Older adult ministries help a generation of United Methodists thrive

Older adult ministries help a generation of United Methodists thrive

"Roots and Shoots" is the Appalachian District's annual event for seniors, typically held in August.

Across Holston Conference, senior adults are finding their niche in their churches and communities through older adult ministries. They plug in with various groups at church ranging from worship service to Sunday school to small-group studies.

The Rev. Susan Groseclose is associate director of connectional ministries for discipleship for Holston Conference. She helps tend to the ministries for older adults.

Groseclose says in 2017, the United State Census Bureau projected the population of people age 65 years and older will outnumber children in 2030 -- the first time this has occurred in U.S. history. The generation known as the Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964) will continue to impact society and transform culture. Boomers will live longer than previous generations and will affect perceptions on aging, health care, organizations even as they redefine retirement.

“Many of our churches already are predominantly older adults and will continue to be an aging population in congregations,” Groseclose said. “Today, older adults are defined by AARP as 50+ or defined by Medicare as 65+. Social Security continues to change the full retirement age. No matter which definition that you use, older adults in congregations span anywhere from 25-45 years. Thus, older adult ministry is no longer a ‘one size fits all' ministry. In fact, if you look at a person's first 45 years of life, the church defines ministry as infant/toddlers, preschool, elementary, junior high, senior high, college and young adults, and adults.”

Wilmina Alexander is the chairperson of older adult ministry at Dublin United Methodist Church in Dublin, Virginia. She has been overseeing the program for many years. At age 80, she doesn’t see herself slowing down.

“I’m still going strong. I asked my husband why I do so much and he said, ‘Because you love it,’” she said.

The Dublin group has about 35 regulars, and they enjoy being with each other, Alexander said.

“So many are lonely, and some of them just like to be out with the group. [They] meet the fourth Thursday of every month. We do Bingo and card games and lunch,” she said.

The group also travels together. Past trips include a visit to a theater in Wytheville, to Roanoke for lunch, and to the Amish country. Most of the time, however, the group just sits around tables at church and talks.

“Some of them live by themselves. We have lost a lot of friends over the years. We remember them also. Church is a place where you can share with each other. The Same generation has a lot of the same life experiences and are going through the same thing,” she said.

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Johnson City, Tennessee, has hosted XYZ (X-tra Years of Zest) for decades. The ministry started when member Paula Dickerson retired. She noticed a need for her age group to get together. She oversaw the program until about seven years ago when she turned the reins over to current leader Kem McKee. McKee sees a strong need for the church to focus on older adults and to get them together to share their lives.

“The whole purpose of our XYZ group is to provide them fellowship, socialization, activities outside of the church that they wouldn’t necessarily get involved with,” said McKee.

McKee has led her group to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough as well as on an annual picnic. She likes to keep some things predictable, but she also likes to switch up venues.

“We have done some historical things like [visit] Madam Russell United Methodist Church to see the beautiful stained-glass windows,” McKee said. “We also went to the Edward Cox House. ... Anything historical, this group seems to enjoy. And of course, our activities always include lunch. We love to eat.”

McKee is always interested in getting feedback from group members to hear what they would like to do and what their needs are. She considers their fixed incomes and tries to limit how much the events will cost. She tries to keep costs under $20.

She also considers participants’ ability levels. “You need to take into consideration any health issues and ability issues that are present. Depending on those things, it helps you plan what you want to do,” said McKee.

She said at one time, there were several who had mobility issues, so they did more activities that didn’t require a lot of walking. They were always considering if a walker or wheelchair would be easy to navigate.

Groseclose calls these groups the Go-Go's, Slow-Go's, and No-Go's. Each stage of life has its own unique gifts and challenges.

Grose explained that the “Go-Go's” are those who may or may not be retired; are active and independent; pursue a wide variety of faith-forming ministries, interests and extensive travel; often care for grandchildren or parents; desire to be productive in society; and look for fulfilling leadership opportunities.

The "Slow-Go's" are those who have experienced a significant transition in life often caused by a personal illness or spouse or a family member's illness that has redefined their ability to be as active or independent. As energy and health begins to ebb, extensive travel is replaced with shorter visits to family and friends.

The "No-Go's" are those who are unable to be as independent as they once were. They encounter mobility restrictions and need health-care services. They deal with end-of-life issues and concerns. They wish to leave a legacy (financially or spiritually) and are exploring ways to die with dignity.

A church can build an older adult group in various ways. Members can contact their district office to see if there is a director present to help them establish a group.
“I am also available and would love the opportunity to meet with the leadership of your church to start or expand or enrich ministries with older adults. I am available to answer your questions, provide resources, and a variety of workshops to train, inform, or inspire your group,” she said, noting that many church leaders don’t know how many resources the Holston Conference office offers.
Her topics for older adult ministry include:
  • 5 Steps of Jump Starting an Older Adult Ministry
  • Advocating with Older Adults
  • Brain-y Bible Study
  • Boomers: The New Seniors
  • Launching Intergenerational Ministries
  • Spirituality for the Second Half of Life
  • Ministries Across Senior Adult's Life Cycles and Transitions
The conference and districts offer a variety of events throughout the year for seniors to get involved with. Many districts offer days apart for seniors. For instance, seniors from the Scenic South District and Hiwassee District go twice a year to Camp Lookout for "Senior Adult Day." Mountain View District organizes a “Wild and Wonderful” event twice a year at Trinity United Methodist Church. The Appalachian District has “Roots and Shoots” which is typically in August.
Bishop Richard Looney speaks at Camp Lookout's Senior Adult Day.

Every spring, Holston Conference hosts Jubilation, a senior adult retreat. Groseclose says it resembles the Holston winter retreat, Resurrection, only geared toward the older generation. They want it to be a time of worship, fun, gathering, and meeting other people in the conference. This year, Jubilation celebrates its 20th anniversary on April 20-22 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Groseclose emphasizes the importance of church leaders tapping into the gifts of older adults.

“Because we as United Methodists, our theology is that we are always going toward perfection,” she said, explaining that people are always growing with their relationship with God. “And those older adults continue to grow and are looking for ways to leave a legacy for those younger generations.”

McKee hopes more seniors will consider being a part of their church older adult group. “Even if they are in a wheelchair or have portable oxygen,” she said, “a group won’t turn someone down.”


Corrina Sisk-Casson

Corrina Sisk-Casson is a Home Deaconess Missioner based in the Three Rivers District.