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Elder Abuse: Older Adults in the Church

By 2030, the Baby Boom generationwillbe age 65 and older. That's projected to be more than 72 million seniors, according to the US census. The needs of this generation will require huge transformation in the workplace, government and church. As the church prepares to support the needs of older adults and their families, we must also plan to reduce the possibilities of their abuse.

Safe Sanctuaries: The Church Responds to Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of Older Adults by Joy Thornburg Melton will be available from The Upper Room online store in Fall 2012. Until then, read a sample chapter here, and consider how your congregation can and should minister with and protect older adults.

Download the sample chapter as a PDF.



Welcome to the sixth volume of the SAFE SANCTUARIES series! The first volume, published in 1998, focused on reducing the risks of abuse in ministries for children and youth. I became the author of that first and subsequent volumes because I accepted an invitation to put my experience as a minister and attorney to work by creating a practical resource for congregations and larger ministries to use on a daily basis. Even though I accepted the invitation to create SAFE SANCTUARIES, it would be fair to say that at the time I didn’t fully understand the frightening realities of abuse experienced by children and youth in church environments. I also didn’t fully understand the difficulties that can result for those who work with children and youth when they are falsely or mistakenly accused of abuse. I certainly didn’t have even a working knowledge, much less a full understanding, of the realities of elder abuse and exploitation in our society.

Over time, I have come to know much more about abuse in the context of ministry. Since 1998, nearly all of us have learned much more about abuse. We have learned about types of abuse, indicators of abuse, and consequences of abuse for victims, families, perpetrators, congregations, and our entire society. I have had the opportunity to meet victims of abuse, their families, members of churches, leaders of ministries, attorneys, news media, and perpetrators of abuse. I have trained and consulted churches and ministries in almost every state. In every location, I’ve met victims and survivors. In many locations, I’ve met perpetrators. In the beginning, my focus was on reducing the risk of abuse of children and youth. That seems like a large enough task, doesn’t it?

But, over time, I began to learn more. You probably did too. We began to recognize that it isn’t only children and youth who are abused physically, emotionally, and sexually. Older adults also face the risks of abuse! In addition to physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse, older adults are exploited and abused financially. This reality is costing billions of dollars annually. The physical and sexual abuse of older adults costs many millions in medical and law enforcement costs each year. The financial abuse of older adults costs each of them individually; financial abuse also costs our churches when older adults are no longer able to contribute monetarily to our ministries in the present day or make gifts through estate planning.

In the 1990s, litigation against churches, denominations, and other child-serving organizations exploded in frequency. The amounts paid in settlements and verdicts climbed into the millions of dollars.

Having worked in this ministry throughout those years, I have formed two firm beliefs. First, no monetary settlement or legal judgment can truly provide sufficient compensation to victims of abuse, especially when abuse is perpetrated by persons claiming that their abusive actions are the will of God. Second, the litigation explosion has fueled the efforts of churches and other organizations to structure their ministries prudently in order that they may continue to engage individuals and families in the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Looking ahead, I believe that the circumstances of elder abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, and financial neglect and abuse, will be an impetus for the next litigation explosion against churches.

Before the next decade begins, the members of the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, and the majority of the Baby Boom Generation will be over the age of sixty-five. I’ll be in that group. Those of us who have parents who are older adults have come to this stage of life fully aware that, in the event that we have a complaint regarding the mistreatment of a family member, we can seek legal representation to litigate a resolution. Any reluctance to file a lawsuit against a non-profit organization, such as a church, that may have existed twenty-five years ago, has long since vaporized.

Many Baby Boomers, like me, have adult children who are equally savvy about using litigation as a method of complaint resolution. Compared to their parents, those children will have fewer monetary resources of their own to use to care for the older adults, making them much more likely to seek assistance from organizations such as churches and other charities. In other words, they will need the church to be available to help support the older adults in many ways. If the church fails in this, adult children will be perfectly willing to seek redress of such failure through costly litigation. To meet the needs of older adults and their families, carrying forward the Gospel, our churches must begin to plan for ministries with older adults while reducing the possibilities for their abuse. There isn’t any time to spare.

Recently, I heard a sermon that has stuck in my mind as I have prepared this book. The sermon title was "Tell Me a Story." The preacher, Reverend Dr. B. Wiley Stephens, began like this: "Tell me a story. These are the most powerful words in the English language." I would say these are the most powerful words in the language of faith! These words have certainly been immensely important in my life.

When I was born, my father started a journal, my "Baby Book," in which he recorded my growth milestones and anecdotes that he thought needed to be preserved. I was the first-born child of my parents, and the first-born grandchild of both sets of grandparents. Judging by the level of detail my father wrote, he considered nearly everything about my infancy and childhood worth recording. Both of my parents read stories and books to me from the very beginning, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that one of my first words was "Daddy" and one of my first sentences was "tell me a story."

