Ministry to Senior Believers, Part 1

It is commendable that, for years, the Church has recognized adolescence as a period of adjustment in the lives of its younger members. As such, that time of life presents a particular set of needs for the youth of a congregation, and churches have responded effectively by establishing youth programs to minister to those needs. Other periods of life, however, also require adjustments. It is possible that the adjustments of the middle years are more numerous and more severe than those of adolescence.

Perhaps those of the senior years are the greatest of all. Certainly the Church should be aware of the special needs of this age group and attend to them. It is a mistake to assume that senior believers are necessarily mature Christians and thus are capable of taking care of themselves. It doesn't take a person many years in that period of life to know by experience its severe trials. In fact, the senior often comes to wonder why God allows life to demand so many difficult adjustments that late in the pilgrim journey. Why can't one now be relatively free of trials, begin to relax, and just coast the rest of the way to heaven?

Fortunately a number of churches and denominations now realize that they have a responsibility to attend to the special needs of senior believers.

Horace Kerr writes, 'Churches have been providing special ministries to the elderly since 1830, although the majority of present programs were begun after 1971 . . .”[1] Certainly society in general, as well as the government, is aware of all this. Several scholars have written helpful articles and books on the subject.  Gerontology, the study of the aged, has won its place among the academic disciplines of our times. Politicians have devised programs that address the needs of the elderly.

These developments stem from facts that indicate growing needs among the older segment of the population. For example, at seminars and in literature on seniors, one continues to hear and read that this portion of the population is growing three times faster than any other part. Eleven thousand per day pass beyond the age of fifty in this country. Further, those over sixty-five are more numerous than teenagers in the United States. Finally, the country has 32 million people aged sixty-five and above, with less than 5% of those in care homes.

Charles and Win Arn developed a Senior Stress Scale on which they ranked the events in a person's life from eleven to one hundred as to intensity. Many of those events ranking near the top of the scale come in the later years of life. Ranking in the top eleven are death of a spouse, move to a retirement home, major physical problems, loss of retirement money, forced early retirement, and inability to maintain a driver's license.[2]

Certainly, ignorance of the Church in this matter is not bliss. In addition, to be unaware of the needs of senior believers is to make impossible any attempt to supply those needs. When people don't know about a need, they obviously can't care about it. In the Church a burden for a cause is usually birthed by knowledge of some existing need. Devising useful plans of action stems from first discovering particular needs that require attention. The purpose of the following discussion is to aid in the process as it relates to senior believers. Among the readily recognized problems that senior believers face are discrimination, problems associated with grand-parenting, adjustments at retirement, failing physical and mental stamina, facing death itself, and, for the surviving spouse in the loss of a companion, the dilemma of facing widowhood or the possibility of remarriage. This list of seniors' needs is merely illustrative rather than exhaustive or all-inclusive.

Often overlooked among the problems of seniors in society is their experience of age discrimination.

Some scholars now refer to it as ageism. Thus it fits into the same category as racism or sexism. Arn and Arn write, 'Ageism is a pervasive, negative attitude toward aging and people who are growing old. Like racism and sexism, it is a destructive and discriminatory form of prejudice that is based on flawed stereotypes.”[3] Such discrimination appears so despicable that one reflexively concludes that Christians should never be a part of it. Still, the lack of respect for the aged seems to be an undeniable part of American culture at present. Unfortunately, that attitude has infiltrated the congregation of the righteous.

The Bible teaches respect for the aged. For society generally, Scripture declares, 'Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:32). More specifically, Paul gives instruction to the Church: 'Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need (1 Timothy 5:1-3). Thus the teachings of Scripture run counter to today's culture in these references from both the Old and New Testaments.

Perhaps one of the most pronounced areas of ageism appears in the fact that many older persons experience discrimination in the workplace. Fortunately, forced retirement at a given age is now illegal, but companies find ways to get around the law with creative hiring and firing practices. Many individuals know the hurt of being forced to leave their positions of many years in a company at age sixty-five or seventy.

The experience of grand-parenting generally tends to be most satisfying, yet the amount of contact between grandparents and grandchildren is on the decline in the mobile society of the United States. The experience of drifting away from those so dearly loved produces pain in the life of the senior believer. Under even the best of circumstances, grandparents must beware of interfering with the role of parents in rearing their children. At the same time, however, more and more grandparents are raising their grandchildren because of such things as divorce and baby-sitting for working mothers. Dosia Carlson says, 'In fact, researchers estimate that about one out of every twenty children is being raised by grandparents with no parent living in the home.”[4]

Retirement for the aged often leads to a reduction in the amount of income.

In turn this may result in a standard of living lower than one has been accustomed to for a number of years. Consequently, a person may not be able to pick up the tab at a restaurant anymore when sharing a table with a friend. He or she wears clothing that is becoming more and more out of style. One's automobile grows old and wears out. A person may even end up on welfare or become totally dependent on the government in a nursing home.

