banner-gifts of aging


t chapmanIntroduction:
How the Changed Role of Twentieth Century Ministry
Has Effected Ministry and Aging

Gifts have value. Something of great value to one will to another be a curse. "Protecting and Enhancing the Gifts of Aging" is a small sticky note for those in people-caring positions -- be they professional, volunteer, by demand, or circumstance -- who are referred to generically as Ministers.

Too often obsession with nosology and efforts defining ministerial territories have created walls of divisiveness rather than respected bondaries simply defining legal, moral, and social limits and duties in the interdisciplinary care of older persons.

We tend to associate gifts with joy, and within the faith community to speak of "the gifts of the spirit" to imply some association of gifts being from God. However, Judeo/Christian heritage presents some of the first examples of gift giving without the best of outcomes.

Eve's gift to Adam--and his acceptance of it--resulted in their being kicked out of paradise. Then one of their two sons was murdered by the other because of jealousy over gifts.[1] Few gifts are gained without attracting those who would seduce, destroy, or demean the gift's value, even the value of the fruits of aging.

The following words focus on questions from a ministerial perspective for enabling older persons with the acceptance of gifts of aging. They also provide some interventions with those who would rob, destroy, manipulate or be indifferent to the gifts of aging. The view is from one who has tread the marbled corridors of government as well as from sitting on a clipboard in an unlit room so as not to sit in human droppings as the result of one of the less prized gifts of aging.

The foundation of my apologetic is for the clinical minister to have the courage to leave behind one's own world of a clarity of role and to enter the disputed and paradoxical border areas of caring for the aged to protect and enhance their gifts of hope and integrity in the dwellings and streets where the real battles over the gifts of aging are being fought. Instead of being able to find comfort, serenity, or even a clevis in the rock, we must accept the tensions of the great polarities of "gifts" to bless and/or to curse and then be prepared for confusion, paradoxical interventions, and the willingness to walk down alternative roads when we visit with someone at the crossroad of life's later transitions.

I confess that I have lost ninety percent of my learned Institutional consciousness from my thinking and so the reader needs to be aware that "ministry" in my mind is leaning on the fencepost or stopping by someone's home to listen, or, at other times, not stopping as a form of ministry. Without question, referral to "ministers" does not imply any vocational role, paid ministry, status, or influence unless noted.

For those hoping to find help in procuring a $50,000 job in Ministry or Aging, they will find little of political value in my suggestion for climbing the ladder, but the gifts of aging know no financial or social boundaries from the perspective of the gifts of the Spirit. And, while we celebrate these gifts, let us remember, "sometimes the Devil comes as a man of peace,"[2] and gifts are often are given, and stolen, by persons "of wealth and taste."[3,4]

How the Twentieth Century has Affected Ministry and Aging

Anton Boison was fond of saying that the pastor deals with three groups of people: first there are those who are capable of taking care of themselves, and will get along nicely regardless of the care the pastor gives. These people need encouragement and appreciation. Second, there are those who will become progressively worse regardless of the care and attention the pastor can offer them, and who will not profit by anything the Pastor does for them because they don't want to be helped. These people need patience and resistance to being manipulated and exploited. Third, there are those who stand at the crossroads and the outcome of their lives will be largely determined by the pastors' patient efforts in ministry to them. These people need intensive attention at (these) crucial moments of teachability.[5]

Fundamental to the formative paradigm in depth psychology is an emphasis on death and the continuity of life.[6] (See Author's Endnote[7] )

In the history of American music, within the genre' of the "Blues", one will encounter a Mr. Robert Johnson (b. 1911)[8] whom some call "the father of modern rock and roll."[9] Johnson was born into the creative chaos of an evolving America that followed a timeline of social ferment parallel to what we have come to call "Pastoral Care."

Johnson's life was truly a "living human document"[10] written by the unknown inner forces of a traveling minstrel where a lengthy stay may have been two weeks before moving on down the road; often at the encouragement of an outraged husband or club owner who discovered that Mr. Johnson had taken a few more of the gifts from the community than initially offered.

The twentieth century's clinical and professional world also had many persons emerge from a history of poverty, depression, war, and less than functional families; yet, these emerging clinical professions: chaplaincy, social work, psychology, and others, tended to focus their search for identity rooted mainly in academic and medical environments that were attempting to classify and give a language of understanding to what was happening with, and within, persons in the context of the upheavals of the age.

