Raising the Cane: Refreshing Your Seniors’ Ministry
You’re probably reading this because members of your flock are aging. They need shepherding, but you’re not exactly sure how to proceed. After all, you may be young enough to be their child—or their grandchild!
This has been the situation in the church I’ve pastored for the last 10 years. Thankfully, Scripture is profitable for teaching us how to shepherd our senior sheep. When old Paul wrote to young Timothy about how the church should behave, embedded in his instruction were principles for engaging older members (1 Tim. 3:15; 5:1ff).
PRINCIPLES FOR SENIORS MINISTRY
It’s possible for any ministry of the church to lose its way and become a silo, especially the senior saints’ ministry. They have faithfully served for years and outlasted many pastors, so messing with their ministry might feel like raising your hand against the Lord’s anointed. They might even start raising cane!
Yet many elderly church members are sincerely open to the next generation of servant leaders. So, take courage. Especially in a church that has more grayheads than towheads, it’s necessary not only to plan for the church’s future but also not to neglect the ones who maintained it long before you got there—even if you introduce a different ministry philosophy.
Whether you’re a pastor or a deacon responsible for the care of senior saints, here are some suggestions on refreshing them in Christ:
1. Build trust.
Trust is a necessary currency in any relationship, and don’t expect to be handed it easily just because you’re in a church. Remember: seniors have a lot of history before you came into their lives. You may be ready to pastor them, but they may not be eager for you to pastor them. Tread confidently, but also gently and compassionately.
Ask them lots of general questions. Over time, it doesn’t matter if they’ve told you the same story over again. Though senior saints don’t have much to hide, this doesn’t mean they’ll volunteer their whole life story in a couple of conversations. These elderly souls are worth getting to know because the Jesus in them is worth honoring. Be patient.
In other words, spend time with them. Go to their homes—and not just when they’re sick. Some of you won’t struggle with this. But for the over-eager shepherds out there, understand that your overtures of care will not always be welcome. Give them space and keep your ear ready for them. Seek to learn. Squeeze what wisdom you can. Though not all senior saints are equally spiritually mature, you’d be surprised what you could still learn from them.
One principle has helped me throughout the past decade. RSBW: Respectfully show a better way. I taped this acronym to my desk in the early years and still remind myself of it. You’ll likely find yourself at odds with those who resist your ideas for change. Wisdom is needed to navigate some of the unhealthy aspects of a senior saints’ ministry. But respect is also. You must always take the high road of respect, even if you’re treated disrespectfully. That’s part of the love debt—“respect to whom respect is owed” (Rom. 13:7).
2. Serve them; don’t sideline them.
Especially as the church gets younger, be deliberate about contacting the senior saints. Reach out to them, not just with your thumbs, but also with the good old-fashioned telephone—or even, believe it or not, paper, ink, and pen.
Members who’ve served the church for a long time become tired. They’ve shown up faithfully even when others flaked, but they’re no longer able to serve like they used to. Assure them of God’s love and the church’s appreciation. It’s imperative that you thank and honor them—frequently. Do so genuinely, personally, and publicly. Tell them the church wouldn’t be where it is today without their faithfulness yesterday.
Some elderly saints aren’t as mobile or don’t have family close by. They have practical needs like a ride to the doctor or changing a light bulb in their house. Introduce them to younger people in the church and encourage those younger people to meet those needs. Intergenerational bonding between members during the week will make elderly church members feel more cherished and connected during gathered worship.
3. Train them.
Sadly, some senior saints weren’t thoroughly discipled earlier in life or meaningfully deployed to disciple others. So, when younger people arrive at the church wanting to live out the intergenerational ideals of Titus 2:1–10, the older saints often feel like deer in headlights. Encourage the older saints to keep learning the Word in community. Don’t take “it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks” for an answer. Gently and positively show them their potential to still influence younger saints with the vigor and vision of Caleb (Josh. 14:6–12), all while facing the realities of a declining body (Ecc. 12).
Aside from including the senior saints in the normal rhythms of church life, why not give them some special attention? One of the things I tried years ago was humorously entitled “Senior Sprinters.” This was meant to encourage the older saints of our church to finish well. I knew then that I couldn’t change them. So I borrowed from someone more credible than me—J.I. Packer. Over a period of four sessions, we went through his book Finishing Our Course With Joy (don’t worry, it has big font). It was a lovely time and well-attended. Many of them felt loved, even during a period of church life full of some bitter tensions.
John wrote to the “fathers” (the older men) “because you know him who is from the beginning” (1 John 2:12–14). In the church, you don’t just want people with the strength to go, go, go. Help the aging saints to recognize that the willingness of youthful energy needs to be combined with the experiential wisdom of saints who’ve aged well.
CONCLUSION: START WITH THE CRADLE
A church’s ministries often span generations. So, from the cradle to the cane, ensure that everyone is being taught with the goal of presenting each person mature in Christ (Col. 1:28). While it’s right to focus on the people you’re actively serving, realize that what you do and whom you serve will hopefully outlast you and even be transplanted to other churches.
If you want a senior saints’ ministry that’s meaningfully aligned with God’s mission for your church, then start early. Begin by training parents to catechize their children. Why? Because when these children grow up, they will faithfully follow Jesus. If that happens, then the next pastor(s) won’t have to worry about throttling or jumpstarting a senior saints’ ministry. Because the church will be full of senior saints who are the mature oaks of righteousness that every church needs.