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Workshop urges churches to end ageism, embrace older adults

Workshop urges churches to end ageism, embrace older adults

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Workshop urges churches to end ageism, embrace older adults

Nov. 1, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0759}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

ZEPHYRHILLS — When the Rev. Warren Langer was appointed to Sun City Center United Methodist Church in 2003 he said many people offered him condolences. Others asked what he had done to warrant such an appointment.

The words of sympathy were unnecessary. Langer said he quickly learned his members, at an average age of 80, are dynamic and energetic people committed to the church and its ministry.

That was the message of the day and the overall theme of the South Central District’s Workshop on Ageism Oct. 8 — that just because your church has a large percentage of older adults, it does not mean it is dying.

The Rev. Gary Bullock (left), pastor of New Covenant United Methodist Church in The Villages, answers a question during the ageism workshop at First United Methodist Church, Zephyrhills. He and the Rev. Warren Langer, pastor of Sun City Center United Methodist Church, led the session. Referencing the second chapter of Luke, Bullock said the first people to greet Jesus when he was taken to the temple shortly after his birth were older adults and older members are important in the life of the church today. He said sharing the Good News is relevant to all age groups. Photo by J.A. Buchholz. Photo #07-0698.

Langer and the Rev. Gary Bullock, pastor of New Covenant United Methodist Church in The Villages, led the workshop, held at First United Methodist Church, Zephyrhills. The same workshop is being held in each district of the conference. All clergy are required to attend a session; laity are encouraged to participate.

Langer says there is an unfair stigma attached to congregations populated by older members. The workshop strove to dispel the negative perceptions and stressed the importance of churches not only embracing, but evangelizing older adults.

Aging no deterrent to service, leadership

Sun City Center and New Covenant United Methodist churches have the fastest growing worship attendances in the conference. Sun City’s increased last year by 183 people; New Covenant’s increase was a close 180.

Bullock said the churches are flourishing because older adults realize there is a place for them, even if they have officially retired from professions, because there is no “retirement from God’s Kingdom.” He said a 101-year-old recently joined his church.

Bullock said older adults are more than just grandfathers and grandmothers warming pews; age is not the most important factor. “There are blossoms in older adults,” he said.

He concedes those blossoms are not without blemishes. Like every age group, older adults are grappling with life issues, such as their own immortality. They don’t desire or need the pity of young adults and resent the attitude they are no longer valued and should be set aside.

Bullock said he wanted workshop attendees to catch the vision for intergenerational ministry and what it means for The United Methodist Church to fully embrace older adults.

A video segment of Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker addressing the conference’s involvement with older adults was shown. Whitaker said when he first arrived at the conference as its bishop seven years ago he assumed the conference would be farther along in its ministry to older adults than it actually was, since the state has such a large older adult population.

Whitaker said he has also found that many people in the conference are prejudiced against older adults and there is much progress that needs to be made because of that attitude.

“We should offer them compassion at this time in their lives,” he said.

Many congregations and pastors make the error of believing they can’t minister to both young and older adults, Whitaker added. The answer, he said, is having vital ministries to both demographics. Doing so requires defining what both groups need and desire from the church.

Langer said older adults want to be treated with honor and respect; they want to be in ministry, not ministered to. They do not want someone to hold their hand until they die.

While aging may change what older adults can do physically, it doesn’t change what they can achieve spiritually, Langer said, adding older adults in his church have started three congregations because they are excited about the call to ministry.

“Many times we are so focused on getting young adults involved that we only turn to older adults when we can’t find anyone else,” he said. “We need to respect them.”

Ending the prejudice

Bullock said the ageism associated with older adults is just as toxic as the ills of racism and sexism.

“Churches are not dying because we’re aging,” he said. “We’re dying because we’re not living out the gospel.”

Margie Abdoney (left), director of Christian Education at First United Methodist Church, Tampa, and the Rev. Migdalia Icaza-Willetts, pastor at First United Methodist Church, Tampa, take notes during the Workshop on Ageism at First United Methodist Church, Zephyrhills. Photo by J.A. Buchholz. Photo #07-0699.

As people grow older, many will spend as much time in retirement as they did in the work force, Bullock noted. He said it’s up to the church to make sure those years are productive for the individuals, as well as the church.

Bullock suggested churches use “radical hospitality” in their approach to older adults. “You have to be willing to make a place for those who will come and those who may never come,” he said.

Bullock said some churches are willing to embrace older adults; others are not. He said pastors have told him their churches are not for older adults. One confessed his belief that older adults are only good for one thing — their money.

Part of the goal of the workshop was to reinforce that older adults can be vital to the functioning and ministry of a church if their potential is tapped.

Creating a vision, including older adults

If churches are having a difficult time reaching out to older adults, Bullock suggested “The Graying of the Church” by Richard H. Gentzler Jr. and the American Association of Retired People’s (AARP) Web site as valuable resources.

“You should survey your congregation and find out what the needs and talents are,” Bullock said. “After the shared assessment, there should be a shared vision. You can start with what you already have, then you develop the ministries to meet the needs your church has.”

Bullock said the most important thing is for churches and pastors to remember that older adults are resources and not liabilities.

“Older adults will be what we expect from them,” Langer said. “If you just want them to meet for a meal once a week or month and go on trips, that’s what you’ll have.”

The men suggested pastors begin retraining their congregations to see a bigger vision for older adult ministry. A big part of that retraining centers around older adults being more visible in worship services by performing such tasks as reading scripture.

Bullock and Langer ended the workshop by warning there may be resistance to change and encouraging attendees to be faithful in their endeavors to reach out to older adults.

After the workshop Langer said he wanted the workshop to create awareness about the lack of ministry for older adults.

“Older adults can be a great resource for your church,” he said. “They have just been given a negative perception that older adults equal a dying congregation, and that is just not the case. We cannot ignore older adults because they are the fastest growing segment of society.”

The Rev. Sabrina Tu, pastor of St. John United Methodist Church and Vietnamese Fellowship Mission, both in Tampa, said the workshop gave her a new outlook on viewing older adults.

“This has been eye-opening,” she said. “I think reaching older adults is about how to witness to the older population, and this workshop is giving us tools to address the problem.”

The Rev. Rick Cabot, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Lutz, said the church should focus on reaching people for Jesus Christ regardless of age.

The AARP Web site can be found at


This article relates to Discipleship/Congregational Transformation.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.