The Callings in Older Adulthood
By Scott Hughes
“I still haven’t figured out what I want to be when I grow-up,” confessed a friend recently who is in his fifties. While I’ve heard various people say this over time, it hit me in a new way after reading the book Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation Throughout Life’s Seasons. As authors Kathleen Cahalan and Bonnie Miller-McLemore point out (and it has been true in my experience), the way we generally approach the concept of calling or vocation customarily centers on young adults’ discernment entering the work force. Yet, as my friend expressed, the concept of calling should not be confined exclusively to young adulthood. Additionally, the idea of God’s calling on our lives is much broader than solely relating to a particular vocation or career. In fact, God’s calling includes all our relationships as well. As the authors note, “God calls us at the age we are and at every age in our lives” (Calling All Years Good, 20).
Much more than an issue for my friend or for a few adults unsure about their career paths, God’s call on our life is an issue for all ages, including older adults (however broadly we define this category). Many older adults continue to wrestle with the three central questions related to calling as noted in the book: “Who am I? What can I do? For and with whom?” As the authors note, “Calling is less about figuring out a detailed plan and more about moving toward responsiveness in relationships” (Calling All Years Good, 42). Responding to God’s guidance should be about all that we are and all that we do. Thus, we might do well to speak more about callings, plural, than just a singular call. In the most general sense, we are called to love God and we are called to love our neighbors.
"Calling is less about figuring out a detailed plan and more about moving toward responsiveness in relationships."
The way older adults wrestle with calling is likely to be framed uniquely from other age groups. As the authors observe, the pressing question for many older adults becomes, “What work do I have yet to do for the world?” (Calling All Years Good, 192)
One of the primary ways older adults will wrestle with a call in their lives is in their relationship to work, whether it is full-time, part-time, occasional work in retirement, or full-time retirement. Even churches with vibrant older-adult ministries struggle to meet the needs of those who might be termed later adults and those who might be termed elderly. Baby boomers especially seem to eschew the idea that they fall into the category of older adults. For many of them, older adults are those of their parents’ generation.
Another primary way older adults will experience a call from God is in giving and receiving care. Because it has become more common for older adulthood to extend into the nineties and beyond, many older adults will experience caregiving and care receiving in a variety of ways. They might be caring for their elder parents as well as for children and grandchildren (even great-grandchildren) at the same time.
I want to highlight four calls for older adults lifted up in the book (and I will add one):
- Call to love
- Call to be loved (added by me)
- Call to be a storyteller
- Call to be a teacher and mentor (with biological family and adopted families)
- Call to witness to age with dignity and honor
As noted earlier, one aspect of God’s call is relational. We are called in the Great Commandment to love God and our neighbors. This includes our biological families and our family in the faith. While not all older adults are grandparents, those who are can view grandparenting not just as a privilege, but as a calling to model and express God’s love.
Older adults are also called to be loved. At some point in older adulthood, our call becomes to be a recipient of care, compassion, and love from our families. While there was likely a time when they did more of the extending care, there often becomes a point when older adults must receive care well. Though our culture tends to prize autonomy, we see from scripture more of an emphasis on mutuality and interdependence. We see this when Jesus tells his disciples, “I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me” (John 8:28). Or additionally, when Jesus teaches about the work of the Holy Spirit: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14). We see in God, each person of Trinity mutually glorifying and interdependent upon the other person.
Older adults should also see part of their calling as being storytellers. This can be through sharing how their faith has guided them in their professional careers and/or how they have experienced God’s guidance in their families. They might also share the importance of being part of the community of faith through activities and participation.
Older adults can be teachers and mentors of the faith both with their biological families and adoptive families. This might include official responsibilities within the church community or informal relationships. The church should be intentional about opportunities that lend themselves toward these intergenerational possibilities—before, during, or after worship—Advent wreath workshops, community meals, and so on. Sermons can point to the ways the faithful among us live out their faith in everyday, seemingly ordinary ways.
Witnessing to the difficulties of aging is another call older adults offer to the community. Older adults offer perspective from their rich experiences. While the experience of loss might become central—loss of work, loss of loved ones, loss of memory, loss of identity—these do not have to be the defining parts of their lives; older adults can give witness to God’s faithfulness even in the face of losses. Cahalan and Miller-McLemore explain, “Our call is eternal in the sense that God’s purposes and plan for us are to remain in relationship, in our dying and beyond our death, in a new life made manifest in Christ’s resurrection” (35).
Questions for Reflection:
How can the church be intentional about helping people of all ages respond to God’s many calls on our lives?
How can the church be intentional about ministry with older adults, whether in relation to their work or retirement or in the role of grandparents or grandparents in the faith?
Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation Throughout Life’s Seasons by Kathleen Cahalan and Bonnie Miller-McLemore (William B Eerdmans Pub Co, 2017)
Scott Hughes is the Executive Director of Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship, Elder in the North Georgia Conference, M.Div. Asbury Theological Seminary, D. Min. Southern Methodist University, co-host of the Small Groups in the Wesleyan Way podcast, creator of the Courageous Conversations project, and facilitator of the How to Start Small Groups teaching series.