by Sharon Ely Pearson
Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a baby boomer. This year the first of my generational co-horts are turning sixty-five. Granted, I’m at the tail end of this generation, but retirement and slowing down to stop and smell the roses is beginning to sound more and more appealing. But I’m not ready for the rocking chair – unless its with a good book and good conversation.
The “retirement years” are taking on new meaning in the 21st century. We are witnessing the emergence of a new stage of life between adult midlife (focused on career and child-rearing) and the typical old-age that is associated with retirement, senior living communities, social security and medicare. Joan Chittister writes in The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully (2008: BlueBridge Books):
To be over sixty-five in an age like ours is to feel bad even when we feel good. We are, after all, “old” now. Except, we don’t feel “old.” And we don’t think “old.” And we work very hard at not looking “old” – whatever looking old is supposed to mean. . . . We’re too old to get a job, they tell us – but they want us to volunteer all the time.
Researchers say that only 5% of those over sixty-five are in special care institutions, and 80% of the rest of the older population have no limitations to managing the rigors of daily living.
How can the church address the needs of older adults who are still eager to continue to be productive in society, including our churches? Today and in the future when the need will be even greater?
The Winter 2010 issue of Lifelong Faith is focused on Faith Formation with Baby Boomers. Recent studies and statistics are offered from a variety of studies that can give us a better picture of who this baby boomer generation is today. Many articles from this issue of the Journal can also be found at the Faith Formation Learning Exchange.
Conventional wisdom used to be that people in church should be grouped according to age. The thinking was that teens should hang out with teens, young parents with other parents and senior adults with seniors. Even neighborhoods are set up in this fashion, with young people attending school, the middle-aged adults working and raising families and the older adults living out their years with others in retirement. While this system of grouping people may be educationally and economically sound, it does not take into account the powerful impact of human connection and the desire of older adults to make a difference with their lives. As Joan Chittister says, “The point is, we are the only icons of aging that young people will get to meet.”
One of the benefits of older adults being involved in the entire church is the intergenerational relationships that develop. In fact, 50-plus ministry appears to be most effective when it is done in an intergenerational context. Intergenerational ministries help fulfill what the writer of Psalms expresses in Psalm 78:4, “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.”
I first heard the word “refirement” at a presentation given by Bob Johansen of the Institute for the Future in 2008. He expects the word retirement will disappear in the near future, to be replaced by baby-boomer-type terms like redirection, regeneration, and refirement. Four years later, much of what he shared as come to fruition. His prognostications included:
- Boomers will continue to work into their “older” years, unless they get bored.
- We will be living longer due to better health care, but this will also mean more health expenses.
- The government will offer lower levels of support as Social Security is tapped out.
- Empowered boomers will have a big-picture view, so they will continue to reach out and grow. The world will not be smaller, but bigger.
The American church of the early 21st century finds itself on the brink of an age explosion. Innovative churches are recapturing the spirit of those who seek re-firement by creating strategic and purposeful older adult ministries. A one-size-fits-all approach to ministry can be replaced with an array of fresh ideas that recognize the multiple needs, interests and abilities of older adults. The potential impact of this army of 50-plus adults is incredible.
More resources to explore:
- Churches Respond to the Age Wave: Top Innovations in Older Adult Ministry by Amy Hanson
- Ministry by and for Those Beyond the Age of 55 – the Fall 2008 issue of the Christian Education Journal from Talbot School of Theology
- Developing Faith Formation for the Baby Boom Generation by John Roberto
- Recommended resources from the Episcopal Church’s Task Force for Older Adult Ministry
- Baby Boomers Present New Online Ministry Opportunities from Living Lutheran daily blog
- The Older Adult Ministry pages from the United Methodist Church
Questions to consider:
- How can Boomers encourage younger generations to be good stewards?
- What responsibility does your congregation have for engaging with Boomers who have special needs that are not being met?
- How might your congregation help people create life legacies (dedicating your life to special causes or impacts) in the later years of life?
- What might the Boomers in your congregation offer that is not yet realized?