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”

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