Jane Kuepfer: Spiritual Resources to Sustain You in the Second Half of Life

                What spiritual resources have sustained you over your life and which ones will sustain you as you get older?

          This question was the focus of an important study carried out by the Rev. Dr. Jane Kuepfer and represented the central research question for her PhD dissertation. Kuepfer’s research was carried out with a group of first-wave Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1955. All had grown up in relatively homogenous southern Ontario and were steeped in the post WWII values of hard work, loyalty and the importance of family and community. All had grown up in the church, although from different denominations, and a few no longer attended church. Many have accessed a variety of resources to meet their spiritual needs, including counseling, spiritual direction, contemplative practice, retreats, life-coaching, support groups, and holistic healthcare, in addition to the more traditional religious practices like Sunday worship, prayer, and Bible study.

While the people in the study employed a diversity of spiritual resources, including some of the more traditional resources, Kuepfer discovered three themes that consistently emerged: Self or living intentionally and with self-care (Inner Resources), Someone (Relational Resources), and Space (Environmental Resources which referred to both physical space and the spaciousness of time). Among these Boomers there was found to be an openness to differences, more reliance on self and on written sources other than the Bible, an interest in reading and conversation as spiritual resources, a desire to continue learning (especially about spirituality), and changes in rituals, particularly as these relate to funerals. Kuepfer’s findings will definitely be of benefit to anyone seeking to provide spiritual care in seniors residences, nursing homes and the local faith community.

Can you relate to Kuepfer’s conclusions? Where have you found spiritual sustenance in your life to date and where do you expect to find the spiritual resources you will need as you enter the third and fourth quarters of your life? I would love to hear from you!

What did Protestant Baby Boomers Do for Lent When They Were Kids?

Okay, if you grew up Protestant, especially in the Reformed tradition, back during the decades of the Baby Boom, what did you do for Lent? Many of us went to Church and Sunday School back then because it was the thing that one did. But do any of you remember doing anything special for Lent? I can remember my Catholic friends having to give something up for the six weeks leading to Easter, often candy or desserts, but sometimes a favourite TV show. And although it wasn’t Lent, I remember my Jewish school chums also celebrating a very special meal called Passover, which often seemed to coincide with our Easter. But for the life of me, I cannot remember doing anything during the Season of Lent at the United Church where I grew up in the sixties and early seventies.

          In the last twenty-five to thirty years, our Protestant churches have tried to introduce practices that would highlight this important season in our Church year. We have used Lenten candle liturgies with our children in worship, a kind of reverse Advent candle liturgy. (Come to think of it, we didn’t have Advent wreaths when I was growing up either!) Instead of lighting a candle for every week, you snuff one out until you finally come to Good Friday when all the candles are snuffed out, symbolizing the death of Christ.

          Nowadays many of us crave more ritual and spiritual practices in our day to day lives. Ritual helps to ground us and connect us more deeply to one another and to our faith. Today we have Shrove Tuesday Pancake Suppers, Ash Wednesday Services, Lenten devotions and of course one or two special services during Holy Week. But when I was a kid I don’t even remember having a Good Friday service. For that matter, we did not celebrate Christmas Eve either.

          So what did we do? Does anyone remember? I would love to hear from you!

It’s Family Day! Boomers Burning the Candle at Both Ends Need to Take Time for Family and Themselves

          Today is Family Day in Canada. It is still a relatively new holiday here, but a good reminder that we need to take some time to dedicate to the nurture of our family. It is also a welcome break in the middle of a bitterly cold, snowy albeit mostly sunny winter. Of course we should take time every day to honour our families and those who are close to our hearts.

          Unfortunately, this has been a lesson that many Baby Boomers have learned the hard way. Throughout our lives we have worked extremely long hours, often sacrificing our families on the altar of career advancement. This is especially true of those who entered the ministry.

For example, in my own life, one of the things I have struggled with is the belief that I can do it all. When I entered theological college in the late seventies, women were just beginning to flood the previously male-dominated seminary halls, and this, even though the first time a woman was ordained in the United Church of Canada occurred some forty years earlier when Lydia Gruchy was ordained in 1936. Few Canadians realize that for nearly thirty years thereafter only single women could be ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacraments. I still remember the older female colleague who called on me one day to congratulate me on my recent ordination and to see my new baby. My heart broke as she told me that when she was ordained back in the mid-1950s she had to choose between getting married and having a family or going into full-time ordained ministry. My generation of women, on the other hand, had been given choices that had never been available to her. That said, because the doors now seemed to open wide to me and my sisters in ministry, many of us believed we could do it all and have it all — a full-time ministry in the church and a family — and we nearly killed ourselves in the process!

