By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published September 1, 2016
Many parishes in the Archdiocese of Atlanta offer some type of senior ministry—I know of over 50 such ministries. All Saints in Dunwoody has the Silver Saints. Transfiguration in Marietta has the Friendship Circle. Holy Trinity in Peachtree City has the Hospitality Group. Holy Spirit in Atlanta has the Spirited Older Seniors. St. Mary’s in Rome has the Traveling Saints. St. Peter Chanel in Roswell has the Forever Young. And finally, Our Lady of Lourdes in Atlanta has the Young at Heart group. Not to leave anyone out, but I wanted to make a point, namely, it is great that parishes have senior ministries but the focus tends to be primarily on social activities.
Rarely will you find a “senior” adult formation program that deals with the changing spiritual needs of seniors. Or ministries devoted specifically to and only for seniors that deal with the challenges and opportunities of aging. Or ministries that capitalize on the distinct talents and capabilities of seniors.
Why is this relevant? There is a population phenomenon occurring right under our noses that has gone seemingly undetected in most parishes. The senior population in the pews is growing. We now represent 23 percent of the U.S. population and will experience dramatic growth as the 74.9 million baby boomers enter their retirement years.
Seniors in many parishes already represent more than a quarter of the registered parishioners.
The social service agencies are scrambling to keep up with the new demand. But in most parishes, the awareness has not as yet caught up with the reality of this change and the impact the growing numbers of seniors will have on parish life.
The obvious question is, “Do the ministries in our parishes reflect this change?”
Don’t get me wrong about the current senior ministries. It’s great that we seniors are able to get together socially with people our age and hair color (for those who still have hair) and share traditional values like potluck dinners, bingo, day trips and so on. Sometimes we get the impression that we have been taken out of the mainstream of parish life. Yet we have unique needs that must be served and experience and wisdom that could be used to benefit our parishes.
Let me pose a question. What demographic segment in the parish has the most time, talent and treasure to devote to a parish? Hands down, it is the seniors. Most of us are retired, or soon will be, and we need to find challenging things to do that help to provide personal fulfillment and gratification.
I recently received an email from a retired executive in a north side parish who held senior positions in finance and accounting in his career. He lamented that he wanted to find something challenging and meaningful to do in his parish but didn’t know where to start. He volunteered for a social ministry, but he felt uncomfortable because it didn’t align with his skills. I told him to talk to his pastor and see if he could get on the finance council. A person with his experience can and will make a difference.
You might ask why more seniors don’t take the initiative to volunteer or make their voices heard. Well, I suggest there are several reasons. First, the prevailing attitude in our culture says that once a person retires they want to be left alone to relax and enjoy life. This is a myth. Second, our culture is fixated on youth. We like to see young, well-conditioned, good-looking people in important roles. Next, and most important, the senior segment today is considerably different than prior generations.
We seniors are living longer. We’re more active and involved. We are blazing new trails about the way seniors look and behave. Just like the automobile commercial, “This ain’t your father’s Oldsmobile!” Well, we “ain’t” like our parents and grandparents. The world around us needs to recognize that the senior of today is much different than the senior of yesterday.
May I humbly suggest a call to action? I encourage parish leadership to make a concerted effort to recognize and understand the new emerging senior in their midst. They need to understand seniors’ needs, spiritual and otherwise. Recognize how we may contribute to our parishes. Respect us for what we are and what we can become in the church. Work with us to create new types of senior ministries that benefit both the seniors and the parish.
Parish ministry should consider a senior section that deals with the spiritual and practical needs of aging seniors. Keep in mind that seniors are closer to the end than the beginning. Our view and spiritual formation needs are significantly different than younger adults. The needs of seniors vary, of course, depending on circumstances and resources. Some of us are raising our grandchildren. Some of us are suffering from health issues or isolation.
We senior adults need fresh new material that aligns with our life stage and faith.
Finally, I don’t want to be perceived as being critical of the current situation. All I hoped to do was identify a vibrant and growing parish demographic. I certainly don’t have all the answers—no one person does—about what to do to address this emerging phenomenon, but I know that we could organize a group of forward-thinking seniors who could come up with a plan to start the ball rolling.
Bill Clarke, former business executive, teacher and senior citizen, emerged from his third retirement to serve as the associate director of professional development for the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. To send Bill your thoughts on this and other topics, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.