Aging and Church Challenges

June 23rd, 2011

I have a confession. I have had spies at many of the United Methodist Church’s annual conferences during the last few weeks. Well, I guess they weren’t really spies. They were cyber friends and acquaintances from Twitter, Facebook and other online sources.

I sent out all-calls for those attending annual conferences to be my eyes and ears regarding anything having to do with older adults. Knowing I couldn’t be in so many places at once, it was an effort to monitor the chatter about aging, boomers, older adults, seniors, graying populations, etc. I was curious to see if there was anything was said, either formally or casually, about how the church is responding to the fast-growing aging population.

I couldn’t help but smile at a quick response I received from a minister who reported seeing mostly gray heads filling the auditorium where the West Ohio Annual Conference was meeting. A minister from Oklahoma mentioned that the only thing he heard about seniors was a comment in the laity report about an older adult retreat.

One conference representative from New York sent a somewhat peculiar message saying that “the term ‘final arrangements’ was dropped from retiring clergy moving policy resolution.” Another United Methodist minister posted a comment about the lack of young women in his church’s United Methodist Women program which sparked even more conversation.

A few tweeters sent Direct Messages to let me know that the only discussion about older adults they’d heard at their annual conferences had to do with the declining memberships or aging congregations. One layperson from Tennessee wrote, “I wish we could talk about declining numbers without blaming seniors. It makes me feel as if we older adults are the cause of every problem in the United Methodist Church.”

On Facebook, a silver-haired layperson from Texas reported that little was said about the older generations in her annual conference except for honoring the retiring clergy. However, she added that around her table at lunch there was discussion about the lack of care for our "graying" members, including those who are shut-ins and many who faithfully served their congregations over the years with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service.

I also fielded a few snarky, even funny, comments from younger folks attending various annual conferences. I picked up on two common themes in their comments. During the voting process for the 2012 General Conference delegates , there was a great concern about the lack of younger clergy being represented. There was also a persistent frustration about what they perceived as a bloated UMC bureaucracy being sustained by older generations.

Let me assure you. This is totally unscientific research. Even so, it does seem to prompt a few important questions.

I can’t help but wonder if we are sometimes confusing “old ways of doing things” with “old people themselves.” Many energized, young clergy feel as though they are being forced to run through a sticky, thick bog of business-as-usual. When their ideas are not honored, they understandably become frustrated. Some have even grown cynical about the future of the United Methodist Church. Still, we should be cautious not to confuse gray heads with tired, ineffective ways of doing ministry.

I wonder, too, how we can learn to talk about the challenges of the increasing age of UMC members without sounding as if it is a problem they’ve caused themselves. Isn’t it possible for Methodists of all ages to move beyond defensive postures so that we can heed God’s call upon our lives? It seems to me that our future depends on it.

Each month, Missy Buchanan shares insight and strategies for rethinking 50-plus ministry. Her latest book, Don’t Write my Obituary Just Yet, is now available. You can find Missy online at, join her Facebook page Aging and Faith, and follow her on Twitter @MissyBuchanan.

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