faster than younger adults and children, and this has important consequences for the family, the labor market, and public programs directed to different generational groups. (United Nations, 2013)

Since 1950, the proportion of older persons has been rising steadily, passing from 8 per cent in 1950 to 11 per cent in 2009, and is expected to reach 22 per cent in 2050. As long as old-age mortality continues to decline and fertility remains low, the proportion of older persons will continue to increase. (United Nations, 2010: xxv)

The potential support ratio (PSR), that is, the number of persons aged 15 to 64 for each older person aged 65 years or over, indicates how many potential workers there are per older person. As a population ages, the potential support ratio tends to fall. Between 1950 and 2009, the potential support ratio declined from 12 to 9 potential workers per person aged 65 or over. By 2050, the potential support ratio is projected to drop further to reach 4 potential workers per older person. (United Nations, 2010: xxvii)

In most of Europe and also in the U.S., social–welfare systems were put in place at a time of rapid … population growth. The programs were structured around the assumption that there would always be more young people paying for benefits than there would be old people receiving them. (Kolbert)

In a recent lecture at a conference on aging, Maxine Hancock cheerfully identified herself as part of the “grey tsunami.” (Hancock)

Retirement is a major event in later life. And the demographics insist upon attention to this transition in the general population, in church members, and in clergy. The “grey tsunami” involves clergy as well as laity. In fact, Carol Howard Merritt observes, “In the next ten years, about 70% of our pastors will be at retirement age.” (Merritt)

What affects seniors affects the generations of the future as well. The children of today face several challenges that will affect seniors.

Financial advisors, and fund-raising executives throughout the nonprofit sector, have long been warned of the turnover of wealth and the transition in stewardship, from one generation to the next anticipated in the next decades. Through “wealth transfer,” much of the wealth of older generations, where there is any, is expected to transfer to younger generations within the near future. A recent study cites estimates that as much as $27 trillion of family wealth could be transferred between now and 2050. Among these families, “issues of control and empowerment are causing some tension when it comes to wealth transfer.” (Campden) Rather than go into legacies and inheritances, however, the savings of many ordinary seniors may instead go to pay for the expenses of their own late–life care. (Magnus: 305)

As anticipated by Peter Laslett (1991), the leaders of tomorrow – the children of today – will face issues relating to the different interests of different generations. Financing of age–related spending for senior family members; cutbacks in retirement benefit funding and increases in taxes; and short and long–term economic trends, including inflation, will all have different implications for different age groups. Children of the Boomers will in their turn become the parent generation for people experiencing very different family structures and support networks than they experienced themselves.

Today’s seniors, as members of the grandparents and great-grandparents generations to those children of tomorrow, may play a larger role in their lives. But it is the care of all of the upcoming generations – not just one's own descendants – that becomes the role of the “trustees of the future,” the seniors (Laslett). And yet many seniors will live alone. Will congregations or other religious organizations provide meaningful community for these people, or will they turn elsewhere for support?

In addition, global trends – of immigration, economics, and a shift to the East as cultural center and global marketplace – will mean the children of today’s children will grow up in a very different world from the older generations who will be, in many cases, still alongside them during these sea changes in society. (Magnus: 305–307)

We live our lives in the context of the lives of others. Our own experience is mediated through self–perception, reflected in the lives and character of the people around us. Much of what we experience as self–esteem is built upon our understanding of our worth in the eyes of others. This makes for a problem in the older years: many older people experience a discounting of their experience and wisdom, their expertise and capabilities, as they perceive themselves as "old" in the eyes of others. This self–diminishment is reinforced by negative stereotypes in the culture: the list is long. What these stereotypes can do is to disempower the old and lead younger people with perfectly capable lives to discount the experience that they could be gaining and celebrating with their elders. We all miss out in a world like that.

“We need more young families!” is a familiar cry in aging congregations. “Where are the young people?” older members ask. And young people miss the opportunity to interact with multiple generations. Longevity and mobility have pulled families apart.

The congregation, if its membership is proscribed by geography and tradition rather than by age and affinity, is one place where generations may converge and interact. What prevents them?

In part it is because of this very seeking for an idealized solution, the idea that young people (considered en masse) will bring new energy to do the work and provide the monetary resources to sustain the programs that their elders have set before them. They will come to church intact, it is felt; already fulfilled in their relationships and with time to spare and readiness to serve.

