MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Pastor Don Knudson knew the role of the clergy was changing when he found himself unprepared to protect his dying mother's dignity from the best intentions of her doctors.
Doctors in the South Dakota hospital had restarted her heart against her wishes. "If she was going to die, she wanted to die in peace," he said. She called the endless blood tests for her heart disease "torture."
Knudson had been a Lutheran minister for 20 years. He was accustomed to giving spiritual guidance, but suddenly found himself in the uncomfortable position of advocating for his mother to nurses, doctors and health care administrators.
"That raised the question for me of what are we doing," he said of the clergy. "We have a lot to do in terms of the medical model to enhance better communication and support for families."
The aging of Minnesota's population is forcing unfamiliar roles on clergy members like Knudson, a nursing home chaplain in Minneapolis. The Center for Aging Religion and Spirituality the Luther Seminary in St. Paul has been trying to help since its start in 1993.
"It began with the realization that clergy trained in the past were not intentionally paying much attention to gerontology and what was happening with the longer life expectancy," said Mel Kimble, executive director of the center.
The latest census figures suggest a need for a change, especially for religious leaders in rural areas.
There are 17 rural Minnesota counties with populations where one in five residents are over 65. There are 22 counties were at least 15 percent of the households are seniors living alone.
Kimble said that although it's housed at a Lutheran seminary, the center is independent and open to other denominations. The instruction focuses on the spiritual needs of the elderly, but also teaches lessons in the mundane.
"We would hope that pastors and congregations would become good referral agencies," Kimble said. "There are so many things out there that people don't know about as they become more frail."
The Bush administration is encouraging faith-based groups to shoulder a larger share of the social-services burden. Kimble said it's appropriate for the church to help, but not to carry the whole load.
"The church traditionally picked up some of these, maybe not as fully and as perfectly as it should," Kimble said. "They are now providing adult day care centers; more and more of those are starting up."
Lois Knutson, a pastor at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Montevideo and graduate of the center, said she sees some challenges to the church's new roles when ministering to the 500 seniors in her 2,000-member congregation.
Take transportation, for example. The church needs to worry about the legal risks of organizing volunteers to drive seniors to doctor's appointments and other errands.
"If they provide a ride and the senior falls, that can be a stressful situation and there are liability issues," she said.
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