End-of-life ministries become priority as churches face ‘age wave’

April 09, 2014

By: Jerad Morey

Every day through the end of the year 2029, 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 years old. This fact, known in demographic-enthusiast circles as the “age wave” or the “silver tsunami,” has significant implications for the church’s future—and many Minnesota United Methodist congregations are preparing for or already facing this reality.

In the three years that he has been the pastor of the United Methodist Church of Albert Lea, Rev. Tom Biatek has officiated 60 memorial services—almost two each month. “Being with a family [after a loss and] providing a unique service . . . is the most important thing I can do,” he says.

But making this part of his ministry a priority means that, at church, he has had to skip meetings, sermon preparation, or other planned visits and has missed family events.

“I believe my cell phone should always be on,” he says. “A pastor is the only person who can help people say their final goodbyes and find healthy ways to celebrate life. People don't call a therapist when Mom dies; they call a pastor. You've got to go.”

Sunrise United Methodist Church in Mounds View is also experiencing the impact of the aging population. Care Minister Kathy Huber says 81 percent of her congregation is 60 or older, adding, “We are the silver tsunami.”

This demographic shift has an impact on what her church’s members can support with their volunteer time. “Everybody in there knows someone who’s going through a difficult illness,” she says. “Most people are involved in caregiving at some level.”

Talking about death

Even for pastors, personally engaging with the end of life can be difficult. Rev. Kent Johnson of Excelsior United Methodist Church remembers when his 81-year-old father came to him, notebook in hand, to talk about how he had things organized for after he passed.

“As a pastor, I deal with death all the time, but when my father wanted to talk about it, I was in total denial,” he says. “I wasn't ready to listen.” He looks back on his resistance with regret.

That experience helped prompt Johnson to make end-of-life ministry a priority—which suggests he’s serving the right church. Excelsior UMC has something most churches don’t: a columbarium, which is a set of cabinets where people may choose to store their ashes after cremation. It sits opposite the church's sanctuary from the narthex so that people who enter the church will be “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” says Johnson. With capacity for 48 sets of cremains, it is currently a little more than half full.

Rev. Biatek was an associate pastor at Excelsior UMC when the columbarium was installed about 10 years ago. He describes it as a ministry for those facing the end of life. Cremation is the most inexpensive way to handle the body of the deceased, he says, and “the cost of a cabinet is much cheaper than a gravesite.”

When the columbarium was installed, the church had a multigenerational, church-wide dialogue about death and resurrection during the Lenten season. In Albert Lea, Biatek has led a similar discussion and even engaged lawyers and hospital staff to help people prepare for various issues related to the end of life.

Rev. Johnson now considers a seasonal dialogue around end-of-life themes to be a best practice. While Biatek learned that “Christians don’t talk much about death—we find it uncomfortable and scary,” Johnson believes that having a definitive end-point to a discussion about end of life is valuable.

Engaging the congregation

Every Lent at Excelsior UMC, congregants receive a “funeral planning sheet” with questions about plans for their body after death, how they prefer to be interred, who they want as pallbearers, what music (sacred or otherwise) they would like performed, and even where they would like their obituaries printed. Johnson says only about 5 percent of people return a filled-out form, but the forms that are submitted are kept in a file in the church so that the family and pastor need not perform guesswork to plan the person’s funeral.

Rev. Sally Johnson at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, who says her congregation is taking the age wave reality “one day at a time,” agrees that a “funeral file” is a great practice. She recalls finding the complete memorial service outline for one person who had recently passed, noting that such instructions are “great gifts to pastors.”

“The part that was so wonderful was that the music that was included was not in any way music I or any family member would have chosen for him,” Sally Johnson says. That was true for many elements of the service. “It felt good to me and to the family that the service reflected his wishes and his loves in ways we did not even know. It felt like a true honoring of his life.”

While Sunrise UMC does not, to Huber’s knowledge, have a “funeral file,” the church did recently participate in the Minnesota Council of Churches' Congregations of Care program (full disclosure: the writer of this story works for the Minnesota Council of Churches). Because Sunrise knew itself to be an older congregation, it joined a group of teams from other congregations that meet quarterly to strategize about improving their end-of-life ministries.

“The whole point is that everybody does crisis ministry,” Huber says. “But how about being intentional so there is a continuum of care?” She says she has come to learn that end-of-life ministry is more than just “bringing the hot dish when somebody dies” and that her congregation is now “being proactive instead of reactive.” Sunrise is taking steps, such as inviting faith ambassadors through Graceful Journey (another Minnesota Council of Churches program) to deliver workshops that help people think about end-of-life decision-making in a faith context before they get there and do the planning that “makes it easier on the family when something happens later on so nobody's guessing, ‘What would Dad really want?’”

All of these practices—facilitating church-wide discussions on the nature of death, providing space for people’s cremated remains, keeping a file of memorial wishes, and helping people make decisions related to the end of their own lives—are ways to prevent the end-of-life experience from being as anxious and fraught as it has the potential to be.

While Huber says that directly engaging in these forms of end-of-life ministry “will be a huge part of our focus because it's a huge part of our reality,” she doesn’t see the demographic shift as the ultimate reason for the church to do this work.

Instead, she thinks about the three Gospel imperatives with which Minnesota United Methodists have been charged: to grow in love of God and neighbor, reach new people for Christ, and heal a broken world. She sees the grace and faith of caregiving—what many perceive as ordinary family duty—as an act that aligns with those imperatives. “How a lot of people face the end of their lives is part of the witness.”

Jerad Morey is a member of Mosaic in Brooklyn Park and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@Jerad).

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