Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
September is Healthy Aging Month. Search for "healthy" aging online, and you will get a number of results on how to maintain health as one ages through efforts such as diet and exercise. These are good practices and certainly to be recommended.
Yet despite the best of efforts, the process of aging usually involves some degree of decline in physical and mental abilities. That is why the World Health Organization defines healthy aging in terms of "functional ability." It states, "Functional ability is made up of the intrinsic capacity of the individual, relevant environmental characteristics and the interaction between them." Thus, healthy aging is not just about an individual's abilities but about how those abilities fit with her or his environment. Difficulty going up steps is much more of a hindrance to one's daily routines if one has a second-story bedroom than if one lives on a single floor
Another aspect of healthy aging is pyschosocial. Aging and the physical and mental changes associated with it can create emotional and mental health challenges as individuals mourn the loss of previous capacities and the loss of friends and family who have died. Healthy aging, thus, involves redefining one's sense of self and purpose, and it involves maintaining and cultivating social connections. Although retirement, for instance, may come with a loss of one's sense of self as worker, it can also open up new opportunities to develop a new sense of sense as a volunteer and community resource. Engagement with the community can also be a way to practice relationship and avoid isolation.
While there is not a complete parallel, I believe thinking about the principles of healthy aging is helpful as The United Methodist Church considers its own diminishing capacities, especially in the United States. The church has experienced diminished US membership for decades, and as recent UMNS reports make clear, it is experiencing significantly reduced financial capacities, impacting the capacity for shared denominational ministries. There are a variety of reasons for these diminished capacities--long-term trends of the aging of US membership, denominational strife, and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic among them. It is highly likely that these trends towards diminished capacities, however, will continue for the foreseeable future.
The question for the UMC, then, is how it responds to its diminished capacities, just as the question for individuals experiencing diminished capacities from aging is how they will respond. Yes, in the case of both the denomination and aging individuals, there are practices that can help maintain health, but the long-term situation still presents a need to confront the issue of diminished capacities.
Unhealthy responses by the UMC include continuing to try to live in the same environment it had when its capacities were greater, becoming absorbed in a sense of loss over previous abilities, and becoming isolated by focusing solely internally and withdrawing from other members of the body of Christ.
Healthier responses would include a process of redefining a sense of denominational identity and purpose that befits what the denomination is now (or will be two years from now), not what the denomination was in decades past; adjusting the structures in which the denomination lives (agencies, policies, organizational arrangements, etc.) so that those structures fit and support the abilities of the denomination now; and maintaining relationships with God, with other Christian bodies, and among parts of the UMC.
US culture is fairly youth-obsessed and does not place much value on the process of aging. But that is not true in cultures around the world and throughout time. In many cultures, the elderly are honored and revered as sources of wisdom. The Bible even says, "Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life" (Proverbs 16:31).
In old Methodist biographies, middle age, the prime of people's lives, was regarded as a relatively boring time, often not worth writing about. What was interesting for these early Methodist biographers was one's conversion story and one's death narrative. How did you come to know God, and how did you testify God when facing the ultimate difficulty in this life?
The United Methodist Church is not at death's door, but we do need to be reminded that God is not only with us when we are strong and successful. Moreover, decreased abilities can be an opportunity--an opportunity to find new purpose and meaning, an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of connection, and an opportunity to testify to the faithfulness of God, even amidst difficulties. May we take the opportunities that lie before us as a denomination.