One Sabbath morning, we waited in a room in the school adjacent to the church for the Sabbath School teacher to arrive. Three of us were in attendance: an older lady, Susan1; my husband, Bob; and I. When we realized no one was coming to teach the class and as the hope of more class participants dimmed, Bob, a retired pastor, took over.
As the three of us discussed the nature and function of the Holy Spirit, I noticed that Susan had written in her Bible study guide answers to each question. As Bob led in the discussion, she gave well-thought-out opinions with a pleasant smile radiating from her face.
Although we had attended this church only a few times over the past several years, we always greeted her but had not really become acquainted personally. I wondered how she became a Seventh-day Adventist, what her husband did for a living, how many children she had, what church offices she had held, and where she had lived during her lengthy lifetime.
Susan had a suitcase on wheels at her side, and I knew that extra oxygen was available. Before the study had begun, she told us that she had been hospitalized recently and just had been released from a period of time in a rehabilitation center. Oh, I thought, and she still studies her lesson and still smiles.
Questions came to my mind: Did she feel confident enough to join in the weekly discussions in her Sabbath School class? Did the teacher encourage and include her in the discussions?
She ministers in her own way
When we returned to the main building for the church service, I hugged another older lady who always braves a friendly greeting no matter what her physical pain level. As Mary2 and I embraced, she shared a special experience in a weekly study group that meets near where she lives.
Mary sends church bulletins to all those who were not in attendance each Sabbath and writes to many individuals weekly—we know this because we receive evidence of her devotion when we are absent. That, she says, continues as her ministry.
Mary recently retired from her job stocking shelves in a drugstore. Because she was nearly eighty years of age, I had a hard time believing that she had been employed until just a few months ago. Not only that, she lives in a rundown house in an extremely dangerous section of the city. Does she complain or even mention her living situation? Never.
A few weeks previous, I had given her a list of questions that I hoped she would answer because I wanted to write her story: Tell me about your parents and siblings. Where did you live growing up? How much education did you receive? Tell about your husband. How many children do you have? When did you become an Adventist? Describe your life and your goals. What would you like to tell the young people today? Maybe an Adventist publication would publish her memoirs as a tribute to the individuals in our church who have served so faithfully but have become, sometimes, just pew decorations.
More questions came to mind: Does her congregation minister to her when she becomes so sick she cannot attend? When she can attend, do they greet her, talk to her, tell her of their love and gratitude for her loving, Christian witness? Do they (do I?) write to her as she writes to others?
Mouth open in amazement
A couple years ago my husband and I visited a medium-sized church in a large city where he was scheduled to preach. The congregation included older folk, middle-aged people, baby boomers, young people, and small children. Nice mix, friendly members, well-cared-for worship center.
As the worship service got under way, I was so astonished that, looking back, I wonder if I sat there with my mouth open in amazement, unable to believe what I was observing. First, the elder greeted the congregation and the visitors, then he reviewed the announcements in the bulletin. The visiting speaker entered, but the elder continued his duties. He gave the invocation, announced the opening hymn, led out in the singing, prayed the intercessory prayer, called for the offering, told the children’s story, announced the special music (someone else did sing!), introduced the speaker, announced the closing song, and gave the benediction.
Another question: Do the members of this church feel needed, a part of the church functions, or do they sit there week after week with spoon feeding as the leadership style? Not only would the elderly feel unimportant and unnecessary, all age groups might question if they were there just to be fed without the privilege of also providing spiritual food.
Once the lifeblood
With these three experiences as a focal point to this article, let’s talk about our older members. Having been the lifeblood of their congregations, they now must sit back and watch others do what they had done so energetically.3
Many of the older folk in our churches financially built the church building, contributed to evangelistic campaigns, faithfully supplied money for the Sabbath School missions offering, returned their tithe, gave money to the church budget to keep the building attractive, donated to special projects, participated in the Ingathering campaigns—and still do. They deserve recognition and verbal expressions of appreciation.
Seven ways we can value our elderly
Members and leaders can show value to the elderly in our congregations in the following ways:
Empower them to serve. Allow older people to announce the opening hymn, offer the opening prayer, call for the offering, give the children’s story if they have that ability (however, that part of the worship service should have the best!), introduce the visiting speaker if they have a personal relationship with that person, and give the benediction. Why should one person do all that with competent individuals reposing as just observers week after week?
Emphasize special dates. Birthdays might be highlighted in the church bulletin and in the newsletter in advance of the date. Members might be willing to send cards with a personal note, bring the seniors a treat on their special day, pay them a visit, and be acknowledged by the person in charge of the church service. Of course, it goes without saying that the pastor will recognize these individuals on their special days.
Employ their talents. Older individuals could be asked to write a short, inspirational article for the church newsletter occasionally, or a brief story from their past.
Listen to them. Why not, once in a while, interview one of the elderly for Sabbath School or one of the other programs of the church? This would introduce these special individuals to the entire congregation so they would know them beyond just a Sabbath greeting. With an interview format, no person could just take over the time with a lengthy, perhaps boring, speech.
Serve them. Members could be encouraged to minister to those who have physical problems. Maybe they are hunched over, maybe they limp and walk with a cane, maybe they come with oxygen, maybe they are in wheelchairs. And it’s very possible that some need transportation.
Visit them. Church leadership could provide to worship participants a list of seniors for regular visitation. Assigning members to specific individuals would distribute responsibility evenly. One of the saddest stories of all involves those who cannot get to church because of inhibiting health challenges. Unless members refuse to let these individuals be forgotten, they sit alone all day Sabbath and dream of days gone by. In one church, two daughters visit their mother every week; but keep in mind that both daughters live 300 miles away, and one comes one weekend and one the other. They have pleaded with those who know their mother and others in her church to please visit her, but that hasn’t happened very often.
Write short notes to them. One of my very good friends writes short notes often to many people, both young and old. He celebrates with the young their accomplishments in school, in sports, and in extracurricular activities. And he reaches the elderly celebrating their birthdays, their recovery from illnesses, or their specific witnessing activities. Not only that, once a week he takes his guitar to a seniors’ residence during his noon hour and sings for his friends there. As he ministers by correspondence, those who receive his written and mailed messages must anticipate receiving mail as an important time of their day.
Our internal bucket
Of course, the elderly would not be the only ones blessed by these kinds of recognition. A magazine columnist described a psychologist’s theory of the dipper and the bucket. We all have an internal bucket, he claims, that represents our contentedness. This internal bucket becomes depleted or filled depending on how others treat us. The dipper represents what we use to fill the buckets of others. Amazingly, every time we minister to someone, we fill both their bucket and ours.
Ministry to the elderly cannot be considered a one-way street. And the rewards are eternal.
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1 A pseudonym.
2 A pseudonym.
3 Of course, if the elderly continued to play a lot of the up-front leadership roles, many members, particularly our young people, would not appreciate their involvement; for as we get older, our outward expressions of enthusiasm diminish. And in order to keep our young people in the church, they also have to be involved.