Some pastors don't feel equipped to minister to older adults, Barna survey finds


SUWANEE, Ga. — A significant number of pastors feel ill equipped to minister to people in their elder years.

The Barna Group, a research organization that monitors cultural and religious trends in America, highlighted that finding in an article Wednesday.

Thirty-five percent of pastors told Barna researchers that ministering to people 75 and older is an area where they feel the least equipped.

That finding comes from a nation where senior citizens make up the fastest growing segment of the population.

Ricky Thrasher, head of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s chaplaincy program, encourages church leaders to develop strategies to reach the 56 million people 65 and older whose bodies may be giving out but whose souls "will never wrinkle."

“The number of people in the U.S. over age 65 is now larger than the entire population of Canada,” Thrasher told ministry leaders at the Mission Board’s evangelism conference in March. “The number of senior citizens is growing three times more rapidly than the national population rate.”

The Barna article delved into information about senior adults gleaned from surveys conducted last year.

Those surveys found that 40% of pastors don’t feel equipped to help older adults with retirement planning or with life after retirement; just over 30% felt equipped to help older adults through becoming a grandparent or through a chronic illness, and 27% said they felt unprepared to minister to people dealing with terminal illnesses.

The survey found that church members 55 and older are serious about their faith, saying it “is core to who I am.”

“Older adulthood is a time when many take stock of their life’s journey and endeavor to focus on what’s most important,” Barna said in the article.

The survey found that nearly 90% older adults agreed it is important for them to continue to grow spiritually, and nearly half believe it’s the job of pastors to guide them in that growth.

“This suggests that, whether or not older adult Christians are satisfied with the current state of church ministry, they do see spiritual growth and development as the domain of the church and something they likely desire or expect,” Barna said.

When asked about the most influential people in their spiritual journeys, most U.S. adults point to parents, grandparents and friends. Older adults, however, add pastors to that mix.

“More than one in four elders and one in five boomers say a pastor has been the most influential to their spiritual journey,” Barna said. “This finding points to the critical role pastors play in the lives of seniors.”

Fifty-nine percent of older adults also are pleased with their pastors and feel that they understand their unique needs and struggles. That number drops as respondents grow older.

“This could, in part, be a result of pastors feeling less equipped to minister to someone through late adulthood,” Barna wrote. 

Barna said churches can strategically position older adults to make lasting impact and live purposefully though their later years.

In the article, the research group posted this question to church leaders:

“Are you positioning and equipping senior adults to grow, lead and serve, or merely providing them opportunities to gather in community with others in their age group?”

Thrasher said seniors begin retirement in a “go-go” phase of life, advance to a “slow-go” phase, and later move to a “no-go” phase. Each phase, he said, requires a different strategy for engagement.

“Those no-goes are lonely,” Thrasher said. “What would be neat is if you could get those go-goes or the slow-goes to minister to the no-goes.”

Thrasher encouraged church leaders to look for points of need in the lives of seniors and meet those needs.

“Two-thirds of all people who have lived to the age of 65 are alive today,” he said. “So, we have a greater opportunity than ever before to reach people who we’ve not reached before. To be effective, we have to build friendships, build relationships, schedule special events designed specifically for senior adults so that they can invite their friends into the process.”