Older Men as Fathers, Younger Men as Brothers

I first noticed it about five years ago, about the time I qualified for a “senior” discount at Taco Bueno. Approaching the front door of a store, I saw a young pregnant lady ahead of me. I’d have passed her up and held the door for her, but it would have been an awkward race. Instead, she, arms full of packages and maybe 30 pounds over her usual weight, stepped aside and held the door for me. It was weird because she did it on purpose and went out of her way to do it, though cheerfully. Why? I wasn’t in a wheel chair or carrying a refrigerator. I think she did it because my mustache was gray and my face is more wrinkled than hers will ever be … because I’m old. It wasn’t offensive; but it was a watershed. 

Things I said when I was 40, then designated “smart” or “quirky” or “wrong,” are now “wise” or “interesting.” A clerk at Walgreen’s offered to sign me up for Medicare (I was not yet 60). A few times I’ve received senior discounts that I was two to five years from deserving. One day those things never happened, and the next day they happened often enough to notice. 

No offense taken, but I’m not less hearty or hale than I was 10 years ago. I’m no more interested in “Murder, She Wrote” or the Bill Gaither Trio than I ever was. People my kids’ ages—my pastors, peers, policemen and physicians—sometimes have trouble telling the difference between me (their own father’s age) and my dad (their grandfather’s age). From the vantage point of 60 years, the difference is no less significant than that between 60 years and 40 years old. Church leaders, there is a lesson in that perspective, a lesson not unique to me. 

I don’t hear the term “senior adult” as relating to “seniority” in normal usage but rather as a short hand to refer to retired folks. Even the term “retired” means something very different now than it once did. I don’t know any people who plan to stop working and go fishing. Perhaps we have a vision to change some of the things we do vocationally, but nobody I know plans to hit the brakes until limited by health. That is, perhaps, why we often don’t join a senior adult Sunday School class. That department, fairly or not, is too often associated with people who were formerly able to be active in ministry.  

All this implies a two-pronged approach to ministry to our elder church members; one for those between 55 and the need to cut back, and a second approach to those who are less vigorous. Although all of us can tell the difference between the first and second groups, we don’t always behave as if we can. 

Those of us who are in the age group of nearly every president and world leader want to help, to lead, to contribute to the ministries of our churches in the same ways we did before our hair started to turn gray. Retirement has almost nothing to do with this except the freeing up of time and neither does turning 65, or even 70. 

But a significant part of the initiative should rest on the backs of older church members. During the years of influence we must seek ways to build up our younger brothers and sisters, from the youngest up. We often have the power to build up or tear down our pastors, who may be the age of our children. We too rarely cut them the slack we’d cut our own children. 

There really is nothing we shouldn’t be willing to try. More 50- and 60-somethings need to listen when the church asks for volunteers to teach children and students. Of course, more churches need to be open to gray-haired volunteers in even the Jr. High ministry. Churches, additionally, need to structure ministry and fellowship so that the generations mix. Young and old must be willing to be mixed during these opportunities. Balkanization of our church activities has been to the detriment of all of us. A ministry that looks like heaven will have people of all tribes but also people of all ages. Maybe we won’t all be eternally 18 in heaven; we might be eternally 65. I still want to go, don’t you? 

Minister to senior adults? Absolutely, just like we do to those in other stages of life. Evangelize one of the most underevangelized groups in our nation? You bet, lostness among Baby Boomers has snuck up on us. But don’t forget, you 30-somethings and you 70-somethings, ministry and leadership by experienced, vital, and sometimes wise, members of our congregations. An elder church member may be the right choice, even if you have plenty of younger people to choose from. 

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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