Robert Johnson's world was not safe, nor was it one that yielded itself to finding the support of other musicians or institutional environments in which to have his role defined for him. There was a good deal of sharing and comradeship among aspiring musicians, but when someone came up with a style particularly appreciated by those in subterranean jook joints, their "gifts" of personal style were open season for stealing by other musicians. It was not unusual for musicians to turn to the side or turn their backs to the audience when they were playing "their" technique for getting "their" sound.[11] This unwillingness to share the "secret gifts" is still present in our clinical worlds and the gap is growing wider as the competition for institutional funding becomes tighter.

During his travels and travails Johnson arrived in Greenwood, Mississippi, in August 1938. He had come to the area believing he was ready for the next upward transition in his music. The focus for nearly all of Johnson's life had been on finding the magic revelation in playing the guitar that would take him off the dirt roads of the music world to playing in the profitable clubs of the cities and in making more records than the few he had made. In short, while still seeking that secret chord he still believed he had "come of age."

Little did he know this was to be the last "gig" in his aging process. While ready to embrace the gifts aging, he did not know he already had found "his" sound for he could not hear it himself. Other musicians of note already knew of this young genius with the guitar. Son House, a gifted giant of the "blues," had said Johnson had to have " … sold his soul to play like that."[12]

However, the owner of a jookhouse where Johnson had been playing near an obscure crossroad known as "Three Forks," at the junction of Highways 82 and 49E, took little mind of this skill and ended Robert Johnson's life because of Johnson's distractions from his vocation to accept some of the gifts the bar owner's wife had presented Mr. Johnson.

Even today, hopeful guitar players will make a pilgrimage to Mississippi hoping for some magic to happen to receive the "Gift" identified with the playing of Robert Johnson. It is still part of American mythology that if you go to the crossroad at midnight, there will be a man dressed in black, who will tune your instrument and point to the right road for you to take; for a price.

The major difference in the theological underpinnings of the story of Robert Johnson and that of the ministry and the gifts of aging as seen through the eyes of clinical and theological microscopes is that it has long been an understanding deep in the history of the American black community that gifted musicians, speakers, and other potent figures could be in possession of their gifts because of deals made with Satan rather than as gifts from God.

Many "ministers" have traveled various roads seeking to be blessed with a secret gift for ministry assuming that these gifts were from God. In counseling sessions with me for their own conflicts, many in clinical ministries have expressed how their gifts of life's transitions had been taken away (usually blamed on a spouse) while sacrificing their lives for the processes of clinical education. And, in our present discussion on aging, unless one of the few ministers whose clinical journey took them into the land of older persons, not only did those in training for clinical ministry miss the sense of receiving their own gifts during the aging process because of the demands of seeking the holy grails of their clinical ordination, they were so consumed by their own story that they had little time for being in touch with what was happening in the lives of persons in the "real world."

It is no surprise then, that clinical ministerial education has at times found itself out of touch with older persons, for we as ministers had little idea of being aware of the experiences of those growing old as we were staring so intently at the tree in front of us and we were missing out on what was happening in the life of the forest. (There was also for me an awareness of concerns that were purloining the joy's of my life's transitions as my own clinical education took place with military troops in the city, thoughts of precious friends on little sorties in the vacation destination of Vietnam and experiencing the death of my only child), but this focus surely could not color any of my comments to follow?


Where the Sidewalk Begins

Little or no spiritual interpretation, comradeship, or pageantry is provided the retiring person by the fellowship of faith, whether that fellowship be liturgical or non-liturgical. Little wonder is it that the faith of many after retirement is replaced by disgust and despair.-- Wayne E. Oates [13]

For many centuries those with theological positions dominated the interpretation of human feelings and actions, and then they began to be squeezed from the role of the interpreters of human relations by the influx of the various forms of psychological interventions that in the institutions seemed more "rational" because they were offered by "scientific" medical doctors with much of the creative critical mass of the reactor being from European immigrants where whatever path followed at some point reached a crossroad with Freud. It was only in the later decades of the century that the highways of Eastern philosophies came into our thinking about the developmental and aging processes. These various pathways of thought led one of the most theologically oriented psychiatrists, Karl Menninger, to proclaim Whatever Became of Sin, [14] which I see as another way of asking, "Where are the ministers and theologians in the lives of persons in crisis?"

