The life of retirement, Presbyterian version

Why can’t American Christians be more like Koreans? Why can’t they honor and learn from their older adult family members the way the Koreans do?

Those kinds of questions constantly vexed Miriam Dunson through the 18 years she served as a Presbyterian missionary in South Korea. “I was so impressed by the honor and respect that Koreans showed to their older adults.” They serve a definite role in the family, i.e., “the wisdom keepers,” she says. In fact, on each Chinese New Year, all the younger people go and sit at the feet of the wise one to review their year.

“I thought that was a great idea, you know.”

When she came back to the United States twenty years ago, she saw older people “being put on the shelf, their skills not being used, their needs not being met,” so she decided to go to seminary at “the late age of 49 to focus on older adult ministry to see if we can change that.”

She pretty much had to invent her doctor of ministry program, since no seminaries offered a major in “geriatric ministry,” as it was then known. But thanks to an open-minded administration at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., she was allowed to qualify graduate school classes from universities while matriculating at the seminary.

She was thankful to discover that she wasn’t really working alone. Other forces were igniting a movement for the development of such ministries.

And for good reason. Presbyterians were and are getting older, the median age of worshipers having reached 61 in 2008. Today, nearly half of all Presbyterians are either retired, as Dunson now is, or are on the verge of retiring.

So what does older adult ministry look like now? How are Presbyterians living out their retirement experience? How are they planning for it, building for it, budgeting for it, and living it, so that it can yield a season marked by creativity and security, service and Sabbath?

Many ministers and other church employees avail themselves of the resources and ideas presented by the Presbyterian Board of Pensions (BoP) at regional pre-retirement seminars. Hopefully they attend such conferences at least a decade before clearing their offices. Then again, like Marines, most church professionals don’t totally retire. They’re always ready to fill a pulpit or teach a class or pinch-hit on the organ or stuff envelopes, whenever the need should arise. Nevertheless, the pre-planning program offered by the BoP provides many planning tools.

Then again, the trends, options, possibilities, fears, and hopes surrounding retirement beg for ongoing consideration even before and certainly long after those BoP events.

That’s true all the more for the vast majority of Presbyterians who serve the church without paycheck, and do not participate in the PC(USA)pension program. How can their retirement years be enriched by continuing engagement in the Presbyterian Church family?

How are they preparing for and living into their retirement?

Partial answer: Presbyterian Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (PAHSA).

Partial answer: Association of Retired Ministers, their Spouses or Survivors (ARMSS)

Partial answer: Presbyterian Older Adult Ministry Network (POAMN).

In the late 1970s, the Office on Aging in Atlanta was serving both former denominations. Anticipating reunion, John Ray of Louisville and Dick Comfort of San Antonio pressed leaders from most synods and presbyteries around both the PCUS and the UPCUSA to develop plans to launch, promote, and cross-pollinate ministries focusing upon older adults. In 1984, the Association of Older Adult Ministry Enablers was formed as an outgrowth of the “Gift of a Lifetime” program.

In 1989, 23 supportive overtures were submitted to the General Assembly, and adopted. The name changed to the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministry Network, with partial funding coming from the Education and Congregational Nurture Ministry Unit (forerunner of the Congregational Ministries Division of the General Assembly Mission Council).

The following year – while the ink was still wet on her D.Min. degree, the only known older adult ministry focused D.Min. in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — POAMN called Dunson to serve as its first director.

Ray and Comfort kept advocating, pressing now for the development of an organization focusing on the special needs of retired ministers. The General Assembly formed a task force to study the possibility. They tested the waters by holding three regional conferences, and the enthusiastic response led to the formation of the Association of Retired Ministers, Their Spouses or Survivors.

One day, John Ray stuck his head in Dunson’s office, she recalls. “‘Do you have any meaningful involvement for me?’” he asked. She had stacks of tasks awaiting attention on her desk. She grabbed a folder regarding retired ministers and handed it to him. “John, this is your legacy.” Ray became a full time volunteer there for 10 years – the mainstay of the office. He organized the first-ever convention in 1997, where officers were first elected and ARMSS moved from concept to real organization. It wasn’t getting any funds from the denomination, so POAMN provided a portion of its funding, the rest coming from small membership dues and contributions from the retirees.

When Dunson retired in 2004, the office was closed, one of the many programmatic victims of a shrinking national budget. Nevertheless, both POAMN and ARMSS have continued their work on the energy of committed members.

