Because of their health problems and limited mobility, my parents haven’t been able to attend their church for several years. I have been impressed by how effectively the church—LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan—has provided pastoral care and included them in the life of the congregation. At the heart of that effort is Rev. John Steigenga, Minister of Seniors. Rev. Steigenga became co-pastor of LaGrave in 1978; he was Minister for Congregational Care for most of his time there. Following his retirement in 2008, he took a part-time position with the church specifically to serve the needs of the older adults in the congregation.
I was intrigued by the intentionality and devotion with which LaGrave ministers to older adults. I asked Rev. Steigenga if he would be willing to answer a few questions about his interest in ministry to seniors, the spiritual needs of that group, and ways the church can best address those needs. He graciously agreed. Here are my questions to him, and his answers:
What led you to take a position providing pastoral care for older adults?
Working with them over the course of ministry at LaGrave, I developed an appreciation for older adults: their seasoned faith and wisdom which are often the result of experience with life’s trials. I also saw that the population of older adults in this church had grown to the point where they could not be adequately cared for by a generalist pastor. Their needs would be neglected if they were folded in with 1500 members (1700 now). Older adults are more apt to deal with health crises and death than are younger people; thus a ministry focused on them is necessary. I presented this to the church 2 years before my retirement and suggested that a part-time position, Minister of Seniors, be created. That was adopted and I was hired to fill that position after my retirement from full-time ministry.
What are some of the spiritual issues faced by older adults? How are their spiritual issues different from those of younger adults?
Older adults face issues generated by aging bodies and an increasing awareness that death is relatively near. They are regularly reminded of the reality of death because contemporaries are dying. Grief is a regular part of their experience. Belief/faith is challenged to move from endorsing principles to embracing the personal God. For some, faith crises develop during this stage of life. They wonder if what they professed all those years is real. For others, there is a deepening of faith and true peace with the knowledge that death will come. Unlike their younger counterparts, older adults ordinarily no longer deal with day-to-day pressures of working and raising a family. For some, that brings more opportunities to serve as volunteers and to nurture their spiritual lives through Bible study and prayer.
Have you seen changes from generation to generation in the issues faced by older adults?
One change has been brought on by medical advancements that enable people to be kept alive long after they ordinarily would have died. This faces us with choices we did not have to make earlier: How much medical care is too much? When is it OK to stop medical treatment? Is it OK to pray to die? Will we have enough money to support ourselves if we live into our 90’s? Living longer also means that many older adults have to endure the grief of losing adult children.
What should churches do to best meet the needs of older adults?
What is basic is paying attention to them and affirming them as precious children of God regardless of age, stage of life, and mental and physical condition. Because older adults tend to have more health challenges, there should be a ministry that is designed with this population in mind no less than ministry to children and young people The population of older adults in American society and in church is increasing. Neglect of that demographic is not only wrong but foolish. Older adults not only have needs; they have much to offer the church. We need to borrow a value from cultures that value older adults, a value that is also supported by the Bible.
What are the most rewarding aspects of ministry with older adults?
Dealing with people whose faith has been tested and found true. Providing pastoral services at times of crisis. Helping prepare people for death or helping plan and conducting funerals.
What are the most difficult aspects of ministry with older adults?
Some older adults have such debilitating illnesses that it is hard to know how to minister to them, particularly when the illness is a form of dementia. It is also difficult to know how to minister to someone who wishes to die, is waiting to die, but doesn’t die.
What recommendations would you have for pastors or elders seeking to minister to older adults?
There are training opportunities. The United Methodist church has a denominational office devoted to ministry with older adults. Some seminaries offer classes and certificates in older adult ministry. Churches should design strategies for maintaining contact with older adult members, such as our Deaconesses program. It’s also valuable to keep the needs of older adults before the congregation with regular prayer requests. Additionally, churches can find ways for inter-generational contact. We ask church members to write Christmas cards to home-bound seniors, which is an excellent way to foster contact. Finally, pastors can preach on biblical themes that include the value of older adults.