But the reality is that people are broken, unfinished, and needy – including young people. They have day care to run to, jobs to do, rent to pay. And, yes, they want community.

So in addition to the ageism experienced by the elderly, there is the ageism experienced by the young, the prejudice that they will provide for the fulfillment of expectations of another generation. They may not even know that they have been signed up for this duty!

In a recent interview, Pope Francis said, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” (Goodstein).

What these different generations could offer each other, in multi–generational contexts like the local congregation, could strengthen them both. Elders have seen change – in some ways greater than any since – and adapted. Their perspective, if offered as wisdom rather than nostalgia, can help younger people face the changes of their own experience.

Elders in American Society

“Longevity and mobility are increasing factors in the situation of older members of American society. In the United States, the proportion of people over 65 years of age is projected to grow to 21% of the population by the year 2040.”  (Administration on Aging, 2012: 3)

Due to the prevalent and increasing mobility of the population, fewer seniors find themselves living in the same town as their own children or grandchildren. Seeing them is a special occasion, worthy of effort to arrange, and often worthy of sacrifice of other affiliations or commitments, including attendance at their own local church.

Conversely, the grandchildren may be brought to them and then they will have the satisfaction of bringing their grandchildren to the church of their peers. However, this is far less frequent than the daily or weekly regular engagement with people of another generation that multiple generations of an extended family living in the same place would produce.

However, while their own grandchildren may not always be available, the children of other grandparents likely do live somewhere nearby. They may live in the same neighborhood – or the same catchment area for membership – as their local congregation. But do they attend that church? Where do they find their community: of support, of challenge, of vocational expression?

A number of factors come into play and a number of questions arise: Why go to church? Why would grandchildren want to go to a church full of strangers? How do the members of the congregation make newcomers welcome? What does it take to become a member, not in name only but in social practice?

The question that mirrors the ones we might expect to focus on in the study of elderhood is this: How do the senior members of the church greet new faces? Are young people greeted, welcomed, and integrated into the life of the parish? Newer residents of the town may include families who are themselves separated from distant elders.

Is there initial warmth followed by reluctance toward further familiarity? In the region of the study congregation, newcomers call this pattern of an initial welcome followed by disengagement, the “Seattle Freeze.” In other regions it goes by other names. Under any name the experience of superficial welcome followed by unstated barriers to closer association coupled with the church’s eternal reputation for hypocrisy may be enough cause for young people to turn away from the churches of older generations. They find somewhere – or nowhere – else to go. And all will thereby lose out on the richness of experience that membership in a multigenerational congregation can afford. (And this is a rare opportunity in a society stratified by age, where so often generations do not otherwise mix.)

Opportunities for multigenerational interactions, I have found in practice, have already arisen by the time people arrive at the church door. How members make themselves known in the community may determine the initial impression a first-time worshipper has of the congregation. Greeting, attendance, participation, and active incorporation into the celebrations – on regular Sundays as well as special holidays – all begin to give the picture of a church that welcomes people of all ages to be in fellowship together. The overt message of inclusion must be matched by behavior of individual worshippers. If the pastor (or a designated greeter) welcomes families with children into the sanctuary, but then people in the pews encourage the parents to remove their children to another room, the family may get a mixed message about the sincerity of the welcome, however strenuously it is asserted at board or committee meetings or in literature or website.

So, oddly enough, it is part of embracing elderhood in a multigenerational congregation to encourage the presence of children, among other generations. Accommodation within reason for physical disabilities is also a measure that congregational leaders should willingly accept as part of their responsibility. The pleasure all members take in the presence of charming children may be matched by a conscious and embodied message of welcome to all generations. Congregations without many senior members may feel the lack of diversity much as churches that seem to be comprised of only the elderly do. One small child visiting the study congregation asked, according to her grandmother, “Is this church only for old people?”

The dramatic increase in the proportion of Americans who are reaching or have reached the traditional age of retirement will change us, as a society, as a culture, as a church, as congregations, and as individuals. Congregations in traditional mainstream denominations will likely be at the forefront of change. The question is: what will that change be?

