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2009-09-15 issue:

The spiritual needs of the elderly

Observations and recommendations

by Beth Landis

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Mennonite men and women are some of the backbone of congregational life. Their involvement in every institution for the past 60 years has been pivotal to the next generation’s faith journey. They supported the church colleges with their attendance, sending their children and their financial gifts. They purchased publications from Herald Press and participated in Civilian Public Service. Mennonite Central Committee relief sales, Mennonite Disaster Service, church camps and conferences were a result of the creativity and response to needs that this generation noticed.

Questions: Now that they are beyond their particularly productive years, what kind of pastoral care are they receiving? This question came to light when an acquaintance and I talked about the variation in pastoral visitation. The following comments are an integration of conversations with friends and pastors across the country.

What are their spiritual needs? Are they being met? What models have been used for caring and sharing and what are the current models? How do these models vary in terms of size of congregation, age distribution, pastoral preferences and geographic region.

Spiritual needs: The spirituality of aging varies among individuals, but some generalizations include a need to review life events, face the certainty of death and process the emotional aspects of multiple chronic diseases and losses. One minister said, “At the heart of it is that older people want to be known by their pastor. They want their pastor to have the memorial service and know them enough to reflect on their life and be the bridge to the family’s grief process.”

Past models: Historically, some pastors did their visitations in the evening, and now ministers are expected to care for themselves and their families. One older woman said she felt uncomfortable when the male minister came by himself and wished his wife would be along, like it was several decades ago. Some ministers created more of a social event, and others focused on prayer and Bible verses. Ministers were expected to visit those in the hospital, the nursing home and the homebound.

The Amish culture has a highly developed art of visitation and intergenerational caring. The community is expected to recognize need and respond. Many Conservative Mennonite churches don’t pay their pastors, so they are not expected to visit.

Although Mennonite Church USA has established guidelines for pastoral salary, there aren’t any sample job descriptions, which assumes churches must develop their own. A solo pastor job description in a rural community differs greatly from a person who is part of a team, especially in an area with lots of Mennonite churches. Most congregations have some expectation for visitation, but does the church leadership committee hold the pastor accountable? Do the expectations match the needs of the congregation?

Current models: Some solo pastors are fairly diligent about home visitation; others fulfill other obligations first. One pastor told me he does things with deadlines—sermons and committee meetings—and since visitation doesn’t have a deadline, it gets put off.

A large church with a pastoral team may have a youth pastor, but few have a pastor for the elderly. They may have a caring pastor or visitation pastor or use some other term that encompasses elderly visitation, but it includes all ages with the title.

The lay team approach is popular in larger churches. This includes lay people with some training, such as Stephen Ministries or an equipping model, with education and support.
A congregation may develop rituals, such as mugs, litanies or birthday songs when folks turn 50 or 70. Educational seminars with an invitation to the entire community are a way to reach out to the neighborhood. Game night with the Sage Club and the middle schoolers can be a way to promote intergenerational activity. The church may have different ways to integrate the healthy older people as compared with those who are homebound.

1. Determine the needs of the elderly for pastoral care within the congregation. Individuals will vary widely and will change throughout their life. Those who are homebound or disabled are often powerless to express their requests.

2. Have some dialogue between representatives of the elderly and the leadership team to determine how to meet those needs. What resources, money, time, people, should be used to address the need? The questions of paid staff and lay people fit here.

3. Congregations need to articulate their needs and communicate to current or candidating pastors.

4. Pastors need to be honest about their skills and preferences and if they are not doing visitation develop an alternate plan with their leadership team. The pastor should have some kind of list or accountability to the team. The congregation may need to define what “regular” visitation means, as most pastors did not want to commit a number. The activities of lay people should also be monitored and evaluated for meeting the needs.

5. We may need to change the expectations of older people. As older people live longer, the sheer numbers mean that in most congregations a pastor cannot do a complete elder-care program and tend to other responsibilities. Several pastors said, “We can’t approach pastoral care the same as we did 50 years ago. We need to change the perception that if I was visited by a lay person, I didn’t get a pastoral visit. By enhancing the quality of that visit, we meet spiritual needs.”

6. If lay people are used, they should be commissioned by the congregation. An announcement in the bulletin hardly conveys the importance of their role and the sense that the pastor has that they are an extension of the church ministry team. Honor their service annually with a luncheon or some other recognition.

7. If lay people are used, the pastor should be clear about those responsibilities. Are they doing a social visit and dropping off the weekly bulletin and tapes? Do they have skills for counseling for life reviews or end-of-life issues? Are they supposed to pray at every visit?

8. Purchase a Communion set for home use or adapt the one the congregation uses to offer those who cannot attend.

9. Encourage preplanning of funerals, for the entire congregation or Sunday school classes or individuals. Use it as an opportunity to discuss spiritual needs. Several pastors said the death bed is not necessarily the best place to do spiritual work. Reconciling career, relationships, roles, strengths and weaknesses should be done before getting frail.

10. Recognize the end of life, rapidly declining health and crisis as a time for spiritual need, which may be defined differently by individuals but certainly needs to be part of congregational care.

11. Continue the conversation on a conference or national level. Learn from other congregations and see what works best.

12. Continue the conversation in your families, small groups and Sunday school classes. I found this to be a hot topic.

Some thought pastors should be visiting more. Some thought an ordained person, specifically called and commissioned to serve, is somehow different from a lay person. Some were concerned about elderly who get moved in the last years of life and now have no church community to support them. Some know elderly people who need counseling, have no access to a professional therapist and need good spiritual care. Some pastors said they did not get good training in how to counsel at the end of life. Visitation gets much more complicated when communication is impaired with dementia, stroke and Parkinson’s disease.

One elderly woman who did not get visited frequently excused the pastor: “I am sure he is busy.” Somehow that fits the generation of those in their 80s, willing to defend the pastor and the church at their own expense. She did not feel she was entitled to pastoral visits but received them as a gift when they did happen.

As one pastor said, “I trust the presence of God a lot more than I used to. Visits are not about me. A thoughtful conversation can be a prayer. Meeting the spiritual needs of the elderly is an art, not a science. I think pastoral care and visitation are extremely important and make a difference in how I preach. It is a humbling and holy experience to walk with them.”

Beth Landis is a family and gerontology nurse practitioner living in Eagle, Idaho. She is a member of Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship.

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