Faith Formation Themes for Mature Adults
Faith Formation Themes for Mature Adults

Mature adults 2

This is the second of four posts about ministry for mature adults inspired by the Seasons of Adult Faith Formation book, symposium, and special issue of Lifelong Faith Journal.

Gary McIntosh describes the Baby Boomer generation as educated, media-oriented, independent, cause-oriented, fitness conscious, activists, quality conscious, and questioning of authority. (McIntosh, G. L. “Trends and Challenges for Ministry Among North America’s Largest Generation.” Christian Education Journal, Series 3, Vol. 5, No. 2, pages 300-303.)

He describes the characteristics of Baby Boomer church members in this way. Baby Boomers are:

• committed to relationships, rather than organizations
• wanting to belong, rather than join
• supportive of people, rather than programs
• longing to live their faith, rather than only talk about it
• wishing to be seen as unique individuals, rather than a monolithic group
• desirous of designing their own programs, rather than only attending ones developed for them
• yearning to serve others, rather than only being served
• craving meaningful activity, rather than empty days (McIntosh, 300-303)

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot says the journey of learning “crosses borders and covers landscapes that are rich with complexity and color. The geography is rocky and irregular, beautiful and tortured, full of hills and valleys, open vistas and blind alleys, and menaced by minefields.

The path moves forward and circles back, progresses and regresses, is both constant and changing. The developmental terrain grows more layered, patience trumps speed, restraint trumps ambition, wisdom trumps IQ—‘leaving a legacy’ trumps ‘making our mark’, and a bit of humor saves us all.” (Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years after 50. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009, 173)

Most adults in their mid-50 – mid-70s are eager for continuous learning and growth.

. . . . research indicates that maturing adults may require more change, more growth, and more personal development in their senior years than they did at any other time in their lives. There are two reasons for this. First, maturing adults gradually experience a new freedom from societal, career, and familial accountability. This new freedom in and of itself can usher in new perspectives, new thinking, and a new view of themselves. Routine ways of thinking, feeling, choosing, and acting are prime for change.

Second, maturing adults experience more losses than at any previous stage. Adult developmentalists are discovering that loss can best be seen as behavioral change stimulators. In most cases, when loss is properly framed and compassionately understood, it enhances rather than inhibits interior growth and development. (Johnson, 13-14)

Leaders in adult faith formation have realized that a motivation for ongoing learning flows from the needs of the participants. David Moberg (Aging and Spirituality: Spiritual dimensions of aging theory, research, practice, and policy. The Haworth Press, 2001) categorizes the needs of maturing adults, which are overlapping in life and learning:

1. The Need for Meaning and Purpose: This need relates closely to the deeply ingrained desire to maintain one’s personal dignity and self-esteem (a need that often surfaces for newly-retired people).
2. The Need for Love and Relatedness: Sharing companionship, conversation, intimacy, laughter, a hug, or caressing touch and giving one’s self to others by work or service help to satisfy this need.
3. The Need for Forgiveness: Most of us have experienced failures. . . . these can be resolved through accepting the forgiveness of God and others.
4. The Need for Spiritual Integration: We need to know and to feel ourselves spiritually integrated beyond our own existence into an absolute order of existence.
5. The Need to Cope with Losses: Even losses can enrich one’s life journey for each provides an opportunity for spiritual growth and development.
6. The Need for Freedom to Raise Questions: Usually it is cathartic for people to share. . . . questions with a sympathetic listener.
7. The Need for Flexibility: Moving along in mature adulthood can be a period of life in which many changes are imposed upon people, despite whether they desire and seek them.
8. The Need to Prepare for Dying and Death: Much of this preparation seems purely physical and materialistic, but also old emotional accounts from past mistakes and grudges can be settled.
9. The Need to Be Useful: This is a form of the need to love others and, in turn, to receive love from others. One of the reasons that adults are choosing to stay very active in part-time work, in service, etc. after retirement flows from this need.
10. The Need to Be Thankful: The life review (an approach we will look at in more detail later) can stimulate a balanced perspective that includes one’s happy experiences, profitable accomplishments, and good circumstances.

Potential Themes for Faith Formation with Mature Adults

As obvious from the research and a look at the characteristics of maturing adults, those in their mid-50s through the mid-70s crave continuing learning. More and more today, practitioners in adult faith formation are realizing that there are no dividing lines between the “content” of faith learning and life learning.

Ideally, religion is coextensive with life. The so-called secular experiences of adults are pregnant with the possibility of religious meaning. . . . When adult religious education concentrates solely on topics perceived as sacred or holy, the implication is that a host of educational needs and interests arising out of daily life are trivial, a sort of second-class reality.

What shapes a person’s religious response, however, is the totality of his (her) experience and not simply that part of life experience perceived as sacred. Likewise, a person’s religious response influences the manner in which he (she) experiences all of life and not just a segment of life designated as sacred. (McKenzie, L. and Harton, R.M., The Religious Education of Adults, Smyth & Helwys, 2002, 6)

Since all experience has the potential for learning, the division between sacred and secular fades away. In viewing life’s experiences as God-given, and our capacity to take note and organize those experiences into meaningful frameworks as a gift of grace, our journey of lifelong learning is at every moment a sacred one.

Whether the experience and struggle to make meaning of it are painful or joyful, the whole process is sacred. Whether the learning event takes place within a religious context or outside of one, the moment is God-given. Lifelong learning and the faith journey are one and the same.” (Brillinger, M. F., Adult Religious Education: A Journey of Faith Development, Marie A. Gillen and Maurice C. Taylor, eds.. Paulist Press, 1995.)