Among voluntary associations, religious institutions can function like mutual benefit organizations, to use the typology of nonprofit organizations of Michael O’Neill:

Besides philanthropic nonprofits, there are thousands of tax–exempt organizations that exist primarily to serve their own members. In many states, these are legally classified as ‘mutual benefit’ as distinguished from ‘public benefit’ organizations. Mutual benefit organizations include golf and tennis clubs, service organizations… (O’Neill: 156)

Accidental Churchmen

Writing in 1960, Arnold B. Come observed: “Suddenly, within the last decade, people have flooded into the church, without plan or promotion.” (Come: 11) The church of the 1950s with its automatic accrual of attendees often modeled a church as a social institution, a mutual benefit organization, which one attended and received services from. For many, that was the automatic entitlement of membership.

This encumbering legacy of the post–war era is still active in many minds, and in competition with another model, that we, the people of God, are the church.

In addition, churches face the competition of a culture of consumerism.

Our consumerist culture has co-opted many churches.... When the church becomes essentially a purveyor of religious goods and services, it reinforces the believer's own consumerist habits, allowing him [or her] to pick and choose according to taste and functionality. Inhaling from the cultural atmosphere a mania for unlimited choice, churches breathe out as many different programs as possible. Perhaps unintentionally, this approach treats personal liberty and the inalienable “right” to choose as the highest goods in life. (Williams)

Phyllis Tickle, noted author and commentator on religious trends, commented recently on another pertinent trend.

“The old saw is that after they married and had children, people would come back to organized faith. It is not true now. People under 40 are not returning to their inherited church,” she said. In her studies on contemporary Christianity, she sees it morphing from ‘inherited, hierarchical, location–based (churched) faith’ toward forms that discard those strictures. Believers today are still interested in a communal expression of faith. They just want a more ‘nimble” religion.’” (Grossman: 12)

The collision of expectations is a factor in governance and congregational life. The expectations raised and cultivated over the past half–century and more match the social contract of the American Dream. Indeed for many people what church can do for them is part of the same deal as what their country can do for them. Members of the Silent Generation (Traditionalists) and of the older half of the Baby Boom Generation, for example, interviewees from the study congregation, are probably the last that expect this implicit contract to be fulfilled.

This contract is breaking down. There are not enough young people to carry the load of these expectations and there are not enough resources for entitlement funding to cover the obligations already incurred.

This is the case in the macrocosm of society and the microcosm of the congregation. Politics are not to blame. Demographics and economics point to the large–scale changes long in motion. These include the “grey tsunami” and the “longevity revolution” – and their consequences. For example, United Nations statistical projections of the “potential support ratio” indicate that by the year 2050 there will be four potential workers to provide the retirement resources that once were the burden shared by a dozen workers. (United Nations, 2010: xxvii)

In the churches, too, the “potential support ratio” is declining. It takes, churches are told, several young people to make up in monetary contributions what one senior gives. Partly this is due to habit, or the (lack of) cultivation thereof. Partly it is custom. Partly it is because churches collect donations in old–fashioned ways foreign to younger people. (One man in his thirties said to me, “I don’t even have a checkbook.”) But it is also true that young people, who are finding their way in a troubled job market, simply do not have the time or money to give that their elders gave – or expect them to give. Uncertain employment, longer hours at work, demands of home and family – and care of the elderly – all draw down the available energy and resources of the emerging generations.

Nevertheless the younger generations have energy and passion to participate in and contribute to (and take the lead in) the causes and organizations that they see as worthwhile. A strong trend among the young is to support organizations and causes where they feel a personal connection or a sense of ownership and results. “You see where your money – and time – is going, and you see the results.” There is a return on investment: there is a traceable effect. This is far different from the attitudes of institutional loyalty and filial obligation projected their way by some seniors.

The inescapable factor of time in the study of aging and older persons raises two additional issues: cohort effects and period effects produced by the sociohistorical circumstances that can affect researchers’ questions and their data. In regard to cohort effects, it is important to recognize that persons now in their mid–70s entered adulthood when World War II ended.... In the mid–20th century, U.S. mainline Protestantism rapidly expanded and embraced the values of science and modernism; elders socialized into adult religious life at that time rarely explored the mysteries of transcendence, so now, in old age, they may find themselves bereft of spiritual resources and religious beliefs that can provide a sense of meaning.... Finally, after affecting numerous U.S. institutions due to its size, the baby–boom cohort entered adulthood challenging religious and political authority and producing a widespread debate about the relation between religion and spirituality. (McFadden: 163)

Suspicion of institutions is part of the shift in attitudes between generations. To illustrate, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of a watershed event in American popular consciousness. In a recent article, “The Turning Point,” news journalist Bob Schieffer recalls that day and reflects on its ramifications.

