By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published July 5, 2017
“The faith formation focus of the future is likely to be ministry to seniors. What youth ministry was to the John Paul years, senior ministry will be to the twenty-first century.”
John L. Allen, “The Future Church”
There is a population phenomenon happening now that will have a profound impact on society and the church. I’m referring to the “baby boomer” explosion. The explosion has been triggered by the maturing of 78 million boomer babies born in the post-WWII era between 1946 and 1964, the largest number of births of any population segment in U.S. history. The “age wave” of seniors is now moving rapidly toward the top end of the population pipeline.
The problem is that a great many of our leaders are not yet aware of the phenomenon and how it will affect both society and the church.
Facts about the senior population
According to my research, I’ve discovered some intriguing statistics about the seniors in the United States.
Fifty million seniors are age 65 and older—17 percent of the U.S. population. This group will expand to over 83 million by 2050, making it the largest of all age segments. And this segment is growing three times faster than all other age segments.
The total senior population is larger than all minority groups combined. If all U.S. seniors held hands, they would wrap around the world twice.
Life expectancy for a male aged 65 is now 82.9 years, and for a female 85.5 years.
Two thirds of those who lived to be 65 in the history of the world are alive today.
One of every four 65-year-olds will live past age 90; one of 10 will live past age 95. The oldest of the baby boomers turned 65 in 2011.
Ten thousand boomers will retire every day for the next 15 years—that’s one every 13 seconds.
Understanding the challenges
What do all these facts mean? I suggest two major challenges. First, the aging seniors will put an unprecedented burden on the social welfare and health care systems in the country. Second, the aging seniors will present new challenges for the church in religious education and faith formation.
A much larger article will be needed to deal with the social and health care implications of the senior population explosion. I will focus on the impact that aging seniors will have on the church.
During the reign of Pope John Paul II, the focus of our religious education and faith formation programs was primarily on the youth in our congregations, and rightly so, because the future of the church was at stake. Now that we are approaching the third decade of the 21st century, the senior population explosion requires the church to take a fresh new look at our religious education priorities.
Never before in the history of the U.S. have we experienced a population phenomenon of this size and magnitude. Some social scientists predict the senior population explosion will have a similar impact on society as the Industrial Revolution or the invention of the microchip. Yet, the phenomenon has gone relatively unnoticed because the explosion is occurring one wave at a time rather than one gigantic tsunami.
Make no mistake about it, the phenomenon is real. The growth in this segment of the population will be seen and felt more strongly when the seniors in the parishes outnumber all other groups in the congregation. The seniors bring with them a unique need for spiritual formation and guidance.
“A wonderful season”
What is unique about the spiritual needs of seniors? Some tend to think that seniors, especially the older segments, have a mature spirituality that requires little or no tweaking. The reality is that seniors arrive at the last third or quarter of their lives with an increased level of anxiety about their purpose and end-of-life issues.
Archbishop-emeritus Harry J. Flynn, of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, responded to the issue in his 2007 “A Time to Reap: Pastoral Letter on Aging,” in which he stated, “As each of us grows older, the aging process brings with it many changes. While physical and cognitive challenges come our way, there are also tremendous opportunities in our later years to enrich our lives, and to sharpen our awareness of God’s presence. Spirituality often becomes more important to us as we reach out to God and strive to deepen our relationship with the Creator.”
Archbishop Flynn compared aging to the seasons of the year and concludes, “Yet, winter can also be a wonderful season of peaceful contentment and reflection. Winter can be an opportunity for renewal of the mind, body and spirit. In this season, we often develop a more reflective spirituality. We look back over our lives; we think about death and dying; and we become more acutely aware of the promise of the Resurrection. We long to be released into the next life and to be truly in God’s presence. This spiritual quest is an important part of our final season of life.” (The full text of Archbishop Flynn’s pastoral letter can be read at www.archspm.org/pastoral_letters/time-reap-pastoral-letter-aging/.)
One of the pioneering parishes in ministry to seniors is St. Mary’s Church in Barrie, Ontario, Canada, which embraced the need for a dedicated senior ministry over 10 years ago, led by Sister Mary Rose Marrin who became the first director of their Maturing Adults ministry. Sister Mary Rose said, “We have begun to realize that we have a ‘new generation’ within our world and church that is in need of a unique and dedicated approach to ongoing faith development and support through all the challenges and transitions they experience in the second half of life.”
What is needed is a change of focus from a youth-oriented faith formation culture to one that includes the spiritual needs of aging seniors. The intent is not to downplay the existing youth and adult-oriented programs; rather it is to stress the need to add a new type of senior faith formation ministry.
A call to action
Richard Johnson, Ph.D., a pioneer in the field of spiritual gerontology (an emerging specialty of spirituality in the maturing years), advocates for a dedicated focus on maturing adults within our parishes. He said, “Every successful parish ministry requires a leader, a person with the primary role to serve as the catalyst, visionary and energy source for the program. In short, there is now a need for a director of a ministry for maturing adults. Certainly it is normal practice for a parish to have a youth minister to organize, lead and shepherd a vibrant program for the youth in the parish. I see the ministry for maturing adults as a similarly important position in the parish; it requires an individual who is trained and equipped to shepherd a dedicated program for maturing adults.”
The ever-increasing number of seniors in the pews also represents a tremendous asset to the parish. All seniors possess a great amount of experience and wisdom that was gained throughout our careers and life experiences. There probably isn’t a need in the parish that could not be addressed by the experience and wisdom of seniors. All seniors need is a vehicle that brings them together. Perhaps the creation of a new senior ministry is the catalyst.
For the last quarter century, the birthrate has fallen while the senior population is exploding. Yet most churches have not as yet recognized the impact of the senior age wave and continue to focus on youth programs while overlooking the fastest-growing segment within the church.
Here’s my call to action: all seniors should begin the dialogue with their pastors and parish leaders to apprise them of the need to begin planning for the impact of the senior population explosion. Work with them. Involve other seniors. Our goal is to establish a dedicated senior faith formation ministry in every parish.
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.