The inception of the Wisdom Years ministry came out of a two-year course in which Marjorie George participated at Oblate seminary in San Antonio in 2019 and 2020. The course – titled Forest Dwelling – recognized that in their later years, people experience an increased longing and deepening of their spiritual lives.
Father Ron Rolheiser of Oblate Seminary began to recognize that as increasing numbers of people live longer – long after retirement years due to advances in medical science – the Church has no mechanism to meet the spiritual challenges of their advancing years. “We lack a spirituality, a practical understanding and virtually any program for the last stage of life,” says Rolheiser. “Consequently, by and large, all our efforts are about extending our generative and productive years as long as possible. Deep down we have an instinctive sense of where we should be going, but because we have no articulation for it, no communal structure and vision for it, and no place to turn to develop it, we often lack the vision, courage, and support to do anything radical.”
That rang as a clarion call for George, who had spent 20 years serving as the communications officer for the Episcopal Diocese of west Texas and had studied spiritual formation at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin.
George slowly gathered a small group of older adults who also felt the same call to address the spiritual needs of adults in the last third of their lives.
As this small group gathered periodically to discern a way forward, the opportunity arose to present a workshop at the Diocesan Council in February 2020. Astonishly,150 people from about half of the congregations attending Council responded and attended the workshop, affirming the felt need for an intentional path of spiritual formation for those in their later years.
The next steps for the wisdom years ministry were to have been a series of regional workshops around the diocese that would present models and methods for congregations to implement their own ministries with, by, and for older adults.
And then COVID 19 hit and forced the diocese and congregations to eliminate in-person gatherings.
After a few months, as the persistence of COVID became clear, the Wisdom Years group wondered if older adults could be brought together using Zoom online capabilities. In September 2020, the first workshop – “Pilgrims Together in the Last Third of Life” – was offered by Zoom and drew 22 people. Results were extremely positive, and the after-the-event survey showed that older adults could indeed adapt to Zoom.
In late September, the Wisdom Years ministry offered its first online book study using The Gift of Years by Joan Chittister. Participants each bought the book and read it on their own, then gathered weekly to discuss it in small groups using Zoom. Organizers provided questions for reflection and discussion each week. Twenty-seven people from 15 different congregations participated in the 10-week study. In the follow-up survey, participants said the most valuable component of the study was the companionship and community it offered; most had been separated by the pandemic from their churches, their friends, and their families for several months.
The next book study was in November 2020 using Parker Palmer’s On the Brink of Everything. By now participants came from five different dioceses and represented 19 different congregations.
After November, the intention was to take a break until Lent, but participants pleaded to continue. So organizers put together a three-week Epiphany study beginning in January 2021 on “Taking Another Way Home.” It was based on the wisdom of the Magi and the call to consider how the spiritual journey expands and changes in the later years of life. Each week, participants were given a poem or reading to engage before the weekly gathering, then meet for small group discussion.
The next study begins February 4, 2021, as a pre-Lent/Lenten study on the topic of forgiveness. In previous post-study surveys, the topic of forgiveness has been one of the most requested for future studies. The eight-week study will look at readings from a variety of contemporary theologians which participants will engage with on their own before the weekly gatherings. The goal of this study is to offer a breadth and depth of the understanding of forgiveness as being essential to the spiritual journey, particularly for older adults. Rather than giving participants answers, the study will encourage them to assess their own life experience and discern where and how God is calling them to forgiveness of themselves and others.
While these online gatherings are developing, the Wisdom Years website is also expanding. The website is the repository of resources such as a bibliography of books and recommended e-courses, podcasts, and bloggers. All of the material and suggestions are focused on the spirituality of the last third of life.
Weekly, the Gathered Wisdom newsletter is sent to about 90 website subscribers. It is a collection of articles, essays, poems, available e-courses and other recommendations pertinent to older adults.
The Wisdom Years ministry is highly organic, developing in response to the discerned and expressed spiritual needs of older adults. Organizers continue to read the available literature on the spirituality of older adults and assess how it might be applied to the work of the ministry. Naturally, the ministry is adapting as it grows. One significant learning from 2020 has been the value of Zoom technology. For older adults, Zoom offers a way to deepen spirituality and companionship with others of their age without having to leave their homes. It introduces older adults to the wisdom of others outside of their own parochial settings and invites them to invest their time in spiritual practices of contemplation, prayer, and study.
Submitted to The Episcopal Diocese of West Texas by Marjorie George, consultant to Adult Christian Formation, Episcopal Diocese of West Texas.