There is a division within our culture based on the prejudice toward those who have lived six decades or more.This prejudice is ageism and there is a significant research under way to look at the issue with an initial reporting and analysis of the findings being shared through the American Society on Aging. My own recent observations are that likewise, ageism creates challenges within the church. Of note, I want to look at the three misperceptions of aging lifted up by researcher Laura Robbins.
Aging equals decline. During the first round of interviews for chaplain applicants in one of our health care and retirement communities, I asked, “What do you see as the most significant spiritual need for those over age 85?” One candidate was not asked back for a second interview following his reply, “Well, since death is around the corner, end of life issues would be at the forefront.” This belief that the aging process is nothing more than a slow slide of decline culminating in death is predominant in the majority of the sampled public in the study.
I would guess that members of churches, being in and of this culture, would have similar responses. In a recent article by Ken Dychtwald he notes that “political, religious, and community leaders have yet to create a compelling vision for the purpose” of the additional years that older adults experience today, stating that the problem “may be our absence of imagination, creativity and leadership regarding what to do with all of this maturity and longevity”. So how can we creatively enlist the experience and imaginations of our older members? Could it be that their interest in finding meaning and purpose, and their desire to prepare a legacy, and their increasing understanding of the interdependency of all of life could be lessons that our churches also need to address?
Older Adults Seen as “Other”. Following a workshop about Ministry with Older Adults, a participant shared that her home church is in the final stages of the search for a new pastor. As she described the situation she used the language “us” and “them” to talk about the vast generational differences in expectations for their new pastor. If they call a pastor to bring in the young adults, it is feared that the older members will be left behind. If they call a pastor to meet the needs of the older adults, it is assumed that church will be as it has been for the past decades, leading to its death and demise. The gap between the generations is re-enforced every time we divide ourselves, in this case, based on the year we were born and with the language we use to emphasize these differences.
Laura Robbins notes in “Gauging Aging: How Does the American Public Truly Perceive Older Age—and Older People?” that when older adults are seen as being “other”, they are grouped together as an external group irrelevant to the larger community that competes with society (or congregations) for resources. “Aging is relevant to all of us,” as more of us live well past our seventh and eighth decades. “The experts’ view is that older adults are integral parts of society.” How can we see older adults as being integral parts of the church and not dismiss the gifts and wisdom that they bring to the community as being less important than the needs of younger generations? Perhaps using the language of “we/us” would be a place to start.
Culpability: Elders are Accountable for their Circumstances.The third misconception that widens the generational gap is linking a person’s experiences in their older years as being the result of their own earlier life choices. Could it be that we “blame” the leaders and members of congregations past for landing the church in its current state of uncertainty? I hope not. But I suspect that there is some of this culpability being laid at the elders’ feet. When we do this, we dismiss a wealth of wisdom from lessons learned.
What we need are different ways to see the current situation. In his video “Common Ground”, journalist Scott Strazzante tells the story of octogenarians, Harlow and Jean Cagwin. He met them when working on a story about family farms in the early 1990s and had several opportunities to return to their home over the years, including the day Harlow’s home of 70 years was demolished as the developers began a new housing development. In 2009 Strazzante had the opportunity to introduce Harlow and Jean to one young family in the new neighborhood on their former land.
Strazzante’s perspective changed on this story when he started looking at the years of photos of these very different family homes placing them side by side. He began to see striking similarities in the very different families. As the two families met, they had opportunity to share gratitude for the care of the land in the past and in the present. He concludes that “We may think that we live worlds apart– that one world, one generation ends and another one begins but we are all much more alike than we are different and share a common bond, a common experience, and common ground”.
Bridging generational gaps begins with the use of the language of “we” to unite the divide where “us and them” previously separated us.Our ability to see the experiences of the generations side-by-side can be a useful tool in this bridge building process. And the more opportunities we have to meet each other and listen and learn together, the richer we all are.
Let us work on bridging the gaps between generations.Let us tell our stories and listen for the opportunities to work together to change the future. And let us have the courage to acknowledge the ways in which the church perpetuates the misperceptions that widen the barriers that divide the generations, especially in the church.
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Director of Outreach and Mission Integration at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.