Moreover, because we were still trying to prove that we could minister just as effectively as our male counterparts, we often burnt the candle at both ends. To this day, I profoundly regret a decision I made to leave my two-year-old daughter and her three-week-old baby brother to take part in a three-day meeting several hours from where we lived. While I had a wonderfully supportive husband and a dear friend who loved the children as her own, my place in those early days should have been at home enjoying this precious time with my little ones. I would like to say that I learned my lesson by the time my two younger sons were born, but that would not be true. I was still trying to keep up with the guys!

 The good news is that in the last few years I have witnessed real changes taking place in the lives of my younger colleagues, male, female and transgender, who have better personal boundaries when it comes to protecting their family time.

I still have a lot of improvement to make with regard to establishing healthy boundaries to protect my time with my family. But this is a start. That’s why I plan to enjoy Family Day today with my loved ones. I hope you will too!

Using Ritual in Covid Times to Connect the Generations and Make Meaning Together

          In recent years I have been fascinated by the work of Rabbi Richard Address of Jewish Sacred Aging and his colleagues as they have explored questions around the role and value of ritual in older adult relationships. For many years anthropologists have believed that ritual is not only important to mark significant transitions in life, but also as way to create meaning and help people better understand who they are.

          One of the pioneers in the field of ritual, especially as it relates to people in later life, is the late cultural anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff. In summarizing Myerhoff’s research, Sherylyn Briller and Andrea Sankar note that Myerhoff felt that “rituals are important in daily life because they carry a basic message of ‘order, continuity, and predictability.’ It is precisely their predictable and repetitive nature that gives them their power.”[1]

          In times of change when life is more uncertain, rituals help to provide people with a connection to their past, while supporting them as they navigate transitions. Rituals offer stability and help people to make sense of their world.

          I can think of no time that is in more need of a sense of stability and continuity than the present. As we live through the Covid-19 pandemic, we need practices and people we can count on. We need the gift of ritual in our lives and this is especially true for our older adults.

          My friend Catherine sees her 92-year-old mother several times a week, often picking up prescriptions for her or various items she might need from the grocery store. But one activity in particular that both mother and Baby Boomer daughter look forward to each week is brunch on Sunday morning. That’s when they sit and watch their church’s worship service, which is broadcast on their community television station.  Catherine says that this is much better than watching the service on one’s own, which can sometimes feel more like a spectator sport. As she observes, this is an “immersive” experience for them where they actually get to participate in worship. Catherine brings a lovely meal along with some delicious home baking and together they share good food, good conversation and a time of worship – something that in pre-Covid days they had enjoyed doing together when communities of faith were allowed to gather in person.

          This wonderful weekly ritual gives them both grounding during what has been a difficult and tumultuous year. It brings them together through a shared experience that is both meaningful and life-giving. What’s more: they have fun together!


[1] Briller, Sherylyn, and Andrea Sankar. “The Changing Roles of Ritual in Later Life.” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging 35, no. 3 (2011): 6-10. Accessed February 7, 2021. doi:10.2307/26555787.

Beliefs That Guide Us Through Life

Thanks to Rev. Kevin Steeper for referring me to a new book on retirement written by Bruce G. Epperly, a Process theologian whose writings I have followed for some time: The Jubilee Years. Embracing Clergy Retirement. Although my own book on retirement, ReDesigning Your Life. A Practical Spirituality for the Second Half of Life, takes a more applied or hands-on approach to preparing for retirement, including discussion topics centered in scripture and exercises for small groups, we cover many of the same themes. What I love about this scholarly although very accessible work by Epperly is that it grounds the discussion in our theology. Not surprising since Epperly, among his many accomplishments, has taught theology at the university level.

Chapter two of Epperly’s book is appropriately titled “Theological Guideposts.” He begins with a wonderful quote from his longtime friend, retired United Church of Canada minister George Hermanson, whom many of us remember from his years as innovative Director of Five Oaks in Paris, Ontario. Advising clergy who are about to retire, Hermanson writes: “Get a theology. My theology has enabled me to see retirement as a time of possibility and hope. Without a theology, you don’t have a roadmap for the adventure ahead.”