In the process of all this, one suffers a loss of self-esteem. Since the life of the male in particular centers on his job, just withdrawing from the workforce may leave him feeling he is of little value to society anymore. To be sure, having to give up one's home or no longer being able to drive an automobile strikes a blow at self-esteem. One loses much freedom if he or she has to depend on others for transportation. Loss of one's independence in other ways also contributes to a feeling of worthlessness. Harold Koenig and Andrew Weaver write, 'Twenty percent of persons over age 65 require help walking, 10% require help bathing, and 6% require help dressing.”[5] Then they say, 'Being dependent on others persons strips a person of his or her identity and self-esteem.”[6]

The writer recalls an incident while visiting a member of his congregation in a nursing home once. In a nearby bed was a gentleman helpless to move any part of his body anymore. He responded immediately, however, when the author greeted him. He said politely, 'My name is Perry Mason” (his real name). Then at once he set out to explain, saying, 'Preacher, I used to be somebody. I was a school teacher in the public schools of this city for over forty years.” He went on to describe his area of expertise and to relate the different schools in which he had taught. Implied in his remarks was the feeling that he was now a 'nobody.” He felt great pain at being removed from the workplace and from social interaction and at being what some consider no more than a 'vegetable.”

Similar feelings can come with the withdrawal from positions of leadership and service in the church. One may do so after reasoning, 'I've served my time as a teacher in Sunday school or in some other place of leadership. It is time for younger ones to take over now.” As such things continue, however, a person may feel the loss of a reason for living. That person may ask, 'What purpose is there to life anymore?”

Retirement usually brings with it a need for adjustments at home.

Despite the joys of being free from the daily demands of a regular job, a couple may discover unexpected problems appearing in their relationship. The husband now seems to be under the foot of the wife all day long. He certainly should know that it is a mistake for him to try to take over in the kitchen now!

No small amount of the adjustments required of an aging person concerns that of failing physical and mental stamina. One discovers that he or she can no longer perform difficult tasks to the extent of former days, nor work as long with as little fatigue as in earlier years. Accompanying all of this may also be the loss of hearing, sight, smell, or taste.

If an aged person's physical condition deteriorates to a pronounced degree, that individual may end up in relative isolation in a nursing home. Another possible circumstance is that of sinful neglect; to honor father and mother includes caring for them in their financial, mental, social, and spiritual needs during old age. Sometimes, though, an unrecognized feeling is behind the neglect. To quote Stephen Grunlan, 'The more these people can avoid or isolate the dying person, the less they have to face the reality of their loved one's impending death.”[7]

The story of Barzillai in Scripture illustrates all of this (2 Samuel 19:31-37). It begins with a young man making a request of an aged friend. The junior person in the account is King David, who at the time was still fairly young and enjoying life to the fullest. He possessed good health and vitality. He was enjoying a moment of success in his political career. The events of the story transpire as he was returning to his throne from a forced exile away from Jerusalem. He returned as a victorious general who had just crushed a rebellion led by his son Absalom. The older person was a friend who had supported his campaign financially and now met him on the road during the victory march. The Bible explains, 'Now Barzillai was a very old man, eighty years of age. He had provided for the king during his stay in Mahanaim [the site of the military campaign] for he was a very wealthy man” (v. 32).

David wanted his older friend to join fully in the celebration. Scripture records, 'The king said to Barzillai, 'Cross over with me and stay with me in Jerusalem, and I will provide for you'” (v. 33). The king is so much like many young people in their relations with older loved ones. They want their older friends and loved ones to continue with them indefinitely and enjoy life with them. With the realization that the older ones have contributed so much to their lives, they would like to keep them always and give them a place of honor. This author once reflected such feelings to his wife's parents as the end of their lives approached. He said, "Without you to share our failures and successes with, life will not be nearly so meaningful once you are gone.” Years have proved that foresight correct.

The aging Barzillai recognized that his body was failing him. He was now eighty years of age. He realized that his mind was not so keen anymore.

In his reply to the king's hospitable invitation he declared, 'Can I tell the difference between what is good and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats and drinks? Can I still hear the voices of men and women singers? Why should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?” (v. 35). His sense of taste was weakening. His hearing was failing. So in essence he replied, 'My body won't let me keep up with you anymore.” Above all, Barzillai did not want his condition to make him a burden to his friend.

The old man realized that the fast pace of position and honor belonged to the young, so he said, 'But here is your servant Kimham. Let him cross over with my lord the king. Do for him whatever pleases you” (v. 37b). Barzillai realized he didn't have long to live. Thus he offered to go with the king only a little way more in this journey (v. 36). He wanted to die back in the old hometown and be buried in the family cemetery beside his father and mother (v. 37a).

The youthful king ceased to insist that his aged friend stay with him (v. 38). He said that he and the young servant would carry on. Life must go on. In this situation David set a good example for younger members in families, in the Church, and in society today. They are wise to respect the wishes of older ones while doing all they can to assist the aged in making the adjustments that later years of life require of them.

As God brings to consummation His plan for the present age or era, He has ordained that 'the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1Corinthians 15:26).

In a similar way the final enemy of the life of an individual is death.

