By Vicki Brown
Many churches rely on retirees as volunteers to keep some programs and activities vital and growing. Some congregations turn to mature adults for the basics — answering phones, stuffing envelopes and other office or maintenance duties — to help hold down administrative costs.
But as the Baby Boomer generation retires, church leaders who hope to continue to tap into retiree time and resources may need to rethink the ministries they ask mature adults to take on.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2013 “Volunteering in the U.S.” report indicates volunteerism among 45- to 64-year-olds declined in the previous two years. What forces may be driving that trend, and what can congregations do to attract volunteers?
The generation preceding the Boomers — the Builders — tended to commit to an organization or group, such as church or a civic club, noted Amy Hanson, an expert on aging and Boomers.
“Boomers and subsequent generations tend to want to volunteer for a certain project or a cause that is near and dear to their heart,” noted Hanson, author of Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults Over 50.
Many Boomers move away from volunteering once their children leave home or as a result of downsizing their lifestyle, said Frank Fain, director of educational services for the Baptist Home in Missouri. Some give up volunteering for school events and church functions geared for children and youth because they gave their time when their own children participated in those activities.
Some give up volunteering so that they have time to travel or pursue other interests they did not have time to do before, Fain added.
Financial need also drives availability, he said. Some mature adults who lost their jobs in the market downturn in 2008 were unemployed for a year or longer. Those who volunteered during that time returned to the workforce once they found positions. Many now work two jobs, just to achieve the same income of their former employment, Fain said.
Much of the volunteer work Boomers do is not counted in most surveys. Family caregiving is a notable category, and the hours spent caring for parents and children aren’t “registered” volunteer hours.
Church leaders sometimes do not recognize all the work volunteers do. “In our own congregational settings, involvement in ‘everyday’ ministries … [such as] Sunday school, deacons [and] children’s ministry often gets overlooked,” noted Dennis Myers, a gerontology expert for the Baylor University School of Social Work.
He believes church members already committed to volunteering for long-time congregational programs, such as Bible study, will remain with them. However, churches might lose some volunteer hours to other activities.
“I do see some loss in ministries that depend on the discretionary time of retirees — extended mission involvements and ‘beyond-the-walls’ ministries in the community,” Myers said.
The key to enticing Baby Boomers to volunteer is to tap into their passions, Hanson and Myers agreed. And congregations must recognize and respect that Boomers prefer short-term commitments, rather than signing up for a multi-year stint.
“While the Builder generation was willing to sign on and teach the Sunday school class for 20 years, the Boomers want to know that they can be gone to see their grandkids play soccer or take a spontaneous trip with their spouse,” Hanson pointed out.
Focus on “small bites” and “passion” is Myers’ advice. “Linking the volunteer experience to a sense of call and a powerful opportunity to give back and do the things they always wanted to do but did not for a lot of reasons is compelling,” he explained.
“Boomers have an entrepreneurial spirit and an attitude that they can change the world,” Hanson added.
She calls on congregations to think beyond stapling papers and answering phones to unleashing the generation to lead ministries that use their skills and meet community needs. “This is a group that can make a significant difference for Christ, and we need to empower them to do it,” Hanson said.
Senior adult ministry? Not so much
Churches looking to the Boomer generation to bolster or revitalize senior adult ministry may be disappointed, Fain explained. While most congregations think Boomers will move right into the ministry, they likely will not, because they view it as something for their parents and grandparents.
Boomers do not want a connection to anything labeled “senior,” these experts agreed. “Volunteer recruitment in this cohort needs to be highly individualized, clearly focused and absent any link with ‘senior adult’ ministry,” Myers explained.
Just as volunteerism needs to be focused, so does giving. Myers sees Baby Boomers as “basically generous,” but appeals to the generation’s need to strike the same chords — passion and specific projects or social concerns.
Boomers — just like all believers — must be reminded of the biblical mandate to give, Hanson noted.
“Giving is a discipleship issue. It’s about continuing to grow as a follower of Christ,” she said.
“Our world sends the message that you should work hard and build up a nest egg in order to retire and enjoy life, but the Bible has a counter-culture message.”
Church leaders need to remember not all Boomers are relatively affluent and able to give, Myers pointed out.
“Boomers are also in poverty and struggle to meet basic needs on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Others suffer health issues, and many struggle with early dementia, he added.
Congregations also must be aware that not all Boomers are believers, he noted. Meeting social needs with them may open opportunities to minister to them.