Quaker Universalist Conversations

The Universal Mechanism for Ministry to Seniors

The Description, Checklist and Comments portions of this blog post are all available as a downloadable PDF file: Ministry-to-seniors.pdf.

Is there a model1 for ministry to seniors that is universal and can be applied in all countries and cultures? The demographic profile of all religious communities2 is aging. Awareness of the challenges and needs of seniors is more evident. Pressures for responsiveness to the needs of seniors are growing. How do we respond and provide ministry to seniors in our religious communities?

Based on experience with local religious communities in North Dakota and Minnesota, reflection, conversations with seniors, and the experience of religious leaders, there is no model mechanism for comprehensive spiritual service to seniors. Some religious communities provide ad hoc services.

"Seniors Smiling," Photographer unknown (Creative Commons)

The following mechanism for ministry by religious communities to seniors is offered for review and suggestions for improvement.

The practical mechanism proposed here is an outline of a universally valid and beneficial ministry for all religious communities in all cultures and nations. Elements may be removed or added for cultural benefit to seniors in particular cultures, but the mechanism’s structure and suggested content would be applicable to all cultures.

Each of the ministry elements is an essential part of the whole ministry and directly related to deepest understandings of truth. Deletion of any element, or failure to implement any element, is a spiritual loss for the seniors, the religious community, and the world community.

Any criticisms, suggested additions, or suggested deletions to inform a revised draft of a mechanism for ministry to seniors for consideration by religious communities are welcome. There may already be in place a comprehensive ministry mechanism format superior in comprehensiveness, sensitivity, and practicality to this proposal. There may also be in place one or more of the essential elements.3 If so, we welcome its wide distribution.

Thanks for your assistance for the benefit of us all.


The Universal Mechanism for Ministry to Seniors – Description

Purpose: To provide support for seniors in all religious communities.

Product: A clear and intentional mechanism for meeting the needs of seniors consistent with religious and cultural traditions.

Results: The benefits of an intentional mechanism for meeting the needs of seniors include:

  • Religious community is strengthened;
  • Senior appreciation for the initiative by the religious community to address important issues;
  • Support for senior independence in their residence; and
  • Implementation of the application of religious faith in practice.

The proposed mechanism for meeting the needs of seniors should include all seven of these elements:

1. Ministry of Contact: A ministry of contact provides continuity of relationship. It includes:

  • Contacts initiated by the religious community
  • Regular personal visits by personal visit, mail, email, phone, Skype/Zoom, Twitter as appropriate
  • Contact regularity for continuity and changing needs
  • Clear arrangements for appropriate emergency contact procedure.

2. Ministry of Listening: A ministry of listening to seniors provides mutual benefits. These benefits include:

  • A physical presence in listening with each senior;
  • Training for religious community members in active listening; and
  • Time-structured contacts for listening and ample sharing of senior stories and concerns.

3. Ministry of Focused Conversations: A ministry of focused conversations for seniors provides opportunity to address deep issues of concern for seniors. It includes:

  • Resolution of life issues and relationships; and
  • End times, including consideration of
    • Medical care for the duration of life
    • Advanced healthcare directive, living will and durable power of attorney services
    • The “Bucket List” of remaining activities and opportunities
    • Will arrangements
    • Opportunities for legacy arrangements before and after death
    • Residential options
    • Home care options
    • Dementias and aging diminishments
    • Final death arrangements
    • Hospice services and other assistance

4. Ministry of Shared Experience: A ministry of shared experience provides mutual sharing of practical care experiences. It includes sharing the experiences of religious community members and seniors on issues of concern relating to:

  • In-home support services
  • Residential transitions
  • Memorial meetings
  • Obituaries

5. Ministry of Food: A ministry of food provides symbolic and substantive support for seniors. It includes:

  • Symbolic gestures of kindness represented by periodic, appropriate food offerings; and
  • Sustaining, regular food delivery arrangements to support health and residential independence.

6. Ministry of Counsel: A ministry of counsel provides advice and referral to resources to address the needs and concerns of seniors. It includes:

  • Reading materials
  • Referral for theological reflection
  • Referral to legal service resources
  • Referral for financial arrangements
  • Referral for assistance services as death approaches

7. Ministry of Mourning: A ministry of mourning provides confirmation, comfort, and support for the mourning process. It includes:

  • Recognition of anticipatory mourning processes before death;
  • Recognition of anticipated mourning processes in others after death;
  • Support for caregivers; and
  • Opportunities for memorial meetings before and after death.