None of the adults in my life at that time ever refused to share a story with me. My mother read rhymes and poetry. My father told me stories about what he did at work. Together, they taught me to say my prayers as if I were telling God a story. My grandmothers told me stories that taught me how to cook, sew, knit, crochet, and recognize every flower, tree, and bird by name. My grandfather, Granddaddy Dub, told me Bible stories, stories about his childhood, and stories about going to college. One of my great-grandfathers was the one who taught me the story of the widow’s coins from Mark 12:41-44, and every Sunday morning he made sure I had a bright shiny copper penny for the offering in Sunday school.

Think for a moment. If I could, I would ask you to tell me a story about your life. Who were your elders? Who are your children? What stories formed your faith as you listened to your elders? What stories have you shared with the next generation to convey the strength and power of faith in love? Who are the older adults in your congregation? How are they sharing their stories of life and faith with the youth and children? These are just a few questions you and others in your congregation may use to guide and inform your approach to ministries with the older adults in your community.

Maybe it isn’t too surprising, at least to my family, that I became a storyteller. In my family, I’m the keeper of the Big Red Box. It is a box full of photographs, certificates, notes, receipts, and even some elementary school and high school grade reports. The Big Red Box used to reside at my grandparents’ home in Cherryville, North Carolina. My sisters and I would pull it out from under my grandmother’s big bed and beg her to tell us why our Uncle Buddy made such a bad grade in English (she said his favorite girl was such a distraction that he couldn’t concentrate) but such a good grade in Math (she said that favorite girl wasn’t in his Math class!). For as long as we kept asking questions, she kept telling stories. The lives remembered in these items span five generations now.

Working as an attorney in ministry, I’ve become both the keeper and the teller of stories of a different sort. I’ve been given the stories of countless individuals’ journeys to faith. I’ve been invited to share those stories to help build the faith in others. As a student at Scarritt College, preparing for full-time ministry, I heard from the faculty, "You must be able to tell the story of the Christian faith everywhere you go for the Gospel of Christ is only one generation away from extinction." My grandmother put it more informally, but no less persuasively when she taught me, "Don’t leave home without your lipstick on. You need to look your best when you have the chance to share your faith with someone."

Today, we have a plethora of opportunities to share the faith with older adults and to engage the older adults in ministry with younger disciples. My hope is that this resource will equip churches with practical tools to take advantage of all of these opportunities and thereby transform congregations into Safe Sanctuaries for all.<

Those who were born between 1900 and 1922 have become known as the Greatest Generation. Those who were born between 1923 and 1945 have become known as the Silent Generation. The members of these two generations survived World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and every conflict since. In 2008, the members of the Silent Generation ranged in age from eighty-five to sixty-three years old. Members of the Greatest Generation were older than eighty-six. At that time, there were approximately thirty-nine million persons in the United States over the age of sixty-five, representing approximately thirteen percent of the population. My parents belong to the Silent Generation. In fact, all of the older adults currently alive in my family are members of the Silent Generation. All of my grandparents were members of the Greatest Generation. That is quite likely true in your family too.

Those who were born between 1946 and 1964 have become known as the Baby Boom Generation. Often, this group is referred to as the Boomers. During the years from 1946 to 1964, seventy-eight million babies were born in the United States. That calculates to approximately seven babies born every minute. No wonder we are the Baby Boom. Beginning January 1, 2011, Boomers began turning sixty-five, approximately ten thousand per day. By 2030, the entire Baby Boom Generation will have reached age sixty-five. United States census projections predict that the older adult population will have grown to seventy-two million or more by then. In other words, the seventy-eight million babies who swelled the United States population and transformed education, work, government, and church life for all of us will have become older adults, making older adults the largest segment of the United States population! Once again, the needs of this generation will require huge transformations in work, government, and church life for all of us.

There is a vast body of research related to virtually every facet of the lives of the Baby Boom Generation. Libraries, book stores, music stores, and countless internet sites are filled with the results of the research and study. We can easily find any information we need to guide or inform our planning for ministry with, to, and for Boomers. We can find census numbers, employment figures, costs of medical and health care, housing costs, and the value of assets owned by Boomers. We can even find information regarding the religious beliefs and habits of Boomers and their preferences for volunteer engagement. This information is available for national planning, state planning, and local planning. A few of these resources are listed for reference in the final chapter of this project.

I can look at my local congregation and see many ways in which our ministries have been designed and implemented based on the presence of Baby Boomers. The presence of Baby Boomers as children called for larger buildings with more space for nurseries and children’s classrooms. The presence of increasing numbers of children and youth called for staff positions and legions of volunteers to teach the faith message to the young. The presence of young adult Baby Boomers called for staff positions and for engaging leadership on an ever deepening array of social justice ministries. At another level, the presence of Baby Boomers in congregations influenced the curricula of schools of theology and the processes of ordination of clergy.

In my local congregation, our current membership is approximately four thousand six hundred persons. Those who are younger than eighteen make up about one-third of the membership. The presence of children and youth among us today fills us with enthusiasm for sharing the faith story, just as it has for every generation. Every time the children’s choir sings an anthem, we look around and say, "Children, we’re glad you’re here. You’re the future of the church!" When we have one hundred youth in the confirmation class, we are sure the church has a future.

