I did a recent browse of a book called “Shock of Gray” by Ted C. Fishman. The book paints a dire picture of our aging population and raises concerns over what to do with the abundance of aging seniors.
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we approach the same situation with a different outlook. We have, heading our way, a bonanza of church seniors to volunteer in several capacities. As the saying goes, “You never really retire from the church.”
But do we translate that to the ward level?
Some of the best Primary teachers I’ve ever seen were in their 60s and 70s. The most devoted Primary president I ever worked with was a grandmother many times over. She loved her calling. Not only that, but she had the time, resources and patience to do an exceptional job.
The same goes for the Young Women and Young Men programs. We routinely call young leaders to these organizations, supposedly because they are hip, relatable and just a few years removed from their own adolescence. Many of them do a great job. But I’ve seen a fair number who are inexperienced as leaders, still immature in their behaviors and have not had the experience of raising older children. We save the experienced men and women for stake callings, where they do good things, but have very little week-to-week interaction with the youths.
Especially in America, where we are perpetually focused on the unwrinkled, unblemished youth, it is refreshing to be members of a church where we look to worldwide leaders who have marked the passing of time.
In a church where our senior leadership is mostly past retirement age, shouldn't we work with that same mind-set on a ward level?
I suggest that we broaden our ideas about how to utilize our elderly members of the church. This can mean shaking up the typical trajectory of where we think church callings should go.
When only young leaders are called to run Mormon auxiliaries — and they, in turn, call young counselors and teachers — an entire host of capable men and women could be retired from areas where they are needed most.
We had a member of our ward in Miami, a former mission president and stake president, who was called as a Primary teacher, then as a counselor in the bishopric. He served in both of these callings with the same grace and humility that he had in his more visible church callings. To watch him serve with, and defer to, a bishop half his age was a lesson to me in humility.
It was also a reminder that the church runs quite differently than a corporation. Being called as a Primary teacher after serving as a stake president is not a demotion.
My grandfather returned to activity in the LDS Church in his 80s. It could have been easy for ward leadership to decide that he was too old for church responsibility. Instead, they assigned him as a home teacher. It became his favorite calling in the church, and up to the day he died, he didn’t miss a month of visiting those whom he had stewardship over. Having that calling helped him feel utilized and connected to the ward members.
I’m grateful for a church that teaches us to never retire from church service. I see many senior couples serving missions, logging long hours in the family history center or working in the temple. Certainly there are times and seasons for various aspects of church service.
In calling only the young to lead the young, we not only neglect our seniors, but do a disservice to the children and youths who could benefit from their teaching.
Our elderly church members have wisdom to offer, so let's put them in places where they can be heard.