Senior Selection Criteria: Seniors eligible for Meeting ministries are identified as:

  • Anyone beyond their 65th birthday in age or other objective age criteria; and
  • Any person with appropriate health diagnosis, illness, or disability in the judgment of the leaders of the religious community.

Refusal: Seniors may refuse one or all of the seven ministries.

  • Note any refusal on the checklist.
  • The religious community may reconfirm the offer to each ministry in the Ministry of Contact at a later time, recognizing the evolution of each Meeting senior’s changing life situation.

Organization: This ministry is grounded in volunteers, but any parts can as well be provided through employed persons. The seven elements of the full ministry to seniors can be organized in any manner appropriate to the religious community and culture, provided that all seven elements are effectively included.

Elder Care, by Sima Dimitric / Creative Commons

The Universal Mechanism for Ministry to Seniors – Checklist

Checklist: A checklist, The Universal Mechanism for Ministry to Seniors – Checklist (PDF file), is provided for assuring accountability for the full range of seven ministries for each eligible senior.

Use of the Checklist: The checklist is essential for accountability and to avoid circumstances of inadvertent failure that later become evident. The checklist is designed to:

  • Assist the seniors in their reflection;
  • Assist the contactor in their reflection;
  • Assist in organizing resources in and out of the religious community; and
  • Assure consistency and completeness of services to each senior.

Resources Inventory: Preparation for these ministries will likely prompt several preparatory steps including:

  • Survey of the religious community members for areas of expertise, experience, and advice to engage seniors who have questions;
  • Identification of external community sources of expertise for referral; and
  • Development of useful reading materials.

Image Sources and Notes

Both images are from Creative Commons.

1 The intent of this mechanism is to be universal. Each of the seven elements addresses the needs of all eligible humans within all cultures and traditions. Together, these seven elements are intended to represent the complete service to seniors. This mechanism was originally developed as a service to Quaker meetings and churches in the tradition of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). However, this particular mechanism is offered at this time to all religious communities, because we are all humans in need of these services. As many reviewers have commented to date, the simple placement of the specific appropriate term “congregation,” “parish,” “assembly” “stake,” “synagogue,” “temple,” or “mosque” can focus the same attention on the structure of the mechanism for that religious community.

2 This mechanism can be embraced by other cultural organizations with similar care for its members (Masons, Rotary, Muslim Women’s League, Kiwanis, Hadassah, Elks etc) as is attributed to religious communities.

3 Some religious communities have new, or long established, services that are included here for one or more of the listed seven ministries. These religious communities may benefit from consideration of the other components of this universal mechanism for augmenting their current practices.


