Reaching Older Adults: Are Seminaries Equipping Pastors to Minister to Seniors?

May 7th, 2012

About a year ago, I heard from a young pastor of a United Methodist church who said he had a confession he wanted to share with me. He told me that he had come face-to-face with a hard truth. He’d been guilty of having a defensive attitude about ministering to and with the older adults in his church. What bothered him even more was the realization that he was guilty of mocking older members in the presence of church members and staff. When I asked him why he felt the need to confide in me, he explained that he had been convicted by something he’d read in my Twitter posts.

The thirty-six year-old minister explained that he usually put in a half-hearted appearance at the quarterly Senior Adult potluck luncheon, and though he made homebound and nursing home visits, he put them at the bottom of his priority list. Over time, he had come to realize that his attitude was really a disguise for feelings of inadequacy. Now he was asking himself the difficult questions. How was he supposed to help older adults grow spiritually as they faced tough life transitions? How could he more effectively build congregational strength by encouraging and empowering older adults at each life stage?

As I pondered all the young man had said, I had to admire his candor and courage. That’s when he said something that really caught my attention. He told me that nothing in seminary had really prepared him for dealing with the real-life challenges of an aging population. With half of his congregation fifty-five or older, he was mainly interested in reaching young people. Besides he felt clueless about how to engage older adults. He found it difficult to relate to boomers who seemed to be caught up in their own world, and he dreaded ministry to seniors who were struggling with chronic health issues, loss of mobility and a lack of purpose.

I had to admit I was stunned. I wondered, are our seminaries really not providing students practical skills to deal with such an obvious demographic reality? Or are they assuming that everyone going into the ministry field has a natural ability to understand the unique needs and challenges of aging?

As I inquired about the young man’s seminary experience, he told me that aging had only been addressed as a very minor part of a pastoral care class he had taken. In his recollection, it totaled less than an hour of class time. He had received no specific training for ministry with older adults, including the frail elderly. It was not surprising that he felt woefully ill-equipped to help older congregants deal with unique life span issues.

The young pastor’s responses piqued my curiosity. I decided to explore some of the United Methodist seminaries to see what I could find out about the core curriculum as it relates to a Christian perspective on aging. After a flurry of emails and inquiries, I found that a few UM seminaries did offer a class on aging. However, in each case it was offered as an option, not as a part of the core curriculum. Most often, aging was a minor sub-topic in a pastoral care class, usually tied to grief or end-of-life counseling. A few seminaries offered certifications for those who had a specific interest in aging but none required a course that would help all seminarians who will face a diverse, aging population in their appointments, and in fact, in the world.

I can’t help but wonder if our ministers wouldn’t be more effective in ministry and leadership if they had a better understanding of aging and late-life transitions, especially in a culture that values youth over age. Could our seminaries provide them practical insight into the unique needs of each older adult sub-group—from boomers to frail—so that they could better empower all older adults to lean forward in life and utilize their skills and experiences to serve others?

Each month, Missy Buchanan shares insight and strategies for rethinking 50-plus ministry. You can find Missy online at

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