In last month’s article for The Pastor’s Workshop blog, I asked if the growing population of older adults in our world is a dangerous “silver tsunami” or a providential “silver opportunity.” I chose the “silver opportunity” option, basing my choice on the biblical promise of flourishing “in old age” (Psalm 92:12-14), as well as the extraordinary potential for adults in the third third of life to make a huge difference in the church and the world.
I ended my article by introducing the “Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative” of Fuller Seminary’s De Pree Center. I started this initiative, in part, to help older adults flourish, that is, to live fully and fruitfully as active disciples of Jesus. But I was also motivated by a desire to serve churches as they seek to equip, encourage, and disciple their third third folk.
Help for Pastors and Churches
Since I began our Third Third Initiative, I’ve had pastors reach out to me again and again. What I hear from them has a common refrain, though their congregational contexts vary widely. Pastors from a Texas megachurch, a small Black church in California, a large Lutheran church in Arizona, a midsize Presbyterian church in Idaho, and so many other congregations across the country are saying, “I’m so glad you’re doing this third third work. Our church needs a whole new way of serving our older adults. And, frankly, we’re not quite sure what to do. We need your help.”
This kind of help is exactly what we’re working on at the De Pree Center. We’ve begun developing resources and experiences to equip pastors and churches for kingdom-inspired, biblically-based, and research-informed third third work. The first batch of these resources already exists on the De Pree Center website. You can check them out here. But we’re working on several exciting new projects that will lead to new resources and experiences down the road a piece.
Things I’m Learning from our Third Third Research
One of these new projects is a research effort that involves talking to diverse leaders about the needs and assets of third third folk, and what churches are doing to serve, support, and deploy them. So far we’ve interviewed pastors across the country, leaders from organizations that focus on Boomers, as well as a variety of others who can help us clarify the “silver opportunity” that lies before us. Soon, we’ll gather our research findings and share them in a variety of forms to equip pastors and churches for effective third third ministry.
But, at the moment, we’re still in the gathering stage. However, I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at some of what I’ve been learning through our research. Portions of this will seem obvious to you. Some of it may be surprising. But, without further ado, here are some of my learnings from our early research.
Avoid the word “senior.”
It’s pretty common for churches and pastors to refer to older adults as “seniors” or “senior citizens” or something along these lines. We know not to call them “old” or “elderly,” so “senior” seems optimal. But I’m hearing from folks across the country that most people in the third third of life don’t want to be referred to as seniors. This advice is confirmed by research that shows the downside of using “senior” language and the upside of using “older people” instead. Many thriving older adult ministries prefer “Boomers,” which identifies folks of a certain age (58 to 74) without mentioning age specifically. (Statistically speaking, the oldest Gen-Xers are also in the third third of life. Yikes!)
In growing numbers, pastors are seeing the need and opportunity for third third ministry.
Leaders of third third ministries who have been working with churches for a decade or more will often report that pastors do not pay attention to their older members, preferring to focus mainly on younger people, especially young families. I have heard older church members lament being ignored and taken for granted by their church and its leaders. I know this is true of many churches. But I have been greatly encouraged by the growing number of pastors who are eager to serve their third third folk well. I have heard this from older pastors, as you may expect, but also from pastors in their thirties and early forties. In some cases, these pastors sense the amazing potential for their church if their older adults were living as active disciples of Jesus both in church and the world. Across the board, pastors truly care for the spiritual lives of the people entrusted to their care. They recognize that many or even most of these people are in the third third of life, and that this number is growing steadily. They want to help all of their people to be formed in Christ and to serve him faithfully.
Third third ministry is rather like youth ministry.
As I talk with people who focus on ministry with Boomers (born 1946-1964) and Silents/Builders (1928-1945), I hear them saying things like, “It’s crucial to get to know our folks personally” and “We need to listen to them and their needs” and “We need to get into their world.” As I hear these observations, I can’t help but think to myself, “This sounds just like youth ministry.” In fact, I’ve discovered that many of the leaders of older adult ministries in churches and parachurch organizations were once youth leaders. They’ve built their effective third third efforts by doing what they used to do with kids: getting to know them personally, hanging out with them, paying close attention to their needs, helping them to get involved in ministry, connecting biblical truth with their real-life issues, and so forth.
Of course, third third ministry is also different from youth ministry. For one thing, your ministry leaders are usually (but not always!) third third folk. You don’t have to recruit a team of adult leaders. Plus, in third third work, you don’t have to get parental permission for events.
Effective third third ministry is highly relational.
This learning could be included as part of “Third third ministry is rather like youth ministry” because, of course, effective youth ministry is also highly relational. But I want to be sure and emphasize the relational nature of third third ministry because this characteristic is so vital but easily overlooked.
Why is it overlooked? There are many reasons. For one thing, many churches and pastors think of “senior adult ministry” mainly in terms of activities for “seniors” (field trips, potlucks, Sunday School classes, etc.). Relational ministry with “seniors” is thought of as visiting people with physical limitations owing to age and/or illness. To be sure, this kind of personal ministry is crucial. But relational ministry with older adults entails so much more. If you’re a pastor or church leader, it begins with getting to know the people entrusted to your care who are in the third third of life.
Now, if you’re like most pastors I know, you already feel overwhelmed with responsibilities. You’ve got more on your plate than you can chew right now. And I’m saying that you need to develop personal relationships with the older people in your congregation. How can you take on one more thing?
Let me respond to this question out of my own experience as a parish pastor (seven years as an associate; sixteen years as a senior pastor). Throughout my tenure in the church, I always had relationships with older adults. They were some of my finest lay ministry partners, church leaders, and faithful supporters. I would often talk with them about church business, but also their spiritual life, their children and grandchildren, and so on. That was a good start.
But, in retrospect, I didn’t often ask my older adults about things related to their age. Perhaps I felt awkward bringing up things like this. Perhaps I didn’t think of talking about it because I was younger. No matter the reason, I don’t remember asking folks about things like retirement, or their sense of vocation in the third third of life, or how they were dealing with common losses associated with aging, or issues like these. I didn’t think to ask how the church was helping my third third folk flourish or what we might do that we weren’t currently doing. In retrospect, I wish I’d had these conversations with Dick, Betty, Gertrude, Jack, and so many others.
So, if you already have relationships with third thirders in your congregation, one of the best ways you can lead your church to serve them is by getting to know them in new ways. Go deeper in your existing relationships. Ask questions and listen attentively. Discover things about your people you don’t already know.
If you don’t have relationships with older congregants, then you may need to build some new relationships. But you don’t have to be overwhelmed by this. Meet with a person to two a month. Not only will you learn things that will strengthen your pastoral role, but usually you will also be encouraged by the faith and faithfulness of your older congregants.
Naturally, your particular role in your church’s ministry with older adults will vary with the size of your church. If you’ve got a congregation of a hundred, you can get to know many of your older adults personally. If you’ve got a thousand members, then you won’t know most of your people personally. Remember, though, the highly relational dimension of third third ministry isn’t all on your shoulders. You may have other staff people to help with this work. And you surely have in your congregation talented, gifted older adults who would be amazing partners in your third third effort. Your relational work with them will set the tone for the whole ministry.
I’m going to stop here because this article is already plenty long. But I do have more to share and will do so in the future. Also, let me close by saying that I’d love to hear from you. Please share with me your stories, questions, ideas, hopes, and whatever else you’d like to share. You can reach me at: [email protected].
This is the second article in a series on the Third Third of Life by Mark D. Roberts. If you are interested in reading the other articles in the series, here they are in order:
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative.
Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership.
With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.
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