Exactly 100 years ago this month, two noteworthy items in American Presbyterian history occurred.
First, Woodrow Wilson, a Presbyterian elder and son of a pastor, was sworn in as president.
Second, my mother — gone now almost 17 years — was born. Well, yes, a lot more people know about the first event than the second, but I mention Mom as a way of asking how we Presbyterians are supposed to honor, care for and respect our senior citizen members while at the same time be bringing into our fold younger members with sometimes radically different needs and interests.
Like her Swedish immigrant parents, Bertha Helander became a member of Park Church in Streator, Ill. Later she headed off to the University of Illinois, where, by the time she graduated, she had struck up a lifetime relationship with, of all people, a Methodist, W. H. (Bill) Tammeus.
Most of Mom’s church life was spent at First Church in Woodstock, Ill., where she served as an elder (as did Dad), president of the United Presbyterian Women (UPW) and delegate to regional UPW gatherings. She also organized the Church Women United Clothing Closet in Woodstock and did tons of other church-related tasks. At a local level, she gave Woodrow Wilson a run for his money.
My own congregation contains lots of Bertha Tammeus types. They’ve given their hearts to the church over many years — run session committees, organized potlucks, led stewardship campaigns, visited the sick, taught the children, formed the core of the choir and on and on.
Now they and their husbands — if they haven’t outlived them — are past retirement age and watching with what author Alvin Toffler called “future shock” as the church they loved is working hard to find new ways to preach the Gospel in a time when mainline denominations are shrinking and people 40 and under often see no reason to connect with a church. These church veterans frequently feel left out, bypassed, confused.
So sometimes, though they still attend on Sunday, they cut their financial contribution to the congregation and they grumble in small groups in the parking lot after worship.
While this is going on, pastors and elders debate how to keep the seniors happy while at the same time needing to spend time and energy getting the congregation to use social media tools, create alternative worship experiences and meet the needs of families with young children.
What’s to be done? Well, in the least effective churches, little or nothing will be done except to let the unhappiness at both ends of the age spectrum fester.
But the wisest leaders (see Gordon MacDonald’s book, “Who Stole My Church?” will find ways to bring the congregation together to listen to everyone’s concerns and seek a common way forward. I’m not suggesting that there needs to be a good fight to be able to move on in healthy ways, but there at least needs to be the possibility of a good, productive fight.
Otherwise you lose the wisdom of all the Berthas as well as the enthusiasm of all of Bertha’s grandchildren. How sad that would be.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.