Providing Purpose & Meaning For Older Congregants Through Volunteerism

Last month, I spent a Saturday volunteering a shift at my church’s thrift shop located in the basement of our church building. While I primary work with volunteers as a district executive with the Boy Scouts of America, spending time just being a volunteer for my church or other local non-profit organizations has been rewarding for me.

For any church or non-profit organization, it’s the volunteers who truly make a difference in their communities. And what has amazed me through my work with the Boy Scouts of America and through my work in ministry is not only the volunteers I have met who’ve spent decades volunteering for organizations which are most dear to them. But older adult volunteers who devote themselves to making a difference in their community.

One of the volunteers at my church whom I got to know last month was an older woman who has been a member in my congregation for many years. While in her late 70s, I was amazed by not only the hours she spends collecting donations of household and clothing items which our church then sells to help fund our different ministries. But I was amazed that despite her health challenges, she still had a passion for making a difference in the lives of others.

“For me, volunteering is what keeps my spirits up,” she told me as we spent a shift working in our church thrift store together pricing items. “As a widow, I would just find myself feeling lonely if I am home alone all day. That is why I just try to keep active as much as I can.”

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), 1 in 3 volunteers are 55 years or older. And in 2012, 20 million seniors volunteered nearly 3 billion hours that year. CNCS also found the percentage of volunteers who are seniors has steadily increased over the last decade (up six points – from 25.1% in 2002 to 31.2% in 2011). Nearly three-quarters (72.4%) are volunteering informally by doing favors for and helping out their neighbors, seven points higher than the national average.

While volunteering gives older adults the ability to give back to their community, there are also numerous other benefits for older adults who decide to volunteer.

First, volunteering allows older adults to bridge gaps with younger adults. This is something which is particularly important and needed in our faith communities.  Younger adults often volunteer to build resumes and fulfill community hours and this gives older adults the opportunity to find common interests with their younger counterparts.

One of the ways I had the opportunity to see this done is through my work while in AmeriCorps. One of the outreach programs our AmeriCorps program operated was a community house in New Castle, Pennsylvania, a town which struggled with poverty due to the fall of the steel industry in the 1980s. While our community house (called the I-Care House) had a multitude of college students from Slippery Rock University (where our AmeriCorps program was based) we also had a lot of older adults who were seeking to give back to their community by volunteering at the I-Care House. What was a remarkable experience was seeing college students working side by side older adults as they read stories, served meals, and tutored local children after school. This provided older adults the opportunity to be engaged with younger generations while giving young adults the opportunity to learn and share passions with older adults.

The second benefit for seniors to volunteer is that it prevents isolation and promotes physical activity.  This is an issue with a lot of older congregants.

A few years ago while serving as a church intern, I had the opportunity to not only learn preaching and pastoral care skills, but I also had the opportunity to work with that congregation’s many older adult volunteers. What amazed me was the effort and energy they gave to the church and its various ministries. From serving as deacons to serving meals to those who struggled with homelessness, most of the older adult volunteers served well over 25 hours a week. For these older adults, volunteering allowed them to be engaged while giving them the opportunity to have a social community—something which is especially needed for older adults who live alone and struggle with feeling isolated.

The third and final benefit for seniors to volunteer is that it gives seniors the opportunity to make a difference in their community and in their world.

“As our nation’s older population rapidly grows, we have a tremendous opportunity to unleash the power of older volunteers on our most pressing problems,” says Dr. Erwin Tan, Director of Senior Corps at CNCS.

When I was a district executive for the Boy Scouts of America, I found myself amazed at the talents and skills older adults gained in their former careers. From volunteers who spent their lives working in finance, business, social work, ministry and teaching, the skills and knowledge older adults have can be a tremendous impact for non-profit organizations and ministries. And most importantly, volunteering allows older adults to have a feeling of worthiness and meaning in retirement.

This past summer I had the opportunity to work with a volunteer during our summer camp program who happens to be a retired school teacher. While this particular woman has been retired for over ten years, she told me that being able to work with kids fulfills her passion in making a difference in the lives of youth now that she is outside the classroom.

“Children is what drove my career for over 20 years as a teacher,” she told me. “And for me to continue to make a difference in their lives of kids gives me passion and meaning as a retiree.”
For those of us in non-profit, community, and ministerial leadership, there is a great need to seek older adults who can be part of our organizations as volunteers. There is a tremendous great deal of skills, gifts, and passions older adults have that can help fulfill our organization’s mission.

However, more importantly, reaching out to older adults to become volunteers gives them the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others in their community and in their neighborhoods. While this opportunity will make a difference in the lives of those we serve, it also makes a difference in the lives of those who are volunteering—giving older adults meaning, value, and purpose. Like young adults, older adults need to feel valued and needed. And for anyone, regardless of whether there are older or younger adults, volunteering provides feelings of self-worth and value.

“I am here for God to use me,” this member of my church told me as we marked donated items to sell. “Being given the opportunity to serve gives me the opportunity to have a purpose.”

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