2010 conferences

Both organizations have continued to convene annual conferences. This past September ARMSS members gathered in Minneapolis for the fourteenth annual conference, a four-day event built around the theme, “Called to a Lifetime of Service – God’s Plan OR Ours.”

The conference offered numerous breakout sessions, but nowhere to be found were classes on how to win at checkers or how to arrange photo albums. The workshops took up such topics as developing new immigrant ministries, service learning as a model for ministry, the revitalization of an older congregation, and a conversation on ministry in Cuba. Participants also heard a report of the successful delivery of a school bus plus hundreds of books to the Metanzas Theological Seminary in Cuba (the first theological books delivered to the school in a generation) made possible by the efforts and giving of ARMSS members.

POAMN’s fall conference convened in Orlando in October around the theme “Connecting the Generations: Models, Methods, and Mentors in Ministry,” again pointing to a vision for mission.

But where are these folks living? Some remain in the communities where they worked. Others move closer to children and grandchildren and/or more appealing climates. Some live in regular residences, while others move to communities specially designed for retirees.

More than 100 years ago, retirement homes and communities incorporating the label Presbyterian began to pop up all around the country. Today more than 400 Presbyterian-sponsored facilities dot the landscape around the United States, offering a full range of services including continuing care retirement communities (CCRC), senior housing (apartments, town homes, condominiums), skilled nursing care, assisted living, specialized care units for Alzheimer’s disease (memory care) and home and community based services. These facilities serve retirees from nearly every income level. Indeed, the facilities raise millions of dollars annually in order to provide charitable care to those who have outlived their resources and need assistance to pay for need care.

The Presbyterian Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (PAHSA) provides an organizational umbrella for such homes and communities, spreading over 36 states, more than 65,000 housing units, and 150,000 older adults, of all faiths, each day. These PAHSA members collectively, throughout the United States, employ close to 60,000 individuals and generate revenues in excess of $1.4 billion dollars annually.

PAHSA operates as an independent, not-for-profit association, following principles defined by their Christian heritage and striving to provide older adults with quality residential settings and services. It works to meet their physical, intellectual, social, emotional, vocational, and spiritual needs through a comprehensive continuum of care, so that they may experience the fullest life their health will allow.

PAHSA organizations are tied to the church through a variety of historic relationships. The relationships vary from local church ownership, to covenant relationships, to a founding heritage based on a church, presbytery or Synod coming together to provide ministry to older adults. The common thread weaving such stories together is the sense of call to an individual or group that led to each community’s formation.

The Association is guided by its mission, “to provide and encourage networking and educational opportunities among members and to interpret the ministry of its members to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and others.” Unlike so many independent organizations’ tendency to drift away from their denominational roots, each PAHSA organization’s governing board must maintain a majority Presbyterian church members and/or ministers. Some also offer honorable service grants to ministers, missionaries, church educators, and spouses or surviving spouses. The grant program provides significant discounts on entrance fees or monthly fees for apartments or homes for individuals 65 or older.

“Wellness” has become the buzzword expressed in widest circulation among such facilities. The goal is to enrich the lives of residents by developing new opportunities to meet the important physical, spiritual, intellectual, social, vocational and emotional needs. Life Long Learning programs are offered in many retirement communities. In fact partnerships and relationships are intentionally sought and new facilities are built within close proximity to colleges, universities and libraries. The philosophy suggests that retirees can experience as much growth and transformation at 60-80 as they did between 20-40.

The PAHSA communities actively engage their residents’ spiritual lives. Many employ full-time chaplains. Most incorporate weekly Bible studies and worship services. Grief and loss committees and advisory and spiritual life committees help shape spiritual life in retirement communities. Some campuses have even created their own choirs and instrumental groups.

As evidenced in the ARMSS and POAMN, the senior retirement communities and residents look beyond themselves by becoming involved in volunteer service activities where they share their gifts to serve others. This often involves the larger community they live in. Volunteerism is a meaningful way to nurture spirituality and there are numerous examples to be found in any PAHSA community.

Will American Christians ever learn to honor the older members of their communities as do the Korean believers? Miriam Dunson seems to be gaining that kind of honor in her retirement. “I’m a mentor for a newly ordained pastor in a church where I used to be pastor,” she reports. Dunson also gets to teach classes in churches, most recently on the book of Romans. “That keeps me busy … and I still do traveling.”