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Intergenerational ministries blossom in Florida

Intergenerational ministries blossom in Florida

Church Vitality

Editor’s Note: Bridging the gap between generations, from young children to our elderly, is important for vital, growing congregations. This is the first in a two-part series about the challenges of building intergenerational ministries. Jody Moxley, the elder friend in this story, passed away Dec. 10. She had just turned 90 years old on Dec. 3. In the words of her friend Rachael, “I hope I can have even a portion of the impact she had in building God’s kingdom.”

They’re unqualified “besties.” 

Rachael Sumner and Jody Moxley talk on the phone at least once a day and get together whenever their schedules permit it.

“We have the same interests and just clicked when we met,” said Sumner. “I talk to her about everything. She’s my best friend and my role model.”

What makes their friendship unusual is that Sumner is 41 years old and Moxley is well into her 80s.

Rachael Sumner and Jody Moxley, nearly 50 years apart in age, formed a friendship that included daily phone calls and regular get-togethers. Referred to as "Grandma Jody" by her kids, Sumner stated Moxley helped her to "fall in love with the UMC."

“Since my teens I’ve sought out friendships with older people,” Sumner said. “They have so much to teach you. Jody has already been through everything I’m going through as a wife and mother and can relate to whatever I’m going through. And I’ve found older people have a lot to learn from the young as well.”

Sumner feels God led her to form friendships with older people and is now directing her to help others establish rewarding intergenerational relationships.

For the past several years, she’s been on a mission to connect the generations as a member of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Titusville and as an associate lay leader for Reaching Next Generations, a movement initiated by the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church.

“We’ve been encouraging the generations to develop friendships by setting up activities for them to meet and get to know one another,” Sumner said. “It has to be organic. You can’t just match people up. These relationships have to develop naturally.”

Sumner has had an invaluable resource in accomplishing her mission.

She frequently reaches out to the Rev. Melissa Cooper, program coordinator for the Life Enrichment Center, a ministry of the FLUMC in Fruitland Park.

“Melissa and I share a passion for fostering these relationships and making sure that all generations are included in worship,” Sumner said.

Hired by the FLUMC in 2011, Cooper has worked tirelessly to build relationships among people of all ages.

“All of the research tells us that strong relationships with parents and grandparents are the way faith is passed on to younger generations,” Cooper said. “So our goal is to develop and solidify these relationships.”

To that end, the Life Enrichment Center has developed LECFamily, a program ministry designed to offer intergenerational camps and retreats including: Dad and Me Weekend, Mom and Me Weekend, Grandparents and Me, Family Camp and Foster Family Camp.

In these natural settings, families are encouraged to escape from their busy lives and share experiences that allow them to bond and grow closer in their relationship with God.

“Our intergenerational camps are huge,” Cooper said. “We have camps for families, foster families, grandparents and grandchildren, moms and daughters, dads and kids, every combination. They’re all well attended and we often end up with waiting lists, but we try our best not to turn people away.”

The Toney family, from Crosspoint Christian Church in Cape Coral, paddle their way into one of the many weekend retreats or summer camps held throughout Florida. The events help families connect through play and worship.

Whether it’s a weekend retreat or a weeklong summer camp, attendees enjoy outdoor activities, participate in games, eat meals together, worship together and share stories in front of a campfire. The idea, said Cooper, is to strengthen intergenerational relationships.

“People are so busy today and, with many grandparents living in other states, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to spend time together,” Cooper said. “We want to empower adults and children to talk about their faith and give them the tools to create faithful families at home. The camps allow them to connect through play and worship together.”

When she’s not overseeing intergenerational camps and retreats, Cooper offers workshops to the staff of individual churches, advising them on ways to bridge the generation gap and encourage faith among members of the millennial generation, which tend to drift away from the church when they leave home.

It was through such a workshop that the Rev. Cathy Hart, associate minister at Palm Harbor United Methodist Church, first met Cooper.

“Back in 2009, we had a lot of division between members seeing a more contemporary environment and those who wanted to keep the church traditional,” Hart said. “Around that time, two members of our church wrote a letter to the associate pastor with a vision of the church coming together as one body.”

Coincidentally, the Palm Harbor staff attended a conference where Cooper talked about ways to bridge the generations.

“I’d never heard of intergenerational ministries,” Hart said. “But I loved the idea of the family of God worshipping as one. God’s presence is palpable when you have one generation leading another. So, we’ve been moving toward that ever since.”

Palm Harbor UMC’s staff has continued working with Cooper, participating in a workshop last year and hosting Cooper for an evaluation of their efforts this fall.

The church has started several programs designed to reconnect generations, including Third-Grade Bible Buddies, which teams up older members with third-graders.

“We’ve done this for three years, and it’s been wonderful to see the relationships develop between the buddies and how the children mature in their faith,” Hart said.

“One of the things we do well is we have every generation on the platform during services, leading praise, singing in the choir, offering communion,” Hart said. “It’s been life-giving to our church. You can feel the energy.”

Hart said the church also is making an effort to host more intergenerational activities rather than segregating children and adults.

“We recently hosted a shoebox-building party, and it was so wonderful to see the generations working together to fill the shoeboxes,” Hart said. “We had everyone from preschoolers to people in their 80s.”

There has been a learning curve, however, Hart said.

“We’re still struggling, trying to find that balance,” she said. “We have seniors who say we need more hymns and younger people who want more contemporary services. Melissa is helping us evaluate what we’re doing well and where we need to grow.”

--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in Valrico.

Editor’s Note: Next week part two of this series looks at churches working to include young children as part of Sunday morning adult services.

Next Post "Churches embracing children on Sunday morning" »

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