A secular writer, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, has studied the process of dying and has concluded that most pass through five stages along the way.[8] She suggests that to a lesser degree, even those close to the dying one pass through the same stages.

According to Kubler-Ross, the first stage through which one passes in facing death is denial. The person with a serious disease engages in denial because he or she cannot tolerate the shock of the doctor's diagnosis of terminal illness. Thus the person may reason, 'The lab report is in error,” or rationalize it away with some other explanation.

Then, stage two in the process is anger. Coming from their lips are sentiments such as, 'Why me?” or 'This is not fair.”

The third stage is bargaining. For the believer, that would include the prayer, 'Lord, if you will heal me, I will do anything you want me to do.”

The king of Judah, Hezekiah, reacted to the prophecy of his death from Isaiah the prophet somewhat in that manner. The Bible says that when the messenger who brought the news departed, 'Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, 'Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.' And Hezekiah wept bitterly” (Isaiah 38:3-4).

The fourth of Kubler-Ross's stages in the dying process is depression.

The final stage is acceptance. For the believer this includes acquiescence to the will of God.

While some may experience all of the things Kubler-Ross writes about, her final stage is the one most nearly in line with what a Christian should feel when facing death. Paul's attitude about death embraces that acceptance. To the Philippians he wrote, 'For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:21-24). He expressed similar views of death in 2 Corinthians 5:1-7.

A subsequent article in this series focuses more on the biblical concept of death. For the present, it should be obvious that the Church must preach the truth of Scripture more than the psychology of Kubler-Ross in its ministry to senior believers. Koenig and Weaver conclude, 'Relying on psychological principles and theories to understand and work through problems, while helpful, cannot replace the power of spiritual healing.”[9]

As noted above, Kubler-Ross says loved ones also often pass through the five stages. Indeed one might even face his or her own death more calmly than that of a companion of fifty years.

This writer walked down the road of dying with his wife for eight years as she struggled with cancer. Witnessing her wasting away to the dread disease was by far the most painful experience of life for him. Similarly, a few months following his mother's death and during the last days of his father's life, the author's father remarked to him, 'Since your mother is gone, there's not much for me in life anymore.”

The years following the death of a spouse continue to require notable adjustments.

The resulting loneliness makes the house seem so very empty indeed with the companion no longer there. For a widow of a prominent man, there can be a painful loss of status. Financial pressures often get heavy for the widow. This may include the fact that she was not prepared to manage family business without her husband. While the pressures of life without a companion bear down, most find that staying busy is among the best things they can do.

Many, especially men, find themselves in a dilemma in making a decision concerning remarriage.

Women usually discover that opportunities for selecting a second mate in life are fewer for them than for men. The main reason, of course, is that women on the average live longer than men by a few years.

Life expectancy for males is seventy-nine years, and eighty-four for women, a difference of five years in favor of women. Grunlan says, 'Almost 50 percent of all widowed men under age seventy remarry, whereas only about 5 percent of widowed women over fifty-five will remarry.”[10] Also, it seems that remarriage for women is neither sanctioned, understood, nor encouraged as much as it is for men.

Contemplating remarriage brings one face to face with a mountain of required marital adjustments late in life. In addition, a person wonders what the reaction will be among family and friends. He or she faces such questions as, 'If I choose to remarry, how long shall I wait?” or 'Should I marry someone younger than I am?”

In conclusion, among the readily recognized problems that senior believers face are discrimination, problems associated with grand-parenting, adjustments at retirement, failing physical and mental stamina, confronting death, and the dilemma of facing widowhood or the possibility of remarriage. Secular writers offer some helpful suggestions on making the necessary adjustments as life wanes and death approaches. The greatest source of absolutely trustworthy information on how to react to the problems of the later years of life, however, is the Bible.

Selected Bibliography

    Carlson, Dosia. Engaging in Ministry with Older Adults. N.p.: Alban Institute, 1997.

    Grunlan, Stephen A. Marriage and the Family: A Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.

    Kerr, Horace L. How to Minister to Senior Adults in Your Church. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980.

    Koenig Harold G., and Andrew J. Weaver. Pastoral Care of Older Adults. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1918.

    Kuubler-Ross, S. Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.


About the Author

Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Profes­sor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as the Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.

In addition to his duties as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in The Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and The Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books, What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure, as well as a commentary on Second Corinthians in The Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter, A Pentecostal Perspective.

Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.

[1]Horace L. Kerr, How to Minister to Senior Adults in Your Church (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), 64.

[2]Win Arn and Charles Arn, Catch the Age Wave (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), 80-81.

[3]Ibid., 52.

[4]Dosia Carlson, Engaging in Ministry with Older Adults (n.p.: Alban Institute, 1997), 290.

[5]Harold G. Koenig and Andrew J. Weaver, Pastoral Care of Older Adults (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1918), 53.

[6]Ibid., 53.

[7]Stephen A. Grunlan, Marriage and the Family: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1984), 310.

[8]Elisabeth Kuubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan, 1969).

[9]Koenig and Weaver, Pastoral Care of Older Adults, 23.

[10]Grunlan, Marriage and the Family, 316.