God is doing a new thing at Church of the Dunes in Grand Haven, MI. Finishing Well is an intentional ministry focused on the needs of those in the congregation who are in their final third of life.
GLENN M. WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications
Ready or not, growing older happens. There is great global interest in aging and finishing life well. A quick Google search for information on “Finishing Well” returns 373,000,000 results and a multitude of different books with “Finishing Well” as part of the title.
Aging is also a topic of importance in the scripture.
God promises in scripture to care for us throughout our lives, even into old age. Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he; I am he who will sustain you. I have made you, and I will carry you; I will sustain you, and I will rescue you. (Isaiah 46:4)
The Book of Job recognizes the essential value of the aged. Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding? (Job 12:12)
The Psalmist recognizes the need for God and the important role of the faithful even into the later years of life. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come. (Psalm 71:18)
Evidence of the aging process is a part of life. The average life expectancy in the United States is in the vicinity of 78 years of age. Roughly 17% of the US population is 65 years or older.
The United Methodist Church of the Dunes in Grand Haven, MI, is developing a promising new ministry to connect with and share the Christian faith more effectively with older adults. The ministry specifically addressing the concerns of those who are over 55 is named “Finishing Well.” Finishing Well represents a shift for Church of the Dunes from simply happening upon work with seniors to an intentional ministry by and with older adults.
“God promises in scripture to care for us throughout our lives, even into old age.”
I was grateful to learn about this ministry from enthusiastic supporters at Church of the Dunes, current Senior Pastor Lou Grettenberger and adult ministries volunteers Susan Thorpe and Carol Leinonen.
Susan Thorpe explained that even though the active congregation regularly budgets over 50% of its staff and ministry resources for ministry with children, youth, and young families, the congregation and the wider community also have a large population of older adults. Church of the Dunes has been regularly attracting many of the residents to the Grand Haven area who are newly retired and those who are migrating to the Lake Michigan shoreline community for its quality of life. Thorpe did a demographic study of the church and discovered that the membership currently includes 101 members between the ages of 55 and 65, 83 members who are aged 66-75, and 102 members who are over the age of 75. Older adults in the final third of their life expectancy make up two-thirds of the active church membership at UMC Dunes. Rather than being depressed by these numbers, Thorpe has seen this as an important opportunity for growing intentional ministry with older adults.
Thorpe arranged for a focus group to meet over a soup supper to learn more about the specific ministry needs and desires of the church’s older adults. For her research, she made sure the group contained a male and female participant representing each decade of age from age 55 to 95. Questions were posed, such as, “What surprised you most about growing older?” “What could the church have done better, and or what do you wish you had done differently when you retired?” “Where do you go to get information about growing older?” “What would you have done differently if you could be better prepared for this stage of your life?” “What role can the church play in this stage of your life?”
During that focus group, Susan learned how many senior adults feel poorly prepared for aging and are uninformed about good existing local resources to assist them. Many dreamed of a care-free retirement only to be occupied unexpectedly with the long-term care needs of older parents dependent on their assistance. Others struggle to get by financially on diminished income and the rising expenses of aging. Many others are blessed with more time in retirement to get involved and are eager for opportunities to serve in meaningful ways. Seniors in the focus group shared about their griefs, their struggles with family and friends to deal with physical issues of aging, like Alzheimer’s.
With inspiration from the book, How to Finish the Christian Life: Following Jesus in the Second Half by George and Donald Sweeting, the Church of the Dunes leadership team developed a clear mission statement and objectives for their new “Finishing Well” ministry. Mission Statement: In this final third of our lives, the United Methodist Church of the Dunes will meet the needs in fellowship, spiritual, educational, and social areas to an aging congregation to help create a meaningful life.
” … finishing well refers to following Christ to the very end of our lives. We finish well by the grace of God.”
According to the Sweetings, finishing well refers to following Christ to the very end of our lives. We finish well by the grace of God. Six components have been identified to describe those who finish well:
- Those who finish well have a Christ-centered life.
- Those who finish well have a focused life rather than a scattered life.
- Those who finish well have disciplined lives, including prayer, fellowship, fun, service, and worship.
- Those who finish well are life-long learners and remain teachable.
- Those who finish well have a well-networked life and key relationships. You are not on this journey alone.
- Those who finish well have a lifelong perspective so that in the end, we hear our master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
An important part of the Finishing Well ministry is an annual Sacred Aging Conference that meets on a morning from 9:00 a.m. to noon. It features fellowship, refreshments, guest keynote speakers on subjects related to aging, and informative break-out learning sessions for smaller groups with leaders who are specialists on aspects of aging. The first conference was held before the coronavirus pandemic curtailed in-person gatherings. The second conference will be offered after the church can resume in-person gatherings safely.
Thorpe shared other important aspects of the Finishing Well ministry. These include organizing pop-up recreational fellowship outings, serving as an umbrella organization for other active church ministries with seniors like grief share, chair yoga, the no-name pizza group for widows and others, The Old Fogies men’s group, the ROMEO group (Retired Older Men Eating Out), and planning for small groups for learning.
Finishing Well helps connect church members seeking faithful volunteer opportunities with community groups looking for help, such as Meals on Wheels, Kids Hope USA, Foster Grandparents, SCORE, and RSVP. Finishing Well has established relationships with other community service agencies around Grand Haven that offer help for Seniors. Those agencies have begun referring seniors looking for a church home that intentionally addresses their unique needs with the message, “Check out Finishing Well at the United Methodist Church of the Dunes. They have a lot of good things going on for people our age!”