The Third Third
by Angela Kendall
Whether you are in the first, second, or third “third” of your life, the words of Jesus remain relevant: “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such, is the kingdom of heaven.” This admonishment to his disciples must also include his children who are in their later years of life. We are aware that half of most Christian congregations are fifty-five or older and that the United States is an aging population. Yet few, if any, seminaries in our country make available course work or even selected courses to provide skills to deal with such an obvious demographic reality. Most often aging is a minor subtopic in a pastoral care class, usually tied to grief or end of life counseling.
Some pastors thus feel inadequate and offer half-hearted ministry to older people. They become tired dealing with Boomers and shrink from seniors who struggle with loss of mobility, health issues, and (most offensive to the elder) loss of purpose. One seminary deals with the exploration of theology of aging, explores ways of teaching the Bible and implications of aging, strategies for advocacy, and how to use and access resources to assist elders. These are good starts, but there are no Master of Divinity degrees in “Elder Ministry” as you might find in Children’s Ministry, Youth Ministry, Family Ministry, Music Ministry, Prison Ministry, or AIDs Ministry, to name but a few.
What if seminaries made the third third of life a priority? What if our churches did the same? The study of aging has expanded dramatically during the last decades, but few have approached it from a spiritual perspective. The Bible is of course a never-ending tool for education. Fellowship through reading and studying with others is enriching through the spring, summer, and especially in the winter of life. But older people are not limited to study alone. Indeed, their greatest strength might be their ongoing ability to serve.
Congregations and pastors may feel elders reject or are fearful of change, helpless to serve in leadership roles, and unable to function as musicians or teachers. Many elders feel the helplessness of losing the car keys forever and the dilemma of being dependent. Yet older Christians can be so wise, valuable, and productive in contributions that exhibit “salt and light” in the Kingdom. Pastor and professor emeritus are honored for their wisdom and service, why not a teacher, lineman, engineer, or tax collector? Simeon was old, Moses and Abraham were old, as were Sarah and Anna. The field may be white-haired, but the continued service of the elderly can be widened beyond their classic ability to praise God and send him supplications for others. Properly trained pastors will find a joy beyond words in working with and ministering to this flock. Elders in retirement years and even in a retirement community can be a true witness to Christ.
I personally just completed a master’s degree in Christian Leadership after a forty-five year marriage, four children, and assisting in the building of three new companies. My husband and I were able, with that work, to travel the world and go back to India and to China, where I had taught. Losing a spouse with such a beautiful mind and even more beautiful heart to cancer is grim. It would be very dark without the comfort of Christ and children who are in every way practicing Christians.
Since I love older people almost as much as children, I now work in bringing the gospel to five retirement communities, assisting with worship and “people-loving” at the retirement center where I completed my seminary practicum. Volunteering at an acute care hospital for forty-one years has kept me in pace with what is new in patient care, and it will be my pleasure to be a part of the start-up of a No One Dies Alone project there. “I wish no one to die alone” were the last words on my application to Fuller Seminary. Now, I find myself having to make very real and personal decisions along these same lines. Do I choose to leave our family home and go to the Christian comfort of the community where my spiritual needs would be met, or do I go to an alternate community where I will be intellectually challenged and start a Christian program? Ah, decisions, decisions. Either way, in December I will be eighty years young. I’m happy to be in my third third.
Angela Kendall (MACL 2013) received a BS in English with minors in history and education at the University of North Dakota. She is a lifetime student, matriculating at Cal, Stanford, San Jose State University, and of course Fuller, where she most recently graduated with a Master of Arts in Christian Leadership. Although now widowed, Angela was married to a native son of a native son of California. She is the proud parent of two grown sons and daughters and eight "perfect" grandchildren whose ages range from twenty-eight down to two. This year she will be eighty years young.