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From ministry to end-of-life decisions: Conference Table considers older adult issues

From ministry to end-of-life decisions: Conference Table considers older adult issues

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

From ministry to end-of-life decisions: Conference Table considers older adult issues

Dec. 18, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0776}

An e-Review Feature
By Erik J. Alsgaard**

OCALA — More than 70 people  — and one cat — attended the Florida Conference’s 18th Conference Table in early December to focus on the contribution older adults can and do make to ministry.

The Christians in Action drama troop at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Ocala shares an interpretive skit during the opening worship of the “Beyond 50: Living It Well!” Conference Table held at the church in early December. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #07-0717.

“Beyond 50: Living It Well!” at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Ocala drew people interested in learning how United Methodists can be in ministry with and for so-called “senior” citizens, a rapidly expanding age group.

“We’re out to change people’s attitudes about people older than 50,” said Nancy Metz, chairwoman of the Beyond 50 Ministries Task Team and one of the conveners of the Conference Table. “We want to have people expand their thinking when it comes to the possibilities of using people in ministry. We are a mighty force, and we can be used for ministry. We have experience, time and wisdom to offer.”

During opening worship Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker preached from Psalm 71, which he said must have been written by an old person in fear.

“The psalmist reminds us that God would not forsake God’s people when they were old,” he said. “The people of Israel shouldn’t either.”

Whitaker noted today’s society cares for its older members — there’s Social Security, Medicaid and AARP — but it does not value them.

“Take a look at the amount of money we spend truly caring for those who are old versus how much we spend on ‘cosmetics’ to keep us from looking old,” he said.

Unlike other cultures, the term “elder” is not one American society in general uses or recognizes, Whitaker said. Elder doesn’t mean one who has social status, is honored or is a teacher. “American society has old people, but it doesn’t have elders,” he added.

Whitaker challenged attendees to be a church that is counter-cultural. “Value our elders,” he said. “We need to do a lot of learning and repenting as we learn to pray the prayer of the psalmist, ‘O God, do not forsake me.’ ”

Future dilemmas

As the plenary sessions began, an orange cat began to make its way around the tables of St. Marks. “Grace” is the church’s cat, the Rev. Dan Jones, pastor of St. Mark’s, explained.

“Grace has provided comfort to mourners during funerals at the church a number of times,” he said. “There’s even been an article about her in our local newspaper.”

A participant raises a question during a response time at the Conference Table on older adult issues and ministry, held in early December at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Ocala. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #07-0718.

As Grace made her rounds, she quietly picked out people she deemed in need of her comfort and climbed on their laps. No one objected.

Plenary speakers highlighted several key issues surrounding older adults and a society that is increasingly growing older — every day millions of people in the Baby Boomer generation turn 60.

Dr. Stephen Sapp, professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, offered insightful, sensitive discussion of end-of-life decision-making issues.

“Why have choices at the end of life become so important?” he asked. “It’s because today people don’t just die. Instead, medical science has advanced so much that we are forced into stormy ethical straights.”

Sapp outlined the dilemma. On one side is the traditional “do everything you can do to extend life, regardless of the quality of life” group. On the other side is the “minimize suffering” group, even if that means accepting or accelerating death.

As to the future, Sapp said, “We ain’t seen nothing yet.” With medical advancements to come, such as selling human tissue, implantation of microprocessors to enhance natural human capabilities and the allocation of scarce medical resources, the ethical dilemmas will only grow.

“And there’s already increasing pressure on older adults to stop using medical resources as they live longer,” he said. “Euthanasia is only going to add to the debate.”

Sapp explained the issues related to euthanasia, identifying the basic arguments for and against it. Proponents argue individuals have the right to choose, including how and when they might die. They say it alleviates suffering and relieves the feeling of being “burdens” at the end of life. Dying is also a private, personal event and none of society’s business.

Those opposed to euthanasia say if the practice becomes acceptable, any kind of consensual killing, such as dueling, will be allowed. What is needed instead is merciful caring, not merciful killing. Opponents also counter that dying is not just a personal event — it affects families and communities. If euthanasia is allowed, they say, it opens society up to a slippery slope of elder abuse.

Participants at the Conference Table and those joining in via webcast considered a series of questions on end-of-life issues. In a time of response, one participant said, “All these questions need to be placed within the Christian question: are we in relationship with Jesus?”

Taking steps to be prepared

During his remarks Steve Petheridge focused on issues related to finances and growing older.

A staff member at New Covenant United Methodist Church in The Villages, a congregation of predominantly older members, Petheridge set the stage by noting 31 percent of retirees carry mortgages, 32 percent have less than $10,000 in the bank, 20 percent have no income other than Social Security, and one-third of people older than 65 rely on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income.

Nancy Metz, chairwoman of the Florida Conference Beyond 50 Ministries task team, speaks to a participant attending the “Beyond 50: Living It Well!” Conference Table held in early December at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Ocala. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #07-0719.

“Church, our job is to prepare people to not be statistics like that,” he said. “What can I do?”

The first thing, he said, is to have a written plan: “Be honest with yourself. Seek trusted counsel, and spend less than you earn.” Working part time, he said, is also an option for many people.

What not to do? “Don’t be house poor,” Petheridge said. In other words, people should not spend so much on house payments and taxes there’s nothing left over at the end of the month to enjoy life. He also touched on the subject of co-signing loans for family or friends and noted nothing should ever prevent people from giving to God’s work.

At the end, Metz summed up the purpose of the day’s event.

“Being an older adult, being a congregation of older adults, does not make us fossils,” she said. “It doesn’t make us ‘bad’ to be older. There are vital congregations filled with vital older adults. We’re a force to be used if the church will use us.”

The Conference Table concept was established by a resolution at the 2002 Florida Annual Conference Event. It was the first sanctioned forum of the conference in which leaders of the various conference agencies deliberated, discerned God’s will and developed thoughtful, broadly considered recommendations for strategic actions. 
The first Conference Table was held in August 2002.


This article relates to Older Adult Ministry.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.