Everyday Life

Congregations can provide workshops, resources and support aimed at addressing the realities of the maturing ages of life including topics such as:

• simplifying life
• caring for the body—nutrition, exercise, fitness
• sharing faith with grandchildren and caring for grandchildren
• managing life transitions: new types of work, retirement, loss of loved ones, death and dying
• living as an empty-nest family
• developing marriage relationships in the mature years
• managing mature adult life issues: wills, living wills, organ donations, Social Security, Medicare,
• participating in travel and leisure activities
• discovering or developing artistic and creative talents

Another life-issue that touches many in this age group is sudden unemployment (for various reasons). Churches are offering various helps to walk this journey. St. Joseph Church in Lake Orion, MI hosted several sessions on the spiritual challenges of being unemployed, thoughts from an employer, the emotional effects of unemployment, and practical tips for seeking re-employment.

The Life of Faith

John Donovan, an advocate for Yellow Banana Schools of Theology, said, “I don’t buy green bananas. I may not still be here when they ripen and turn yellow” (Donovan, J. “Seniors need some class,” U.S. Catholic, May 2010, 29)

This proposal was precipitated by the realization that most congregations give much time, resources, and personnel to children, and some to adults, but very little to the maturing population and the elderly. These Yellow Banana Schools would be an:

. . . . endeavor powered by the urgency of age. The courses, like a ripe banana, should not only be short but also sweet. . . . Yellow not green! Short and interesting if not fun. The sweetener would be the choice of a dynamic, questioning facilitator to run the sessions instead of an answer-giving teacher or a dull, lecturing scholar.

Most courses would run one session, seldom two, and never three. The curriculum would be determined mostly by the students themselves, because as we age, our felt needs increasingly become our real needs.

What to teach? Professional educators would no doubt refer to a student body that is over 55 as being “nontraditional,” like the student bodies found in the nation’s community colleges. It is said that about 60 percent of what is taught in community colleges is remedial.

This remediation is needed not because the students are slow but because, for one reason or another, they need updating. The same can no doubt be said of the students in the proposed Yellow Banana School of Theology. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults introduces those interested in Catholicism to its beliefs and practices. The Yellow Banana School would aim at updating mature Catholics. (Donovan, 29-31)

Life’s Transitions and Losses

As crucial as it is to have designed, scheduled opportunities for ongoing faith formation in congregations, it is as important to note life-changing moments in your life and your family’s life. Probably most of them happened outside of “pre-planned” self or family improvement sessions or adult faith formation sessions on various church themes.

Upon reflection, most people realize that usually their deepest faith growth occurred during the unpredictable situations—and even crises—of normal, everyday life.

Adulthood is filled with transitions: geographic relocations, family formation and re-formation, career changes, empty nests, unanticipated illness, divorce, and the loss of loved ones. In times of transition, most people experience feelings of disorientation and tend to question personal priorities; they may seek to ‘finish unfinished business’ or develop new dimensions of their lives.

More often than not, adults in transition perceive educational institutions as important resources during times of change. They look to education to acquire new meaning perspectives and frameworks that can help regain ‘order and stability’ in their lives. (Schuster, D. T., “Placing Adult Jewish Learning at the Center.” Agenda: Jewish Education JESNA, Summer 2003.)

Dean reminds us that transition is a constant reality. “Adulthood is characterized by periods of stability followed by periods of transition. This is a direct finding of Levinson’s studies, but also can be implied from Erikson’s work. It seems as though we ace tasks with which we try to cope, only to find that there are more tasks after that. Resting (a stable period) is short-lived. In Erik Erikson’s terms, once a crisis is successfully resolved, there’s a new crisis waiting around the corner.” (Dean, 12)

As crucial as congregations are at these times of transitions, Rex Miller says that our response, our walking with people during transitions, takes many forms; it’s not only “information.” “Discipleship is not a small group or classroom topic. It is a lab project, a choreographed dance, an art taught under the eye of a master.” (Miller, R., The Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church. Jossey-Bass, 2004, 159)

Thus, the task for churches is to be aware of all the transitions which are touching the lives of the maturing adult today. Since adult faith formation is all-encompassing, what are the programs, processes, support and resources which people need during the various transition times of their lives?

Prayer & Spirituality

More and more researchers in developmental theory—as well as practitioners/leaders in our churches—point out that the maturing adult is at a place and space in life where prayer can deepen. Various prayer methods can open the door for people at this stage in life, including meditation, Lectio Divina, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, Ignatian contemplation, consciousness examen.

There is also a deepening understanding of spirituality—especially if spirituality is understood to encompass all parts and parcels of our everyday life, not just our prayer life, as important as that is.

Mature adults need fresh ideas about spirituality and faith. I listened to a 65-year-old woman recently who thought I might think her odd because she wanted to explore more deeply what it means to be a contemplative in prayer and action today. Many of her friends felt the same way. They were afraid to ask their church to help them.

Maturing adults need is to be invited into optimistic, growth-filled, practical information and formation regarding a maturing spirituality. They welcome how-to’s which enable them to stay active, energetic, involved and open to spiritual growth and change which will affect their entire lives.

Janet Schaeffler

For complete copy of the special issue of the Lifelong Faith journal on adult faith formation, click here.


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