40+ And The Church: What Pastors & Leaders Have To Say (Part 3)

They’re more willing to serve. They’re less willing to serve.

The pastors and leaders who responded to my survey querying pastors and leaders about the joys and challenges of ministering to congregants over age 40 reported both as the case in their churches.

Those who reported that older members were more willing to serve were talking about this group – the 53% of age 40+ congregants who responded to a survey I did last summer telling me they were more or equally involved in their local church than they’d been a decade earlier. Here’s a sampling of the positive responses about their experience with this group given by some leaders:

“More able/willing. Equally easy to work with. Of course the ones that volunteer/serve are more prone to serve where the need is.”

“Most able and willing. Highly motivated and competent team workers. Easy to work with because of these traits.”

“Very willing; they are the ones who don’t have young children and have a bit more flexibility (and money!)”

“This has changed for us over the past couple of years. We used to have a very difficult time getting those over 40 to participate in ministries outside of Sunday morning attendance. Thanks be to God, now it seems that those over 40 are very willing to participate in the ministries of the church, and sometimes more able because they don’t have young children. In my experience, many in this demographic are easy to work with, because they are mature both spiritually and emotionally, and want to serve; but others are so busy with other activities that they are inconsistent in church attendance, etc., particularly if they are well-to-do.”

“I would say more willing but I don’t know that they are easier to work with.”

Nearly 60% of the pastors who responded to this question reported the opposite in varying degrees and for a mix of reasons:

“Usually not a matter of ease to work with. The question is whether they can overcome their rigid perceptions to engage.”

“Less able – they both work.”

“They are willing but reluctant. Sometimes they feel tired from all their previous involvement and want others to step in. When they do commit, they are different to work with: they are more reliable but less enthusiastic.”

“Difficult due to commitments of family and job per their report.”

“They want to be cared for and do as little as possible. They are not interested in and have not passed on the faith because theirs is so limited.”

“With respect to serving, this gets to be a challenge. We are living busy lives, and the idea of serving on one more committee often is a challenge for all of us. We do manage to field a full slate of candidates for about twenty-five to thirty people who serve on our congregation’s program boards and committees each year.” 

“More difficult in the sense that it is harder to design programs that attract this age group. Children and youth programs seem to require little promotion, but adult programming, especially for the empty-nesters (50-60 somethings) is very difficult to get people to come to.”

“Our Gen X servants are less willing to get bogged down in waiting for permission to act. Our Boomers have to be lured into things that hold up a mirror to themselves. Our Silent and GI generations need permission from authority figures before acting.”

“Getting more difficult. I think elderly (65/70 and up) have been sidelined enough that now, many of them don’t want to serve because they are tired of being treated like they have nothing to offer. I think the 40-65 group is difficult because they are (by and large) either very selfish or have been raised in guilt-based performance-based faith, so either they offer nothing or they offer everything, even the very blood in their veins, and end up burnt out and weary of church.”

“Those between 40 and 65 are very active and easy to work with those in the 70-90 age group have health issues and many do not want to drive in the evening.”

I realize that a person or organization doing scientific survey would likely further divide the “Over 40” category into at least two: 40-65, and 65 and up, as some pastors did in their comments. (And perhaps a surveying group would even further segment the younger group into those with kids in the home and true empty-nesters.) My unscientific survey was meant to simply sample the attitudes of some pastors as a way of listening to where the connects and disconnects may exist between older members and the local church.

A number of leaders noted busyness with work and family commitments was a factor among this age group. To a far lesser degree, health issues came up as a factor, too. Interestingly, the proportion of those who’d decelerated or dropped out of church entirely because of health issues (theirs or a family member’s) among the congregants who’d taken my earlier survey was far, far greater. I wonder if once they’ve been sidelined from involvement at church, they tend to drop off the radar of some pastors.

Quite a few respondents noted their members over 40 challenged them with attitudes of entitlement, rigidity, and selfishness. Some recognized a trend among some older members toward ministry burn-out, and a couple of others noted that the attitudes of their members fit into larger trends characteristic of varying demographics. If coming up with a program targeted to reach older members won’t “work” in the same way this approach does with children, teens and families in a church, what will?

In my next post, I’ll take a look at what pastors and leaders had to say about whether they believe that those over age 40 have spiritual/emotional concerns that are not being adequately addressed within their church before I offer some thoughts about how these attitudes intersect with what I heard from the people who took my first survey.

Pastors and leaders, it’s not too late to take the survey! Click here

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  • Mmm… interesting.

  • Boyd

    I see the comment about “don’t have young children” appear as part of the rational for the older group to be active. If statistically many Americans have begun their family by around 26-28 and finish their family by age 36-38, it would mean that “young children” might not factor until mid 40s, yes? Could the “higher involvement” be connected to parents’ involvement with their children’s & youth programming–parents who are involved with VBS tend to have children who attend VBS; parents who chaperone or host teen events/activities tend to have teens who are involved in those activities.
    I am looking forward to seeing any results from pastors specifically about the “empty-nester” who don’t simply not have “young children” in the home but “no children” in the home.

