Symposium celebrates, emphasizes importance of older adults

Apr 11, 2003 11:20 AM EDT

NASHVILLE, Tenn.– The United Methodist Church held it’s first Symposium on Older Adult Ministries at the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, March 27-29. The conference sought to energize and inspire those working in older adult ministries though presentations from keynote speakers, panel discussions, workshops and worship services.

Nearly half of the congregants of the United Methodist Church – 48.4 percent - according to the U.S. Congregational Life Survey in 2001, are already over 65.

"The United Methodist Church is graying faster than the country," said Shirley Painter, chairperson of the Older Adult Committee on Aging.

Jane Marie Thibault, gerontologist at the University of Louisville Hospitals and author of A Deepening Love Affair, opened the symposium by talking about the future of aging.

"The future belongs to the aging until 2050," she said. "(The age) 120 is the estimated biological lifespan (without genetic manipulation) for human beings. You need to plan for living 120 years."

Bishop Violet Fisher of the New York West Area ended the symposium with a powerful, inspirational service, "Who’s Hand Is On Your Shoulder?" Participants were anointed with oil and sent forth to work for older adult ministries.

The event was co-sponsored by the United Methodist Committee on Older Adult Ministries and the Board of Discipleship’s Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries. Money from the 2000 General Conference Comprehensive Plan for Older Adult Ministries was used to fund the symposium, said the Rev. Richard Gentzler Jr., center director. Each annual conference was invited to send a representative to the symposium.

Herb Bowman, a participant from the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, said Thibault’s address emphasized the positives of growing older.

"She said old age is sometimes thought of in pretty negative terms, but it shouldn’t be. We don’t think about getting old as quality time," said Bowman, director of senior adult ministries at Littleton (Colo.) United Methodist Church.

Gentzler held a workshop on the role of annual conferences in older adult ministries. The Committee on Older Adult Ministries will be sending legislation to the 2004 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, calling for a council on older adult ministries to be established in each conference. The assembly will meet in Pittsburgh, April 27-May 7.

Robbie Youngblood, director of older adult ministries at First United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, said she gained valuable information from Gentzler’s workshop.

"We don’t have a council in our conference," she said. "I am 82 years old, and I want to do all I can to help older adults feel they are an important part of the church family."

Bill Bunker, a representative from the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, said he left the symposium enthusiastic about "reactivating older adult ministry in my conference."

"We have to get across to our people (older adults) that they are a valuable asset to the community and to the church and to themselves," said Elizabeth Thille, from the Kansas East Conference. "They just have to keep on living the Christian life. Even if they are physically not able, there are still many things they can do to serve the Lord." Thille is director of older adult ministries at the United Methodist Church of Resurrection in Leawood, Kan.

Many times, older adult ministry is "pushed to the back burner" or gets cut from church budgets, Thille said. Being able to network with other conference leaders was an opportunity to learn what was available and to hear what other churches were doing, she said. She also heard of many resources she had not been aware of before.

Bowman agreed that networking was a highlight of the symposium for him.

Painter was pleased with the participation from the annual conferences. "I wish we could have had 100 percent participation, but I think two-thirds is still good," she said.

"We need a wake-up call for the whole church, and that is what we were trying to do with this symposium," she said. "We hope and pray that annual conferences that do not have a very active older adult committee or council will establish one and offer adequate support for this important ministry. Older adult ministry is so vital to the life and to the continued existence of the church."

By Pauline J.