So, one of the foundations relating to the ministerial understandings of the spiritual aspects of aging is that, while it is essential to clinical ministry to be proficient with such instruments as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), Kaplan and Saddock's (texts on psychiatry),[16] or the International classification of diseases,[17] we who have wandered--by choice or mistake--down the roads of clinical ministry or aging, only to recognize that one of the hindrances to the ministerial care of older persons has not been our responsibility as such but the absence of specific courses of training in theological education in ministry with older person with the exception of the issues of death and a few opportunities for ministry with healthy and active older persons who were active in traditional religious institutional settings.

Knowledge of the DSM also seems incomplete without a passing understanding of Theodore Millon's, Disorders of Personality,[19] which seems to me to be somewhat theological in nature, but I have found few clinical caregivers who are aware of, much less proficient with, its contents and perspectives applicable in aging or ministry. Once again we owe Wayne Oates our gratitude for his Behind the Masks,[20] in which he translates Millon's perspectives of those whom we in ministry are more likely to encounter. Both volumes carry with them a sense of songs from the road like those garnered from life in the form of a Robert Johnson song who saw the lives of those he met at the crossroads as he listened to the stories of their particular chosen path and of the lessons they had learned along the way.

Therefore, it is with celebration that from the view of ministry and aging that I celebrate the cross-disciplines in clinical circles between the aging community and clinical ministry. The one area in which I see a present concern is in money expended by institutions of aging research and ministerial training for faculty level positions representing both areas of expertise. Yet I hear the words in my head in this thought of how this money may, as Bob Dylan has said, make us aware that "money doesn't talk it curses."

One of the major blocks to ministry with older persons is a lack of the teaching institutions of ministry and aging at the upper levels of education which needs to place persons in ministerial training in aging situations akin to the life of a Robert Johnson and allow them to seek their own sound and roads that they may experience that not every gift of being older is experienced as a gift from God.

In other words, we need a return to a clinical education in form more like unto that of Anton Boisen and the creative incomprehensibility and tensions of early Clinical Pastoral Education. The other side is that of following the lead of Wayne Oates who created relationships with professionals in the field of mental health rather than waiting until he met some man in black to bless him and point him on the right road.

I personally know of three clinical centers for aging in and around Kentucky, and something of eight accredited seminaries in my area of America which need a visible "Aging" faculty, which is most likely going to be a battle carried by the clinical ministerial community because of governmental de-funding[21] of aging programs making it next to impossible to create such positions for poorer states as my own Kentucky.[22,23]


For Those Who Would Minister to Older Persons:
Real Threats to the Gifts of Aging.


  1. The gift of Social Security.

  2. The gift of being financially secures.

  3. The gift of self-acceptance

  4. The gift of spiritual growth and peace concerning death (as different from dying)

  5. Lifelong friends.

  6. Medicare (As relates to issues such as doctors being willing to provides samples of medications).

  7. Lessons from which we have learned positive changes of behavior.[24]

  8. Freedom of Travel.

  9. Time to relate with children, grandchildren, new friends.

  10. To rest physically and emotionally.

I stop with ten gifts of a positive nature for my list reached over 100 in the similar manner that my list of threats to the gifts of aging kept pace. The minister should take time to make such lists for themselves and to develop ideas with themselves and in discussions with others. Most importantly, the point of my note has been to encourage the creative dialogue between aging and ministerial professionals to develop written interventions of all forms and nature by which they can help others, and themselves, to enhance and protect the gifts of aging.


  1. "Hey, Mom's getting Social Security now, let's go live with her."

  2. Crimes against persons over age 65 significantly higher.[25]

  3. Personality disorder with chronic despair.

  4. Paralysis of life, depression in face of aging and death.

  5. Death of friends.

  6. Theft of medications by home workers, family, & other visitors.

  7. Removal from certain activities because of being "old."

  8. Loss of skills in driving in today's increased traffic numbers and speed.

  9. Death of children, especially of those upon whom one is dependent financially.

  10. A world addicted to speed.

These are simple examples and though the list may be long, the answer for the ministering person is also simple. In a time when time is becoming so limited for caring, most threats to the gifts of aging come from the fear of facing the threats alone. This means redeveloping the art and gift of visitation. Not the art of "hit & run" visitation, but that of time to listen and ask the questions of need and to laugh with those who may not have laughed in a year. In doing so we should keep in mind Thomas Merton's thought of how, "We do not respect the living and fruitful contradictions and paradoxes of which true life is full. We destroy them, with our obsessive and absurd systematizations."[26]

Though it be by coincidence, I was struck by this conference on the gifts of aging to be following a conference on Finding a Common Language (held by the Wayne E. Oates Institute in Fall 2001).[27] The common language is that we are all growing older, will face times of great crisis and of joy and then we will die. However, it is my prayer that we find ways to keep the bullies at bay-all the while including that we do not become one of the pack pursuing the gifts attained by older persons, for in my own declining powers, I do not know who I will become and I look to God that it will not be me who becomes a betrayer of other's gifts, but I know I don't know what will happen.