  • Boyd

    Hmmmm, the comment that “both” work may reflect that one parent (the mom)
    stayed home while there were “young children” in the house, but that
    parent went back to work at some point. The stay-at-home parent may have
    been able to “plug in” to a variety of church “programs” that were offered between 9:00 am – 3:00 pm because those events followed the typical school/educational clock, but it is likely that working members have less time to be involved–their age is not a factor. By default, weekends often become prime “family time” when both parents work, so any church involvement would have to be worked around not only whether or not children need supervision but also work hours. If the children need supervision, only one parent at a time can “plug in” or paid childcare is required, and this can be an issue, not to mention that in single parent homes, there is no “other parent” to watch the kids and the budget may be tighter.

  • Boyd

    Health issues. I think this is one that most pastors don’t realize becomes such a big factor with each passing decade of a person’s life, maybe perhaps because so many pastors taking the survey haven’t personally seen six decades pass? Or they have not had to personally manage their own elderly parents failing health–the not so pretty truth is that women often shoulder more of the burden of caring for elderly parents, and if many responders are men, they may just be unaware because another family member is caring for the pastor’s parents.
    Besides, if involvement for a typical 30-year-old is restricted by children, a 55-year-old may begin to have health restrictions. And by the time that same person is a 65-year-old, health has started to become a bigger and bigger segment of his/her life. The health restrictions become more and more limiting with each decade. By the seventh decade, all sorts of health problems can limit involvement, at least depending on what kinds of involvement dominate the church’s offerings. And those who are eighty and beyond? Sure, “young children” aren’t an issue anymore for that age bracket, but arthritis, heart disease, cancer, plus failing vision and hearing most likely factor in the involvement question.
    It may be a simple case of churches being unaware of how much of their “programs” are designed for certain kinds of involvement that certain age segments simply can no longer “plug in” so that may affect their perception of those who are and are not involved.

    • Boyd

      And driving at night is a real issue for many elderly members. Many know that they no longer have the reflexes nor vision to drive amongst more aggressive drivers in large vehicles who may also be distracted by cell phones.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Your apt insights echo many of my questions and observations, Boyd. Thank you.

      If church involvement cycles around participating in programs, then those who can’t be involved because of work responsibilities or aging/health issues are marginalized. There are some congregations where the pastor will visit shut-ins, which is a good thing, but I wonder what it might look like for a congregation to connect with members who can’t “do” the programs and register their commitment to the church by their 2-4 time a week presence? I am looking for examples, as well as thoughts about what leaders can do to change the culture.

      • Boyd

        Changing the church culture probably first begins with a much
        greater awareness of some of the reasons why involvement changes. I honestly wonder if many pastors and staffs
        simply are not aware of the reasons—that the health issue produced different percentages in your two surveys may be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of an indication that the level of awareness necessary to bring about change isn’t yet
        what it needs to be.

        I can attest to the fact that as a 30-year old, I knew little of the health issues many of the older congregants faced. Even though most of my 40s, I knew far too little of the restriction a 70-year-old would face simply because my interactions with elderly members dealing with issues was typically limited to a quick “hello” or “nice to see you this morning.” Except for reading the prayer requests about various ailments, I knew next to nothing about how those ailments played out in a day-to-day basis.
        I also did not find the majority of my church “social circle” comprised of members two decades older who were dealing with
        aging parents. So my ability to serve those elderly members was restricted by work, true, but also the truth is that my
        ignorance of these things was enabled by a lack of interaction. And, honestly, the structure of congregational interacting did much to reinforce a narrow viewpoint of involvement. People of a certain age clumped together on Sunday mornings … because it was more natural? So fairly quickly we became comfortable in “our spots” and greeted only those who we were already interacting with. Fellowship groupings were driven almost exclusively by life stage or affinity. Programs were also driven by life stage— parents of children between the ages of X – Y “plugged in” to
        programs that were specifically designed for that life stage. And if those programs were successful, more of the same type were implemented. Beyond the occasional Saturday church-wide
        workday, I rarely saw subgroups work together, and even then most people chose to work alongside of people they already interacted with at various other programs and events.
        Sunday School classes often had a life stage component, too —few 50-year-olds were going to attend the “How to be a Christian Parent” and “Marriage Seminar” classes. It was
        not until my spouse’s and my own parents’ health began to fail that I truly began to realize the amount of time it would take to support the elderly as their lives became consumed with medical issues.

