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Churches Minister to Boomers

Some houses of worship meet older adults' personal as well as spiritual needs

Every Tuesday and Saturday, Jim Sitzman feels good while getting greasy for a great cause. And so do several others who lend him a hand.

See also: The keys to spiritual growth.

"We're all servants of the Lord," says Sitzman, who leads the car ministry at Ginghamsburg Church, a United Methodist congregation in Tipp City, Ohio. Volunteers repair donated cars and give them to people in need.

Sitzman, 61, a retired Delphi Automotive repairman, started the car ministry in 1995 while working full time. As for his helpers, "none of them did mechanics for a living." But they're eager to learn, and that's what counts.

Boomers like Sitzman have plenty of wisdom, skills and experience. "Today, boomers want to do more — and can do more," says Amy Hanson, a gerontologist in Omaha, Neb., and author of Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults Over 50.

By harnessing soul seekers' capabilities, some houses of worship are winning over the 50-plus crowd. They guide boomers in growing spiritually around Easter and other religious observances, while assisting with life issues — from joblessness to aging parents. In essence, churches are venturing outside of traditional sermons and potluck dinners to embrace and engage older adults.

Churches minister to boomers

David Walter Banks/LUCEO

Houses of worship are winning over the 50-plus crowd.

Channeling faith into action

Church attendance has been edging upward as more boomers enter their 60s — when religious service involvement begins to increase, the Gallup Organization suggests. Of the more than 800,000 Americans surveyed between February 2008 and May 2010, 43.1 percent reported weekly or almost weekly church attendance — up slightly from 42.8 percent in 2009 and 42.1 percent in 2008. Among those ages 50 to 64 surveyed, 43 percent said they frequently attend a religious service.

To foster a welcoming environment, "churches have to accept boomers for who they are and invite boomers into the decision-making process. In some ways, they have to really accommodate personal needs," says the Rev. Richard H. Gentzler Jr., 61, director of the Nashville-based Center on Aging & Older Adult Ministries at the General Board of Discipleship, an agency of the United Methodist Church.

Encouraging boomers to shape their own ministries bodes well for a generation inclined toward innovation. They like to explore options for aiding the less fortunate — and then channel faith into action, says the Rev. Chris Holck, 54, director of Encore, a boomers' outreach ministry at the Evangelical Free Church of America's headquarters in Minneapolis. "Encore seeks to inspire and deploy people in their second half of life so that they invest the talents they have been given."

Holck believes that volunteering in the "encore chapter" can bring the most spiritual fulfillment. "Just like in a good concert that we don't want to end, in life we want more," he says. "We want an encore, and we hope the best is saved for last."

Next: Forging their own way. >>

Forging their own way

Boomers seeking to nourish their souls have participated in Hurricane Katrina relief and in humanitarian projects abroad. Short-term missions allow those with full- or part-time employment to immerse themselves in charitable causes for a week or two at a time.

"They are committed to helping change the world," says the Rev. Karyn Wiseman, assistant professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Engaging in missions "means something more than packing up a box of canned goods" and donating to a local pantry.

Cecilia Brannon, 61, has served in Liberia, Kenya, Uganda, Turkey, Thailand, Singapore, Belize and Honduras. Along with members of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, she remodeled and painted an old house that became the administrative building for a Christian school in Liberia. They taught in the classroom and wrote an elementary Bible curriculum. "I have always volunteered, but I did pick up the pace after retirement" in 2006, says Brannon, who oversaw the finances in her husband's civil engineering company.

Her generation wants to serve across the age continuum. "Isolating seniors creates a whole different dynamic. Baby boomers do not respond well to age-based groups," says the Rev. Pete Menconi, 67, outreach pastor at Greenwood Community Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian congregation in suburban Denver. With traditional older adult ministries, a common complaint is, "I don't want to be in a group with my mother. Boomers don't see themselves there at all," Menconi says.

Real and relevant messages

To welcome boomers, spiritual messages must be meaningful. "The older commercial, 'This isn't your father's Oldsmobile,' applies to boomers and their faith," says the Rev. Hal Lentz, 54, lead pastor for development and New Horizons, the senior adult ministry at the Baptist-affiliated Whittier Area Community Church in suburban Los Angeles.

"Many boomers came to faith as contemporary worship was being introduced in the church," Lentz says. "We strive to be relevant with how sermons are presented using YouTube, movie clips and video to illustrate key points."

Boomers dislike identifying "with anything that even implies old," says the Rev. Exa Grubb, 64, who works with senior adults at Dunwoody United Methodist Church near Atlanta. However, they do seek guidance in navigating health issues that surface in the later years. "As they see more of their peers succumbing to cancer, heart attacks, strokes, they are just now beginning to experience age-related health issues."

Medical concerns rise to the forefront when boomers' parents, who are living longer than previous generations, start to lose their independence. Declining health forced Dale Carter's 88-year-old mother into a continuing care retirement community. "We didn't start dealing with this until we hit our first crisis," Carter, 59, says of the reality that rattled her and a younger brother in 2008. "It wasn't even on our radar. My mother had been living on her own."

The experience led Carter to write Transitioning Your Aging Parent: A 5 Step Guide Through Crisis & Change. Realizing that her story rings true for those in similar predicaments, Carter's pastor invited her to speak at Trinity Evangelical Free Church in South Bend, Ind.

Next: Dealing with life challenges. >>

Dealing with life challenges

Boomer church members face other challenging and unexpected transitions. While many still work, others have retired or are capping off long careers. Some have lost jobs, and in the aftermath, their self-worth, says Grubb, the United Methodist minister in Georgia. In its Crossroads Career Network Ministry, the church assists with résumé writing, interviewing and networking through social media.

"Most of our people were in management, sales or technology fields. They have seen their retirement dwindle as they have had to draw on it to meet daily expenses," Grubb says. "We try to address the emotional and spiritual issues they face" while enduring "ageism in the job market."

Boomers seeking answers to life's curveballs may desire to deepen their spirituality through Bible studies, prayer and meditation, says the Rev. Flora Hartford, 63, associate pastor at St. David's Lutheran Church on Long Island, N.Y. They're active in the contemporary music group, which performs at church services. "Members are intergenerational and have strong bonds and ties with one another."

Churches can offer mentoring programs for boomers to advise peers and younger attendees, says the Rev. Richard Bergstrom, 61, executive pastor at Northshore Baptist Church near Seattle, where he oversees the 2nd Half Ministry for older adults. Its multifaceted approach includes social events, service opportunities and focus groups. "We assembled a dream team of people in that age bracket to envision their own ministry," he says.

Six years ago, the dream team invited a boomer-age band that belted out Beatles tunes. That struck a resounding note, and the boomer bash became an annual rock 'n' roll party with food to revitalize the body and soul. "It's a winning combination," Bergstrom says.

Or in the words of one boomer concertgoer: "I haven't had this much fun in church, well — ever!"

Susan Kreimer is a writer in New York.