The Kennedy assassination was the beginning of a series of very difficult events. We went through the protests on Vietnam. People felt the government hadn't been straight with them. What we call the "credibility gap" developed. In 1968 we had the horrible deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Then came Watergate. Americans grew more skeptical, and more cynical. Our confidence in institutions was shaken — all institutions, from government to universities and even churches. And we never quite got it back. We would never feel the same about any of those things as we did before John Kennedy's death. (Schieffer)

In the life of congregations, such succession issues as passing leadership initiative and authority from generation to generation come into play along with different ideas and attitudes toward financial stewardship, active participation, and voluntary contributions of time and money.

Traditionalists maintained and supported the institutions and procedures that helped them attain their generational goals and aspirations. In the process they experienced a bulge in institutional growth. Schools were built to accommodate their children; schools that since closed. Church buildings were built for them to attend with their children; those churches, for the most part, have remained. They have remained, but they are dwindling. The model of church of the Traditionalist generation is passing away. What, then, will they pass on? What do they want their legacy to be?

The challenge is real: there are fewer young people to carry on the work, with fewer hours and less financial security. On top of this the succession from one generation to another is not always clearly accomplished.

David Eller of World Concern has observed that people who see no future tend to cling to, or revert to, the habits of the past. This means a reluctance to accept change, much less to initiate it. The more threatened a group of people may be, the less likely they are to accept change. “They don’t necessarily see that there is a better future at hand…. It can be very, very difficult to bring about change.” (Eller) For a group as for an individual, extremely stressful situations may cause a reversion to earlier patterns of relation.

So too a congregation may attempt to resolve today’s dilemmas with yesterday’s behaviors. The fund-raising practices of four decades ago may not produce adequate results to confront the budget crisis of the current fiscal year. The techniques used to found churches sixty years ago might not be what are needed to rebuild God’s church today. What worked then may not work now.

And yet the presence of elders in a congregation is largely positive in its effects. Older adults offer to their society and their church many gifts – including those of hope, hope for a future they will not see themselves but can envision, and gifts of perspective, taking a longer view, with the widened time horizon that comes with many years of honestly evaluated experience. It is these gifts, of hope and vision, which enable some elders to be “trustees of the future.” (Laslett: 7)

Time Horizons

Imagine, then, a mountain slowly coming into view as you approach it across the plains. First only a narrow slice comes into view – the top, the present – that is childhood.  The middle view is wider (but for our purposes more future than past), and finally, in old age, the whole mountain is becoming visible, emerging out of the clouds or ascending above the surrounding plains. In the later years, our vision reveals more of the past and of the future, though less personal future, more connection to people, and to a universal or common future.

Growing older does not absolve a person from responsibility, certainly not responsibility for the social future. It could be claimed, in fact, that many more duties of older people go forward in time than is the case of those who are younger. This follows from the fact that they owe less to their own individual futures – now comparatively short – and more to the future of others – all others. It is those who have lived longest who have done the most to bring about the situation which is experienced at any one time. In shouldering their responsibilities for that current situation, older people will do all they can to ensure the future is as good as it can be. In this the elderly of any society can be said to be trustees for the future. (Laslett: 196)

The challenge of society is to find how to accommodate not only the needs of elders but also their gifts.

The challenge for congregations includes how to enable aging members to understand their situation in the span of life, to engage with the other members of the congregation, and ultimately to accept and celebrate with them the gifts that come with aging. Congregations are challenged to meet the need, desires, and demands of an increasing aging population with a limited (and dwindling) set of resources.

Part of the societal task is anticipated by the increasing efforts to make services available to seniors and to incorporate them more fully in the ongoing business of society. This must be tempered by a realistic sense of capability and interest.

See also: 

aging resources

aging resources

Embracing the Vocation of Elderhood within a Congregation:


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