Thank you for this, Larry. This is a topic currently under discussion in my meeting and yearly meeting. I appreciate the comprehensiveness of your preparation, and will share it with Ministry and Counsel committee in my meeting. There is a workshop at Woolman Hill in November on this topic: Building Pastoral Care Skills to Support Meetings: Support Across Generations for Elders (Sage).
A Minnesota friend has suggested the more explicit recognition and inclusion of relationship loss within the Senior Ministry mechanism: I feel like your areas of ministry to seniors are all very relevant. My comment is a question about whether the needed assistance by persons who are dealing with significant loss of relationship, usually through death or the gradual diminishing of a relationship brought about by dementia, or it could also be other type of loss, such as divorce. The significant point is that the loss of a very significant relationship when a person is elderly and perhaps vulnerable, can result in a specific need for supportive help dealing with the loss. It is partially addressed in ‘Ministry of Mourning’, but I wondered if this section might be expanded to something like ‘Ministry of Mourning or Support for Significant Relationship Loss’ or words of that nature. The bullets would than also include specific follow up services (ministry) to elderly persons who are grieving, sometimes a prolonged process. My thought was that in the alternative you could have a separate Ministry #8 dealing with this ‘Ministry of Support following Significant Relationship Loss” I consider this a great need for the elderly person who is emotionally stressed, lonely, and in a vacuum, particularly if they do not have other family or supportive people around them, following such a major loss in their life. Relationship Loss Clarification: Clarification is intended for 7. Ministry of Mourning to include recognition of loss of relationship.
A further suggestion suggests expansion of the pool of “Seniors” to include those who may not have an identifiable illness or disability: Senior Pool Expansion:: See your ‘Senior Selection Criteria’. The second ‘criteria’ category would seem to exclude people who do not have an identifiable illness or disability. People could have a need for the help defined in your different ministries, without being ill or ‘diagnosable’ in some other way. Am I misinterpreting something? The ministry services can be directed to anyone in the religious community for situations that come to the attention of members or leaders within that community. There is no intention to exclude. Inclusion is a matter of judgment within the religious community to be of service. Clarification of the “senior” pool should rightly be addressed in any revision of the Ministry to Seniors for raising awareness of the importance of discernment in providing these services.
Initially I find the claim that any one approach can be universal to all cultures to be very difficult to countenance. After seeing that this “universal” approach consists of a checklist I am incredulous at this claim. As a trained ethnologist and cultural anthropologist I could point to numerous examples where this checklist is ethnocentric to a Western, individualist, nuclear family structure. Take for example the goal of “Support for senior independence in their residence.” For most cultures of the world such a goal would be undesirable. For many, it would be a horrific outcome. Americans value independence based on individual consumption within a market. Chinese value continuity of family units across many generations (to the point of the dead being just as much “people” as the living in the form of venerated ancestors). African culture values companionship and to be placed in an “independent” situation is viewed as a fate far worse than death for the old. In addition there exists here an assumption that the American ideal is in fact appropriate for achieving the best happiness and welfare for both seniors and other family and community members. From personal experience I know that a misplaced value on “staying at home” significantly lowered my grandmother’s happiness for the last 15 years of her life. She was lonely and depressed living alone after my grandfather died. Living in a rural area, she was physically isolated. To socialize she had to drive, which at her age and health was not very safe or easy, or later, wait for a family member, friend, or church member to give her transportation. Yet she was terrified of moving into the nearby small town as such would be a loss of her lifetime home as well as her “independence.” When she finally was forced to move to town due to health needs, her depression lifted when she lived in close proximity to other elderly people in assisted living care. She even admitted that she should have moved into that more communal living environment many years earlier. This list, while raising many important issues to consider for both seniors and their family and caregivers, cannot be considered universal within a single culture much less among all cultures. It would be more appropriately titled “Ministry to Seniors: Some Issues to Consider.”
Gyurmey Lodro, I am very grateful for your thoughtful comment and criticism of the Ministry to Seniors. Your well-supported point that cultural norms differ is really well made as is your testimony regarding your grandmother. We all should recognize these differences in being of support to seniors both among cultures and within cultures. In fact, every senior is different from any other senior and should be served as unique. This said, in my observation, the current situation in the U.S., and increasingly in changing cultures around the world is neglect and declining culturally kind support of seniors. If you were to offer a policy and program for a ministry to Seniors from any religious community, which could be applied systematically for all seniors within a religious community, what would you suggest after recognition that every person is unique and in need of respect. If this service is not one that should be applied appropriately to each situation, what service is appropriate to each situation? With your careful, anthropologically informed perspective and experience, what programmatic service would your suggest as a norm for ministry to seniors from their religious community in this later chapter in their lives. From my experience, both in the situation of your grandmother and other cultures, I think that I would currently be well-served and comforted by this engaged ministry from my religious community. Within this structure, I think that I, and my caregivers, would feel respected and supported in the decisions and adjustments that I and they would make and I would be grateful that these matters were raised by thoughtful and informed friends. From the perspective of the religious community, this service ministry to each senior would provide that respect and engagement for assistance to each situation and neglect of none, comprehensive, informed, and responsive. Thank you again for your thoughtful comment and I would be grateful for your suggestion for fixing this ministry to seniors for the benefit of us all. What can we say to religious communities seeking a program of service to seniors as a standard, best practice, and norm for future seniors in the religious community? Based on your personal experience and anthropological understanding, what would you suggest to all religious communities for being specifically and practically supportive in service to seniors? What can you offer as an alternative or modification of this Ministry to Seniors? Larry
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