Ministering to Seniors
by Constance B. Fink
Retirement parties, restaurant discounts, investment pay-offs, leisure time for grandchildren, travel, and rest: This is the American dream for seniors. However, reality may be quite different. Instead of financial freedom, there may be financial burden. Instead of places to go, there may be health limitations. Instead of marital bliss, there may be widowhood. What can churches and families do to help older adults? Just Between Us recently asked Roselyn Staples, pastor of senior adults at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wis., who believes seniors are a valuable asset and a worthy investment.
Before Roselyn was at retirement age, she was asked to develop a ministry for older adults at Elmbrook Church. At the time, Roselyn was leading a dynamic children’s ministry, but her enthusiasm, creativity, and compassion were needed to shepherd these older adults.
Although she knew her strengths were important for this new endeavor, it was a difficult decision for her to make. It was hard to think about leaving familiar ground to pioneer uncharted territory. Not only was she experienced in children’s ministry, but she also loved the kids and staff as her family. While praying for guidance, the Lord impressed a question on her heart: “Roselyn, do you love my ministry or do you love me?” When she realized she loved children’s ministry more than she loved God, she knew she had to step away from it.
The last day with the children was a tearful day. Roselyn was grieving her loss, and honestly not excited about working with old people. Ironically, God used a third grader to redirect her. “Please God, help Roselyn have fun with the grandmas and grandpas,” the little girl prayed. That one-sentence prayer changed Roselyn’s perspective. In a short time, she discovered seniors were as much fun as children. For the last eight years, Roselyn’s laughter and playful spirit have helped many adults, including herself, transition to senior status.
We are proud to introduce Roselyn to you, and hope her passionate heart will inspire you.
JBU: What are some ways God prepared you for ministry to seniors?
Roselyn: With a background in community health nursing, I understand the health care system and the medical concerns of seniors. I teach how to utilize the system and be assertive to get the best help. More significantly, my nursing background allowed me to witness suffering where God’s footprints could not be traced. Likewise, God brought personal experiences into my life to teach me to trust Him even when I could not track Him. My encouragement to others is genuine and proven.
JBU: What marks “senior status” and what are some of their struggles?
Roselyn: When I turned 62 this year, I welcomed myself into the ministry as an “official” member, but few people believe they are seniors. It is not unusual for a person over 70 to speak of seniors as “them” rather than “us.” Our culture teaches that aging is a flaw to cover up by plastic surgery, an embarrassment to avoid, or something to fear because of abandonment and powerlessness. So, when someone says, “You don’t look your age,” we take it as a compliment. One of the first things I did in this group was to teach them how to tell their age with gratitude and confidence. C.S. Lewis pictures the stages of life as a tree trunk with concentric circles. The inner circle depicts the child, the next circle youth, the next circle young adult, etc. According to Lewis, our child still lives within us. That’s why we like to play and why we should play. In the same way, there is an aging person developing within us that needs to be welcomed and befriended. Instead of trying to hide this person, we should embrace the signs of aging.
JBU: What is the key to developing a new ministry?
Roselyn: I entered seniors’ ministry with the same mindset as children’s ministry – not knowing why I was asked to do it. In both ministries, I learned God is faithful and He does the work. With His guidance, the first thing I do in a new ministry is form a leadership team with diverse gifts. The reason I have a strong team is that I need help! Because God’s power is made perfect in weakness, I am vulnerable with the leadership team and remind them no one needs to be good at everything, including me. I have great joy in knowing that as I entrust responsibility to these individuals, they in turn, are growing in their knowledge of and dependence on God.
JBU: What is the goal of a senior adult ministry?
Roselyn: Many need affirmation of their value not only to others, but also to God. We want them to know Jesus as a familiar Friend by the time He comes to get them. This kind of relationship comes from a life of worship and service. Senior years are fertile ground for God to demonstrate His strength, as less of self can mean more of God. Our ministry gives opportunities to step out of comfort zones to see God is present and ready to do through us what we cannot do on our own. Once this is experienced, service is unstoppable!
JBU: What does your group do to reach their unsaved peers in the community?
Roselyn: Our approach is to reach individuals, senior-to-senior. First, our neighborhood has an apartment building for those who have been homeless. As our seniors downsize, they donate furniture to help another set up their own place. Secondly, a big part of our ministry is visiting other seniors in their homes. Because my heart is with the community, we work with government agencies.
We focus on those who have had hard lives, the ones who are likely to slam doors on us. Those are the ones Jesus would go to. With the help of the Department of Senior Services (DSS), we maintain close supervision, and teach our volunteers how to be safe. For the first visit, the DSS social worker, the coordinator of this part of our program, and our volunteer visit the person together. Then our volunteer regularly spends time with the person for two years. At various intervals, we bring all the contacts together for a low-key lunch. Thirdly, we have a nursing home outreach program with 40 intergenerational worship teams, who hold services in nursing homes throughout the Milwaukee area.
JBU: How often do you meet and what do you do in your meetings?
Roselyn: We are intentional about weekday meetings so anyone of any faith can come. Our goal is for participants to meet God and take Him back to their places of worship. On the first Friday each month, we host a low-key, fun program and lunch for about 250. Last month’s theme was “Singing in the Rain.” Eight ladies wore raincoats and twirled umbrellas in a dance. I often hear the elderly say it’s hard to spend money, especially on health care. So I talked to the group about how they’ve worked hard to save money for a rainy day. I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, these are the rainy days of your life!” I based the talk on Isaiah 35, reminding them faith is living now in the good of what will be. We also offer a weekly Bible study for about 120 people, which includes 45 minutes of Bible teaching, with a break for refreshments, followed by small group discussion. Each person is assigned to a table of eight, the same people each week, with a table leader who leads a discussion related to the Bible lesson from prepared questions. To broaden our outreach and attract new attendees, we offer weekly senior seminars on topics presented by medical professionals and experts; for example, arthritis, medication, living wills, and how to plan a memorial service.
An effective senior adult ministry leader:
- Believes life is precious and cherishes anyone of any age
- Believes who we are is more important than what we have or what we do
- Believes prayer is the foundation for ministry
- Believes God will open doors to do the impossible through us
- Believes we can do nothing without God
- Is wise, compassionate, and faith-inspiring
If you have questions about how to develop a senior adult ministry, contact Roselyn Staples at Elmbrook Church, 777 S. Barker Road, Brookfield, Wisconsin, 53045, phone at 262-786-7051, ext. 724, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.