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Church members show there’s no retirement from ministry

Church members show there’s no retirement from ministry

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church members show there’s no retirement from ministry

By J.A. Buchholz | April 1, 2009 {0993}

NOTE: This is one in a series of articles about churches that have experienced growth in professions of faith and average worship attendance, measures of two of the five practices of The Methodist Way. See related story, “Analysis shows conference churches making strides,” at:

Just because a church has mostly older adult members that doesn’t mean it’s not growing or actively involved in ministry.

The Rev. Warren Langer leads the children’s moment during worship. Photo courtesy of Sun City Center United Methodist Church. Photo #09-1136. For longer description see photo gallery.

The Rev. Dr. Warren Langer and the members of Sun City Center United Methodist Church in the Tampa-Bradenton area know that from experience.

The average age of the church’s 800-plus members is 82 years old, according to Langer, yet in 2007 alone the church started 57 new ministries. And while many people might consider their 70s or 80s a time to take it easy and slow down, Langer says Sun City Center’s members are finding just the opposite is true when it comes to their commitment to ministry.

Never too old to make a difference

Langer says he’s glad he didn’t heed the advice he received nearly six years ago when he was appointed to the church as its senior pastor — that older adults only wanted a pastor who would hold their hand until they die.

“I was told not to ask much of them and not to expect much of them,” he said. “That’s not biblical. You are always called to be disciples of Christ. You don’t retire from that.”

And with all the ministries at the church, its members — whose numbers increase to about 1,000 each Sunday during the winter months when part-time residents are in town — have many opportunities to serve.

There is no retirement plan as long as you're still breathing. ”

Rev. Gary Bullock

Langer said he stresses that everyone has passions and talents and when those are combined with spiritual gifts, people find their niche. Once that niche is found, he said, there is little turnover in ministries. When ministries are left with no one to organize them, they are allowed to end.

“I don’t twist arms to keep a ministry going,” Langer said. “People go where they are led.”

The only restriction on people’s service is that they don’t do anything that jeopardizes their health, Langer said. He said his oldest church member active in a ministry is 101 years old, and the woman who faithfully leads the church’s prayer ministry is 92.

The Rev. Gary Bullock says the key to helping older adults remain active is tapping into the potential they hold for ministry, as well as getting them to realize God isn’t done with them.

Bullock was founding pastor at New Covenant United Methodist Church in The Villages, a predominantly older congregation in a large retirement community. He now serves on a part-time basis in outreach at Sun City Center United Methodist Church.

“There is no retirement plan as long as you’re still breathing,” Bullock said.

Tony Petree and his wife, a retired United Methodist choir director of 25 years from North Carolina, joined Sun City Center United Methodist Church more than three years ago. Petree, a lifelong United Methodist, serves as outreach team leader and said he enjoys plugging new members into the church’s many ministries.

Members of the praise team sing during The Oasis contemporary service. Photo courtesy of Sun City Center United Methodist Church. Photo #09-1137. For longer description see photo gallery.

Petree estimates at least 80 percent of the congregation participates in some form of ministry. Many, he said, are finding a great deal of satisfaction in making a difference in the community, more so than just having something to do with their time.

“This is the only time where I have led a congregation that has the time to serve,” Langer said. “They are not working; they are not raising families. This congregation doesn’t need a few people to do all of the work that needs to be done in the ministries. It uses a lot of people to do a few things, one or two hours a week or month, depending on the ministry.”

Those ministries include a disaster response team that travels to areas to help people recover from disasters, a gleaning ministry that saves 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of produce each year from being wasted and a team that gives respite to full-time care givers for half a day twice a week.

Making new disciples

Although there are Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian and churches of other denominations surrounding the church, Sun City Center United Methodist Church is growing, Langer said. The church had 40 professions of faith in 2007, up from 13 in 2006.

A key to that growth is word of mouth from excited members to a unique partnership with nine of 14 real estate developers who are constructing large numbers of homes within six miles of the church, Langer said. The developers alert the church when a home is sold so the church can welcome the new residents and invite them to worship. In return the church helps the developers plan and organize events, even holding some of those activities at the church.

Children participate in a new children’s church called F.B.I. — Faithful Bible Investigators. Photo #09-1138. For longer description see photo gallery.

The church is alive and thriving, not because it’s full of different people, Langer said, but because it’s full of people who have found where they truly belong.

“We don’t ignore the aging process; we acknowledge it,” he said. “They (members) may not be able to get on a roof if they are in disaster response, but they can tear out Sheetrock or remove carpet. You can still serve, but just in a different way.”

It comes down to a church having the expectation of discipleship, and once that invitation is made, members accept, Langer said. Along with the acceptance, he said, comes a welcomed byproduct — a boost to the church’s finances.
Seventy percent of disposable income in the United States is controlled by people 60 years and older, Langer said. In September alone, he said, the church received $45,000 in deferred gifts from deceased members.

“People ask me when am I going to leave here,” said Langer, who is part of the Baby Boomer generation. “I hope to retire here. The people are pleasant; there isn’t all that politicking that goes on in other churches.”

Until about a year ago, Langer said, the youngest member of the church was his wife, Karen Sue, who is in her early 50s. Then the church hired a music director who is married and has young children.

Although there aren’t many children, the church has developed a master plan that includes a preschool and youth center, as well as an adult day-care facility.

Members have realized, Langer said, that as properties around the church sell, families with children will be part of the equation. Church members want to be ready, he said.

“We have Baby Boomers moving in this area all the time,” Langer said. “They don’t want to belong to a church for the sake of belonging to a church or maintaining an institution. They want to belong to a church that is making a difference in the community. We are doing that, and by the church making the decision to include these things in its master plan, it shows where our heart is and who we truly serve.”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.