Pastoring an Elderly Congregation
At 33 years old and pastoring my first church—a congregation of a little over 100 with roughly 70% over the age of 60—I found myself struggling to understand the balance between my roles as the leader of the congregation and respecter of my elders. How am I to lead an elderly saint who has faithfully followed Christ for more years than I have been alive? What should I say and not say in my first meeting with the deacons, most of whom were humbly serving the church while I was still watching Saturday morning cartoons? I struggled with these questions and hundreds like them during my first year as pastor. It wasn’t until I rediscovered every middle schooler’s favorite life verse that I was able to move past some of my insecurities.
In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul instructs another young pastor, Timothy, on how to relate to an elderly congregation. He writes, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” As a young leader, this verse gave me both encouragement concerning my ability to lead and a framework for directing my actions. The following is practical advice centered on the five areas identified in this verse:
SET AN EXAMPLE IN SPEECH
Communicate a clear, biblical vision.
Realize that older church members have lived through numerous church fads. They’ve tried bus ministries, used flannel boards, and started coffee shops, but more than a new program or a new method they need to be given a clear, biblical vision. Work on refining this vision so you can articulate it with clarity in both public and private settings.
There is great value in preaching expositionally through books of the Bible, but there is a particular value for young preachers that are leading older congregations. Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert highlight this advantage by pointing out how this method “protects us from being ‘blamed’ for preaching hard passages at particular times” (Preach: Theology Meets Practice, 67). As you move your elderly congregation toward health, there will undoubtedly be issues you’ll need to address and areas that need to change. Preaching expositionally helps your congregation see that you are allowing God’s Word to guide the change.
Engage elderly in conversation.
Let’s face it. For many pastors, it’s easier to stand before their congregation and preach than it is to engage members in personal conversation. This issue seems to be magnified even more when there is a significant age gap between the pastor and the congregation. Paul challenges Timothy to overcome the social awkwardness that comes with addressing the older members of his congregation by stating that he should set an example in his speech. Younger pastors must live with the assumption that they also are charged with engaging all of their members (even the elderly) in gospel-centered conversations.
SET AN EXAMPLE IN CONDUCT
Show humility without undermining authority.
C. J. Mahaney says that, “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness” (Humility: True Greatness, 22). Most pastors agree that we should practice this type of humility in our service. However, I’ve found that with young pastors there are two dangers to avoid when working with the elderly. The first is operating out of a lack of humility, which ensnares many young pastors who over-estimate their abilities and their role in the shepherding process. The second is a false understanding of humility that wrongly equates humility with a passivity. With the second error, a young pastor may fail to lead his elderly congregation out of a fear of being perceived as arrogant. Young pastors must find the balance of leading with genuine conviction and humility—just as Jesus did.
Rightly or wrongly, many older church members have the perception that the younger generation is lazy and disrespectful. Younger pastors should be conscious not to give credence to these stereotypes. Take simple steps such as being on time, dressing respectably, and working diligently to help maintain respect for the position of responsibility you have been given.
Manage your home well.
Elderly church members have already experienced how difficult it is to manage a home well. As such, they can respect a young pastor who is able to faithfully love his wife and diligently train his children. Always remember that your ministry begins at home, and in so doing, you’ll earn the respect of your older church members.
SET AN EXAMPLE IN LOVE
Think “sheep,” not “project.”
In The Deliberate Church, Dever and Paul Alexander rightly warn pastors that “one day we will all be held accountable by God for the way we led and fed His lambs. . . . He will know if we used the congregation simply to build a career” (40). Young pastors can easily get caught up in the excitement of a church revitalization project and forget that their primary responsibility lies in shepherding the hearts of people. However, we would do well to remember: the church will only be revitalized insofar as the hearts of its people are transformed by the power of the gospel.
Provide personal care for the sick and dying.
Aging brings with it many difficult physical issues such as physical decline, sickness, and, ultimately, death. God can use the pastoral care provided in these challenges to confirm the love of young pastors for their elderly members. Young pastors would do well to seize the opportunities to make hospital visits, visit nursing homes, and care for families who have experienced the loss of a loved one. God uses these difficult times in people’s lives to draw them closer to himself. Richard Baxter encouraged pastors to visit the sick because “even the hardest sinners will hear us on their deathbed, though before they scorned us” (The Reformed Pastor, 81).
Listen to their stories.
Many elderly adults are lonely and appreciate it when someone shows interest in them and their stories. Young pastors should take time to listen to the stories of older members. By listening, pastors may be encouraged by the Lord’s work in their lives, and they may find opportunities to speak more directly to their hearts.
SET AN EXAMPLE IN FAITH
Pastoring an elderly congregation will not come without challenges. Young pastors may be challenged both in their doctrine and in their philosophy of ministry, and it is during these times that they must hold fast to their convictions. As Dr. Albert Mohler reminds us, “The leadership that matters most is convictional—deeply convictional” (Conviction to Lead, 21). In matters of doctrinal conviction, the young pastor must prove himself unwaivering to the truth. However, in matters of ministry philosophy, the young pastor’s conviction should lead him to take a long-term approach to change. Neither the church’s programs and structures nor your understanding of more preferred methods were born overnight, so you should not expect them to be changed quickly. There will be time to gradually and strategically make changes if you commit yourself to an extended tenure.
Young pastors have a tendency to allow their youthful ambition to usurp their dependence on God, and therefore, they neglect the most powerful piece of their ministry: prayer. Through prayer, pastors combat spiritual pride because it forces them to realize that it is only God who has the power to revitalize a church.
SET AN EXAMPLE IN PURITY
Pastoral ministry can be an isolating endeavor, and young pastors are not immune to the temptations that are common to other men. The struggle for sexual purity is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the church today, and young pastors are at the forefront of the battlefield. Because of this, it is paramount they seek out accountability from other pastors so they can avoid being disqualified by moral failure. Elderly members understand this battle, they have seen others fall, and they will respect a man that safeguards himself against these temptations.
Utilize godly wisdom.
It is a blessing of the Lord to have older couples in your church that have been married for 50, 60, and 70 years. A young pastor would be wise to seek out these faithful couples with the purpose of learning from their success. Specifically, ask men who have been married to the same woman for many years the secrets to maintaining the purity of their marriage bed.
A PRODUCTIVE MIX
By centering my first year of pastoral ministry upon the principles found in 1 Timothy 4:12, I was able to overcome my personal insecurities of being a younger pastor in an elderly congregation. I was able to focus on being faithful to God rather than on pleasing men. As a result, I saw the Lord work to endear me to an elderly congregation. The members have been forced to see that it is God (not me) that is the leader of our church, and I have been blessed by the multi-generational discipleship model that God has established in his Word. Our church has found that my youth, coupled with the congregation’s experience, is a productive mix when centered on biblical faithfulness.