Thomas Chapman, M.Div., has been a pastoral counselor for more than 30 years, with an emphasis on rural ministry and ministry with older persons. He was the first paid, full-time State Executive Director of the Association of Older Kentuckians. He has been a frequent presenter and trainer on the Challenges of Aging for Caregivers, Depression and Older Persons, and Working with Older Persons with Mental Health Issues. He edited A Practical Handbook for Ministry from the Writings of Wayne E. Oates, published by Westminster/John Knox Press.



  1. Genesis
  2. Dylan, Bob.
  3. Jagger, Mick, and Richards, Keith, Sympathy for the Devil, etc.
  4. This is the basic message and the casual reader might as well stop here. I just want those who do ministry with older persons to realize that at times they must at times fight to hold onto their gifts.
  5. Oates, Wayne, The Christian Pastor, Third Edition, Westminster Press, 1980, page 135.
  6. Lifton, Robert Jay, The Life of the Self, Toward a New Psychology, Harper, Basic Books, 1976, page 29.
  7. The author presents this quote not so much as to present his appreciation of the work of Robert Coles, but to make sure to get the word PARADIGM into this paper that seems to be an essential password if a presentation is to be accepted as legitimate. The only more potent phrase would have been one saying something about the SHIFTING PARADIGM of something and to have made sure that the same sentence used the term PROACTIVE to seal the deal. I have failed in doing this within this paper and wanted to warn the reader in case they would like to exit this reading and to get on to those papers where they may find comfort in HOLISTIC environments.
  8. Page 1, http// .
  9. ______, Page 1.
  10. Boisen, Anton.
  11. Internet Johnson.
  12. Deltahaze, p 2 of Legacy.
  13. Oates, Wayne E., "The Leap of Faith and the Transitions of Life", The Seventh Annual John Sutherland Bonnell Lectureship in Pastoral Psychology, Sunday, November 12, 1972, p. 9.
  14. Menninger, Karl, Whatever Became of Sin?
  15. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  16. Kaplan, Benjamin J. and Saddock, Virginia A. on psychiatric treatments.
  17. Classification, later to somewhat merge in at least classifications in DSM parenthetically included the parallel number fro the classification of diseases which came as much from pressure from insurance and the politics of care than from a desire to become coordinated in clear language between the professions.
  18. A personal opinion that the number one complaint of older person's whatever my role, was a lack of visitation by their minister. This was a major aspect of ministry until the Twentieth Century, especially following World War II, when an awareness of a need for better-trained chaplains became apparent and was hammered in by the Korean and Vietnam "conflicts."
  19. Millon, Disorders of personality
  20. Oates, Wayne, Behind the Masks
  21. See paper and note will argue differently as money may increase, but services cut and mainly for staff retirement than new services. If one believes ministry has low pay, talk with those who have been in Aging for forty years. A good place to start. Is to go to talk with directors of Area Agencies on aging. I see one of the first positions to be axed by Hospice if it loses governmental funding to be ministerial and is why ministers should carry the burden of creating experiences of training for experience in life ministry, not just institutional.
  22. If you seek vocational ministry in aging, seek out the larger churches in the wealthier states or if so called to work in aging, adjust your lifestyle to that of the older person's to whom governmental programs serve.
  23. There is also a general suspiciousness of certified, purified, ordained, clinicized, doctorized and religisized persons in the open field, but openings exist if one keeps looking. There is also at times a problem in rural, poorer, or immigrant groups where "educated" ministers have usually been "Gift givers" and therefore seen as having motives not just for the person, but also may be one of the long line of those who would save us from our perceived difficult life or for not fitting our religious worship into mainstream Christianity.
  24. Erik Erikson's, "Wisdom" of his epigenetic approach.
  25. Bureau of Justice Statistics of Crimes, 1992-1997,, 1/23/02.
  26. Merton, Thomas, Introduction to A Thomas Merton Reader.
  27. Oates Institute, etc.



Copyright © 2002, Wayne E. Oates Institute. All rights reserved.