        Also, in my 20s and 30s and early 40s, cancer had not become
        a “common” word among the congregation since we were a church plant and many members were Boomers who had not yet experienced the disease firsthand nor had their parents. But as the congregation aged, lives began to be touched more and more frequently by diseases, although those in their 20s and 30s who joined later simply followed the pattern laid down by the original members and did not frequently interact with those in their 50s
        and 60s, so the “bubble” of awareness stayed fairly limited—each subgroup within the congregation limited its awareness of “church life” to those who were also in the same bubble.
        So I think that a much, much greater awareness of the reasons involvement drops needs to take place. No one ever suggested, even mildly, that members should not “clump together” nor was any evaluation made of how people interact on Sunday ever done.
        I also think leadership needs to stop saying that it is ONLY the 55+ crowd that resists change. Once something has became “normal” and people learn to do certain things a certain way, people’s resistance to change increase. That’s not a trait limited to people with gray hair since those in their 20s & 30s are just as resistant to change once they’ve become accustomed to doing church a certain way. Ask a group of people in their 20s and 30s how willing they’d be to do things entirely “the old fashioned way,” and that group will be no less hostile and antagonistic with respect to the changes than the people in their 60s who don’t want to do things “the new way.”
        Learning how to adapt shouldn’t be expected ONLY of the 55+ bracket. I sometimes wonder if pastors who target market the youth crowd would get a rude awakening if they decided to suddenly shift their entire worship format to accommodate the elderly, and they maintained that shift for 3 full months no matter how much people complained. I’d wager that they’d get an earful from many people UNDER 55+ who don’t like changes being made to how they “prefer” to worship. And I bet many younger members would leave. But the current conversation people seem to be having is almost exclusively that the older members are “set in their ways” and that creates hostility.

        • Boyd

          I think most churches do not ACTIVELY structure things so that age segregation or affinity group participation isn’t the norm. And I think that there is at least some relationship between involvement and segregation.
          I believe most evangelistic churches ACTIVELY promote involvement along age segregation as a means of church growth and see it as “normal.” To goes against the norm is to go against so much of the church growth
          ideology that has become foundational.

          I also do not believe that most people in leadership are aware of how easily cliques and subgroups and segregation gain a foothold. It may be that many churches laid a foundation that focused on numerical growth as the defining element of “success” rather than
          maturity. Even now there is much debate as to what “maturity” means, so it is easier to evaluate data that can be verified—how many people were in attendance at a given event. Pastors clearly have so many things to concern themselves with, especially if they are young pastors who have no staff and who are trying to plant churches. They have to deal with the very real issues of a sound system and finding people to sing and be in nursery and running the mics and running background checks on volunteers and making sure the lights
          are on and the chairs set up while also trying to prepare sermons and meet with various people, both people “checking out the church” and people who are doing
          hands-on labor, as well as squeeze in time with their own family.

          I think the default position is that many young pastors end up having a “list” of jobs they need done and, thus, seek out people to do those jobs and not think too far beyond evangelism so that they can “grow” the church. I doubt most realize until they are in mid-life themselves and have been pastoring a church for two decades just how difficult it is to function as a whole church once people have settled into patterns of cliques and subgroups based on age or life stage.
          Un-learning is always incredibly difficult, and some of the respondents expressed this—they feel that members are set in their ways and do not wish to change. What wasn’t apparent from their comments is an awareness that it makes no difference if those members are in their 30s or 60s since the percent of 30-year-olds who are willing to do things “the old fashioned way” is probably about the same percent as 60-year-olds who are willing to embrace “the new way.” Many people do not realize that those in their 30s are no less desirous of wanting church to “be” a certain way.
          For many members, the “enjoyment” they connect to church is directly related to having their own lives mirrored back to them. Most members who are 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 … or 100 are no different in this respect, so it should not surprise pastors that members—all ages—do not desire to change if those members have built their social network on similar experiences.

          So I think that things that can concretely be done to
          ACTIVELY raise awareness of and promote interaction with those who are not simply reflections has to become a priority.

          Think about how and where members interact. Do the young moms interact with each other because they are all picking up their children from the same classrooms on
          Sunday morning? Are the men interacting with other men besides those who they play softball with or only with those who drink craft beers as the “Men’s
          Fellowship” events? Are all the empty nesters sitting in the same section of the sanctuary so that they only talk to other empty nesters on Sunday morning? Are
          the music leaders all of a particular subgroup so that their worship tastes are followed and never questioned by someone else in the music group who might have
          other preferences about style or volume? Are all of the fellowship groups divided along life stage lines? Are
          there service programs that are not geared towards a narrow niche market? Are people of various subgroups encouraged to pray together? Are mentoring relationships spelled out so that older people are aware of how younger people value “hanging out” while at
          the same time are younger people are made aware that older people may value more structure and not be inclined to view mentoring as sitting in Starbucks,
          drinking a latte, and “sharing life”?

          These things related to the structure of “doing church” , not just programs, have to be evaluated to see if they contribute to lack of or decreased involvement. Burnout may be a big factor in people’s decreased involvement, but I’d wager that many churches have not determined if their operating systems actually contribute to decreased involvement.