Originally posted Sept. 9, 2013, at Aging and the Church. Republished with permission of the author.

I’d like to muse about leaders for a bit. Leaders are important. We all look to leaders for guidance, direction, models, encouragement and understanding. Yet leaders are people. This is generally a good thing. But it can be very limiting.

We tend to know best that with which we have had the most experiences. Some of us know Shakespeare. Some of us work on cars. Some of us are older adults and know the changing territory of aging. But there can be problems when those who lead don’t really know what it is like to be us and consequently they sometimes make choices that are not helpful.

Take for instance the more outgoing among us. We probably comprise the pool of people who are most likely to become leaders of teams, small groups, task forces, pastors, church boards, staff members, etc. We know that we usually are reasonably forthcoming when there is work to be done. And we active folks tend to think that if others wanted to be active, they, like us, would make an effort to do so. We assume that people who don’t join or sign on when notices appear, simply don’t want to help out right now.

But the shy among us, we more hesitant joiners, those of us who are not sure that our contributions will be worthy of what is needed, tend to be in that group of non-joiners even when we would like to “belong” and to contribute. Because of our changing circumstances, we older adults increasingly fall into this later group, no matter who we “used to be.”

I recently gave a presentation in a church that is making outstanding progress in developing an older-adult ministry. The core group of about 40 older adults had a sharing session regarding their thoughts about the need to develop a new, older-adult ministry. They met at a number of tables and a person at each table took notes. Here are four direct quotes from conversations around those tables:

Person One: “Things are going well here. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Person Two: “My whole life is here at church. [I love it]” vs…

Person Three: “I don’t know, it’s hard to get to know people in this church. People don’t make you feel welcome. Too many inner circles that don’t extend their hands to welcome you.”

Person Four: “Coffee Hour makes some people feel lonely; they seldom come unless they have a specific person to speak with.”

In the four comments above from this church, which individuals do you think would be the most helpful for reaching all older adults? And which of those four do you think is most likely to be one of the leaders whose thoughts about their church will hold the most sway?

Chances are that respondents who think everything was just great in their church might not even notice those things that people can do to give the more shy and reticent among us some positive feeling, like asking our opinion and really listening to us, or personally inviting us to help out.

We older adults, for whatever reasons — a lack of energy or confidence, etc. — seem to become increasingly distanced from engagement in activities that could make a difference in church. The greater that distance, the more likely we older adults won’t “join” or make offers of “help.” Thus begins the very long spiral down into perceptions that we don’t matter much (to others) anymore.

In these situations, it takes leaders — the potential receivers of help, support and creative ideas from us older adults — to do things, say things and create things that draw out the gifts of even the more shy or less-energetic among us. Where will those leader-partners (partners with us) who understand us come from?

Bruce Roberts
Bruce B. Roberts is a professor of psychology emeritus at St. Olaf College, one of the 26 colleges and universities of the ELCA. He currently teaches in the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium in Northfield, Minn. Find a link to Bruce Roberts’ blog Aging And The Church at Lutheran Blogs.

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