INSIGHTS_EldersAdvocates_FOODDuring a meal at Annual Conference in Pasco, Sue and I sat down at a table where a 20’s-something young lady was sitting next to a 60’s-something woman. Two men were there also. As we got acquainted, I verbally stepped out and asked the young woman about her experience with older adults.

She was gracious, perhaps a little careful, not really knowing my “true” motive. But then I asked permission to ask her age. “I’m 28”, she said. “What’s it like for you to be 28?” She is a teacher as well as very active in her church and the conference.

Yet she spoke quite eloquently about looking for “purpose” in her life. And she thinks other young adults are looking for life-purpose also. As we visited, I became aware that another young woman had sat down next to me. She was silent for a time, but then joined the conversation. She is a 20-year-old college student.

As the 40-minute visit drew to an end, the college student offered, “This is the most significant conversation I’ve had here.” I didn’t get a chance to ask her “why”, as we began to move back toward the next conference session. But I’d like to know why.


I hope part of her reason was that she engaged with some older adults on an intellectually and emotionally welcoming basis. But I don’t know that. What I do know is that I see too many examples of multi-generational ageism in our churches. And it started decades ago at “the top”. Take a quick look in The United Methodist Discipline and see how we are organized. There is official provision for every age-level to be organizationally separated — from the local church all the way to denominational committees. Now, I know there are wonderful exceptions to this organizational chart.

But we “always done it that before”, so we’re trained to think about one predominant way about the general age groups. We so easily think mostly in terms of children, teens, young adults, “regular” adults, and older adults. Some age-level programming is very appropriate. But we forget that we are healthier when we nurture the relationships between those age groups.

In 1976, only eight years after the United Methodist Church was begun, I heard the straight-talking church consultant, Lyle Schaller, pronounce that “The United Methodist Church is organized to enhance conflict.” His exact words. Our institutional ageism is one on-going example of that “enhanced conflict.”

We don’t need to be suspicious of another age group than our own. But we too easily can be. Youth and young adults don’t need to think older adults have little-to-no value. But too many of them unconsciously succumb to that ageism. Even the conference emphasis on “getting youth and young adults” involved often sends an unintended message that older adults are past their prime, thus of lesser value.

Older adults don’t need to stereotype youth and young adults as disrespectful of their elders. Yet that is a too-often unexamined and unchallenged attitude we project.

Children may be in the healthiest position to relate to other age groups. Until they are taught otherwise (and they too easily can be), children accept anyone who welcomes them and cares about them. Perhaps we in all other age groups would be wise to learn from our children.

Why do we feel so unsafe with persons of an age different from our own? Oh, we can be polite to them. We can tolerate their attitudes or actions, at least to their faces and in public. But in private, we struggle with some people of another age.

I believe one reason is that we don’t take time to learn another person’s “story”. And that person may be just as hesitant to learn our story. Is that a key element in those times when we react to another person because of his/her age? We don’t take time to share a part of our stories with each other? A simple conversation opener: “What is it like for you to be your age?” Try it. You may discover a new friend from another age group. That’s a good start!

The Rev. Paul Graves serves as chair of the Conference Council on Older Adult Ministries.

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