The number of adults 65 and older in the United States is expected to increase from 40 to 60 million by 2030, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Pastor Andy Smith of the First Lutheran Church in Brainerd sees the population statistics as an opportunity to prepare for the coming aging population. So this year he took this information and put it to use.
Smith — after receiving the blessing of the 1,700-member Lutheran congregation — took a 12-week sabbatical this past summer to study senior adult ministries.
Smith, who had never taken a sabbatical in his nearly 10 years at First Lutheran, said it was an opportunity for him to get away from the daily operation of serving the ministry and to do something that would benefit the church in the future.
“In 20 years there will be 40-50 percent more seniors age 65 and older and a healthy chunk of our active population in our churches is age 65 and older,” Smith recently said in his office at the church on South Eighth Street on the edge of downtown.
“Many in this age group are the ones who go to church every Sunday and are carrying out the ministry in the church. They sing in the choir, they host dinners, they invest a lot of time in the church. And we’ll have 50 percent more of them in the next 20 years and we want to utilize their gifts and talents.”
Smith said there are many issues surrounding the aging population, such as spiritual needs and where God fits in and “we want to have this conversation and minister to those in their second half of their life.”
In the beginning of Smith’s sabbatical he read a lot of books regarding the older generations and issues around retirement, spirituality and meaning. One book he read was called “The Greater Generation” that was about the positive impact that the baby boom generation had on national leadership in civil rights, women’s rights and inclusiveness within society that was a response to Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation.”
Smith went on two different trips as part of his sabbatical. He first went on a four-day trip to Asheville, N.C., to visit the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement, a lifelong learning center.
“This was an incredible place,” Smith said. “I interviewed people and I sat in a number of classes. It was a college campus for seniors.”
Smith investigated four areas of the center to look at what the Brainerd lakes area could do to initiate programs for its seniors. The center had a college for seniors offering educational classes for lifelong learning opportunities. It also had small interest groups for seniors to get involved in activities of interest, such as woodworking, knitting or games such as cribbage.
“Seniors in North Carolina would pay a yearly fee of $75 to take classes at the center,” said Smith. “And they offered classes for everything. It was wonderful.”
Smith said the center also had a leadership program for those 60 and older who met to discuss senior issues in the community. Smith said the leadership group was similar to the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber leadership program.
Smith said the fourth area at the center that he would like to incorporate in the lakes area is creating a plan to have a place on the senior campus for seniors to go, such as a fellowship center.
“Part of the whole idea of looking at the four areas at the center was to see if there is something unique here that I can share with senior adults in Brainerd,” said Smith.
The second trip Smith took was to Madison, Wis., to visit the XYZ Club at Bethel Lutheran Church. Smith said XYZ stands for “Xtra Years of Zest.” Smith said the club meets every Friday and is open to all senior citizens who participate in several activities and programs. He said it is a fellowship club that has been successful for 35 years.
“I don’t think we have the resources to do something like that on a regular basis,” said Smith. “But perhaps we could develop something close that works here.”
Smith said the Brainerd community has a lot of opportunities for seniors, such as activities and events through the Lakes Area Senior Activity Center and the Crow Wing County’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program. However, he’d like to see area churches get involved and to partner up to coordinate senior programs in a spiritual way.
“That’s what I’d like to accomplish,” said Smith. “We do this outreach through pastoral care, usually during a time of crisis, but I’d like us to do it all the time. I ‘d like us to speak to a broader population and invite people to a place for fellowship that would be focused around our faith.”
Smith has started the process and formed a Thrive Senior Adult Task Force of members at the Lutheran church. Smith said he is starting small with his church and he hopes others from other churches would join them to brainstorm on how to expand spiritual opportunities to seniors.
Overall, Smith said the sabbatical time was positive, refreshing and it will make him a better pastor.
“I didn’t come back with any revelations,” Smith said with a chuckle.
Smith was born and raised in Marshfield, Wis. Smith said his father was a pastor so they lived in three different communities and the church communities have always been a part of his life. Smith said he knew he wanted to be a pastor when he was a sophomore in college.
Smith graduated from Little Falls Community High School in 1983. He graduated from Concordia College, Moorhead, with a bachelor’s degree in history and secondary education in 1987. He then graduated from Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul in 1992. He was a pastor at Lutheran churches in Barnum and Red Wing before becoming the pastor at First Lutheran Church in Brainerd.
JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5851.