Growing Old in Church

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Will Willimon
Pastoring for Life
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , April
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Will Willimon starts his important book Aging: Growing Old in Church by describing the implications of what has been called a longevity revolution. Most of us will live about thirty years longer than our grandparents did, years not tacked on to the end of our lives but rather just past the middle, between raising families/building careers and frail old age. He sets out the statistics—that life spans now are double what they were two hundred years ago; that seventy million people will be over sixty-five by 2030, nearly double today’s numbers; that by 2058, people over sixty-five will triple to two billion, comprising one-fifth of the world’s population. The implications of this demographic transformation are huge, affecting every aspect of life—financial planning, health care, education, recreation, city planning, retirement decisions, social security, intergenerational compacts . . . the list can go on and on.

The two-thousand-year old Jewish text Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Ancestors), describes the stages of a life. It had four distinct stages: the first focused on learning, the second on building careers and raising families; the third on sharing wisdom, and the fourth on separating from this life.

Nowadays churches and synagogues in North America are filled with congregants who are over sixty-five. But many of these congregants are leaving because they feel invisible and unseen, no longer in the conversation. Too many religious communities focus primarily on those first two stages—families with young children and millennials. Religious institutions often provide wonderful supportive services to that fourth stage—the frail elderly. What is missing is the third stage—active adults who want to be seen, valued, and engaged in giving back. Many of them no longer feel that they are a part of the conversation about what a religious community ought to be.

The gift of Willimon’s book is that it is changing the conversation. The author acknowledges that biblical images of aging are ambiguous, from the devasting description in Ecclesiastes to the hopeful vision of Psalm 92. He engages readers with the saga of King Lear as a poster boy for a bad retirement: “Was Shakespeare’s intent in writing Lear to show… what aging need not be? We can see aging and retirement as ‘mere oblivion,’ … or we can view this stage of life as a call for self-reflection, for life course correction and for the embrace of a new direction in relating to others and to the world in a different but not altogether unhappy way” (23).

Willimon’s discussion about retirement issues is particularly powerful and helpful. He brings to the conversation reflections on current research into the ways baby boomers desire to reframe aging from a paradigm of decline into one of opportunity, even as he does not pretend that growing older is easy. He addresses ageism directly not only as a social construction but as “a sin to be confessed” (15). His purpose is clear: “to help Christians—the young who are caring for the aging and who are themselves preparing to age as well as those entering into and living though aging …to see their congregations as ideal locations for ministry with and for the aging” (5). While this is a book obviously directed to a Christian audience, the issues he explores will resonate with religious leaders of other faith communities.

Most useful in Willimon’s book is his clear challenge to congregations to stop viewing those growing older as needing to be serviced but rather as active partners in serving others. People over sixty-five spend more time volunteering than any other age cohort. He extols the virtues of religious institutions as one of the few intergenerational spaces that still exists, and suggests that the best way to form intergenerational bonds is by working together across generations. He is critical of any strategy that suggests age segregation, arguing that the important criteria is functional rather than chronological age. However, Willimon neglects to raise the question of whether people in the same age cohort might in fact benefit from study and conversation around issues that particularly affect them as they age. Encouraging intergenerational interaction does not mean there is no place for community projects, new ritual, and personal sharing opportunities that celebrate the particular talents and expertise of active older adults with each other.

In the chapter “Growing Old in Church,” Willimon lays out an agenda for what the church needs to do for those growing older. Parts of the mission include supporting caregivers, providing retirement planning, discussing legacy, offering learning opportunities, and promoting vocation by helping people answer the question: “I know who I have been, but who am I now? Who is God calling me to be now?”

Willimon suggests that clergy and church leadership should be clear about the demographics of their congregations and what specific programs are offered for active older adults. They should also pay attention, among other concerns, to how they use technology and make it more accessible to older adults, including whether the church is really accessible for those with mobility challenges, hearing or vision loss, or those who no longer drive. But again, the focus is not on service to older adults but on partnership with older adults in service to others. So Willimon lays out an agenda for what active adults can do for the church, helping the church understand that those given the gift of longer lives should see themselves as active agents, a ministry of older adults as opposed to recipients of a ministry to older adults

Among Willimon’s most important suggestions is to support, recognize, and even honor caregivers in a congregational ritual or worship service. While he describes how much of a Christian’s life is celebrated in church as part of a community, he does not focus on other moments or experiences for this stage of life where the church might create new rituals beyond communal worship, such as celebrating a major birthday, renewing a marriage vow, taking off a wedding ring after the death of a spouse, leaving the home where one raised one’s children, or moving older loved ones into a nursing home. These too are moments when divinity is present in life.

Aging: Growing Old in Church is an important addition to the growing literature for active older adults and those who love them, no matter what religious tradition they call home.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura Geller is rabbi emerita of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Date of Review: 
November 3, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Will Willimon (STD, Emory University) is professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, where he was dean of the chapel for twenty years.



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