When Fading Away Becomes “Done” By Michelle Van Loon, patheos.com/blogs/pilgrimsroadtrip, michellevanloon.com
“Who will officiate at my funeral?” My friend Liz asked this question during a pause in our conversation earlier this week. “I don’t have a church these days.”
Other important questions were bundled within her question: What have I gained by pouring myself into church for years? Where is my community now that I’m aging, divorced, and in poor health? Who will walk beside me during this stage of my life?
I first met Liz when our kids were toddlers together in the church nursery. Our friendship has now spanned three decades. She was (and is) one of the most deeply committed believers I’ve ever known. Her faith in Jesus sustained her through the discovery of her husband’s repeated infidelity, some tough years as her children moved into young adulthood, and through the chaos of a split in the church that had once been her haven for many years. After the church split, Liz found herself on Sunday mornings in the comfortable theater seats of a mega church. She’d grown up in the church, and the habit of church attendance was deeply embedded in her. For a while, she appreciated the peaceful anonymity of the cavernous auditorium.
In hopes of making some connections as she recovered from the split at her earlier church, she tried a couple of small groups, and volunteered to help in the first grade classroom, but had to step down because her work schedule interfered. She was gone from the church for several weeks, and sadly realized her first week that it didn’t really matter to anyone in the church whether she showed up or not.
Maybe a smaller church would be a better option for her, she thought. Every few weeks, she’d visit smaller churches in her area. As a single older woman, she discovered she was just as anonymous in a smaller crowd as she was in the mega church. At a couple of the congregations she visited, she thought there might be hope. She’d go through the various newcomer protocols (filling out cards, going to newcomers meetings or classes), only to feel she was just as invisible in smaller churches set on attracting young families as she was when she sat alone in the auditorium of the mega church.
She has sought to live a faithful life, and spends much of her free time when she’s not working serving her family by caring for her grandchildren when her health permits. She listens to sermon podcasts, reads Christian books, and gets together for coffee on occasion with various Christian friends she got to know in her past. That’s what brought us to the table the other evening.
It can be more challenging for older adults to begin new relationships. Liz confessed that the notion of starting from scratch with people drains her at this point. Her extended church search left her with a lingering sense of rejection. It takes a lot of time and energy to break into an established church community, and both of those resources are in short supply at this point in her life. Though she has much to offer, her circumstances and story have numbered Liz among “the least of these”.
Those older adults who’ve left the local church by choice are considered among the “Dones”. But there are people like Liz who find themselves nudged into the “Done” category by benign neglect from their church and/or by challenging life circumstances. I know many “Dones” in my Boomer age group, and probably thrice that who “just about done”, hovering near the exit. My husband and I have struggled during the last few years to find our place in the local church – several moves, caregiving responsibilities, and health issues have made settling into a local church a challenge at this time of our lives. We continue to persevere, but as Liz reminded me the other day during our conversation, the search for community can be a lonely quest for older people.
Her plaintive question about who would officiate at her funeral is a question that her children or grandchildren will ultimately answer. But our conversation revealed that even though it may look like she’s done with church, she wishes it were otherwise. And for the Church to be truly healthy, we need to remember how much we need every de-churched Liz (and Larry) – and then act accordingly.