What about the remaining two-thirds of the membership of my congregation? Some of us are the adult children of Baby Boomers, better known as the Millennials. Most of us are Baby Boomers and Silent Generation members! Except for our recognition of Veterans’ Day, the only other event or worship service that celebrates the presence of older people among us is Older Adult Recognition Day during the month of May. We don’t usually recognize the members of our adult Sunday School classes as "the future of the church." However, the truth is that older adults are indeed the future of the church and always have been.

Here is what I mean. Older adults have always, in our Christian tradition, taught the story of faith to the younger generations. Older adults are the ones who know the story well enough to teach it. Without them, where would the church be? Extinct. Older adults have also always needed the younger generations for support, fellowship, companionship, and comfort. The Old Testament scripture reflects the fact that older adults need the younger generations. The Old Testament also makes it clear that caring and providing for older adults is not a mere suggestion. Caring for older adults is a commandment. Today, in our communities of faith and in our society, the parameters of this commandment are possibly more complex than ever before. This resource is meant to guide us through these complexities to assure places of honor, respect, and engagement for the older adults among us.

Older adults, just like children, give us opportunities to put our faith into action and to demonstrate just how thoroughly we have learned our lessons. Speaking to his mother during his crucifixion, found in the Gospel of John 19:25-27, Jesus said, "Woman, here is your son." Then, he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that day forward, the disciple took Jesus’ mother into his own family. Jesus understood the commandment and followed the law of love even to this last opportunity. We can name other examples in scripture to illustrate the importance of older adults in the community of faith. This particular passage shows, in a very succinct manner, that Jesus learned from the older adults and put what he learned into action to care for them. Cementing this relationship between generations assured that the story of God’s love would continue to be shared with all who would listen. How are we forming and cementing relationships with older adults so that we too can continue to tell the story of God’s love?

Let’s think about how older adults are currently involved in ministries as leaders, participants, and volunteers.

First, list the ministries in your church in which older adults participate.

Some prevalent ministries are:
1.Congregational worship
2.Sunday School classes
3.Small groups, such as Bible study, men’s fellowship, or women’s fellowship groups
4.Service and mission projects such as providing meals for persons in need, raising funds for special needs, and tackling short-term local construction or repair projects
5.Traveling, such as retreats, sight-seeing trips, and disaster recovery missions

List the ways older adults participate in the ministries you have.

Some of the ways older adults often participate are by:
1.Reading the liturgy for worship
2.Ushering for worship service
3.Teaching or taking Sunday School classes
4.Hosting Sunday School classes
5.Teaching or attending Bible Studies
6.Cooking meals
7.Delivering meals to home-bound individuals
8.Cleaning property after storms or floods

Now, let’s think about some "hoped for" ministry settings. What settings do you hope your faith community will explore and initiate in the very near future for the engagement of older adults?

During my preparation of this book, I’ve asked this question in a number of congregations. Here are some of the "hoped for" ministries I’ve heard about.

  1. Friendly phone call plan – volunteers call older adults each day just to say "Hi" and "How are you?" to provide informal yet welcome communication
  2. Day care for older adults – volunteers host time at the church for fellowship or relaxation for older adults while their daily caregivers run errands or have time for themselves
  3. Respite care – volunteers visit older adults’ homes for a short time on a regular basis
  4. Residential assisted-living or nursing care facilities – churches ensure these facilities are on the church property or as nearby as possible

This list starts with a ministry that could very easily be set up and would require very little monetary investment on the part of a church. The listed ministries become more complex and more costly to initiate financially. However, even the most complex of these has already been implemented successfully in more than one location as a result of the vision of members, the energy of volunteers, and prudent planning by leaders. Resources such as AGING AND MINISTRY IN THE 21ST CENTURY by Richard H. Gentzler, Jr. (2008) and FAITH IN THE FUTURE: HEALTHCARE, AGING, AND THE ROLE OF RELIGION by Harold G. Koenig and Douglas M. Lawson (2004) are filled with examples of success stories for even the most complex of these "hoped for" ministries.

Here are several more ministry settings that need to be more fully developed in congregations to reduce the likelihood of spiritual neglect of older adults and their families:

  1. Worship with home-bound persons including spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, and the sacrament of Holy Communion
  2. Ministers specially trained to work with aging individuals
  3. Financial and legal education opportunities for older adults to gain up-to-date information on legal, financial, and medical benefits that may be available as well as tools for prevention of financial and legal exploitation

The ministries listed above are not overly complex or difficult to develop. They are not especially costly to implement. These ministries can be truly valuable, beyond the costs of implementation, in assuring that older adults are honored, respected, and cared for. Creating a culture of honor, care, and respect will certainly reduce the risk of abuse!

All of these types of ministries have to be organized, to some degree, in order to function for the benefit of your congregation. Some are more formally organized than others, but each of these ministries exists to meet some expressed need of your congregation’s members. This resource will assist you in organizing these ministries in ways that will minimize the opportunities for abuse of our older adults as well as minimize the risk of litigation against your ministry.

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