This may seem rather odd counsel when so much of the retirement literature focusses on finances and health care concerns or planning for winters in the south — when the borders open up again and for those who can afford it. But as Epperly observes, “Theology provides light on our pathway and enables us to face life’s challenges with hope and grace. Theology helps us to respond to new possibilities along with the necessary losses and ‘unfixables’ of the aging process.” In his own life, Epperly has found Lamentations 3:22-23 to be a helpful resource for his personal and professional life and believes these verses will serve him well in retirement too. You may remember that it is from these lines that we get the wonderful hymn: “Great is thy Faithfulness.”

I wonder. What is the foundational theology or belief that has guided you throughout your life? And how can this continue to bring you hope and faith as you journey through the second half or even final third of your life, including retirement? As a young person I memorized many scripture passages that have stayed with me my whole life long. One which I bring to mind whenever I am facing a new or challenging and possibly anxious or disquieting situation is from Psalm 56:3: “What time I am afraid I will trust in Thee.” Of course, in those days we still used the King James Version of the bible; however, the meaning is the same in the New Revised Standard version. It just sounds less poetic!

As I anticipate retirement sometime in the next decade, I am filled with apprehension. Will I have enough money to retire? Will I be healthy enough to enjoy the things I still want to do in life? More importantly, how will I find meaning and purpose and friendship when so much of these life-giving treasures have come to me through my work in congregational ministry?

Over the coming weeks I will explore these and other themes dealt with by Epperly, whose book I hope you will read. Although aimed primarily at clergy, there is much here to commend to Boomers from all walks of life.

Are We Being Good Ancestors?

As we live through yet another wave of Covid-19 and face new variants of the disease, I am reminded of another period in our history which put fear into the hearts of many of our parents and grandparents back in the 1940’s and 1950’s: the polio epidemic. My family knew children who died from this dreaded disease and many of us have had friends who have had to live with its life changing and often devastating effects.

I was reminded of this when I read a recent CBC newsletter forwarded to me by a member my congregation. (Thanks, Maria!) Author Nicole Mortillaro builds on the research of philosopher Roman Krznaric, who recently published the book The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term ThinkingQuoting Krznaric, Mortillaro notes that Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine back in the 1950’s, was also very concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In a warning he issued to his fellow world citizens, Salk asked an important  question, “Are we being good ancestors?”

This is a good question for us Boomers and older adults too. “Are we being good ancestors?” This is true of so many areas of our lives, but nowhere is the question more urgent than as it relates to the current climate crisis.

Mortillaro outlines how the First Nations’ understanding on decision making is something we urgently need to employ. Indigenous cultures around the world always keep one question before them: how will their present decisions and actions affect those living seven generations in the future? In other words, what sort of legacy are we bequeathing to our children and grandchildren and their great-great-great-great grandchildren? “Are we being good ancestors?” More importantly, what kind of world are we leaving to them and how can we bequeath to them a healthier world by changing how we live now?

I hope you will read Mortillaro’s essay. As Baby Boomers many of us have enjoyed a remarkably affluent lifestyle, filled with far more stuff than we need, while others in our land and in the world have suffered untold misery and poverty. It is time we found ways to cut back so that others today can have the essentials that we take for granted – and so that future generations may simply have life period!

A “Senior’s Moment” or a Normal Brain Function?

They say that you know you are getting older when you stand in front of the open refrigerator door, asking life’s most profound theological question: “What am I here for?”

I have to confess that I do this sort of thing all the time. I will head off to some part of the house looking for something and then, by the time I get there, I cannot remember why I came. My daughter always says, “Mom, this is concerning!”

Or is it? I recently read a piece by John Valters Paintner in which he talks about doing this very same thing. He says that, interestingly, current scientific theory suggests that this may not simply be a “senior’s moment”, but rather a very normal part of brain function. In a book that he co-writes with his partner, Caroline Valters Painter, The Soul’s Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred, he writes:

When we walk across a threshold, a door or other barrier of some kind, our subconscious minds recognize that we are going from one environment to another. To prepare us for the possible dangers of a new space, our brains do a quick short-term memory dump in order to free up more active cerebral computing space so we can more quickly adapt and react to whatever we encounter….You aren’t losing your mind. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that allowed your ancestors to survive and you to be here now.

Don’t you just love that! That’s going to be my response going forward whenever any of my kids tease me about my “senior’s moments!”

Satisfying Retirement means being “Just Rushed Enough!”

Back in 1994, Wade Clark Roof wrote the following about Baby Boomers:  “We are all leading lives of quiet desperation.”

Similar findings were noted by Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby, whose studies over a lifetime have shown that, while Canadian Baby Boomers made significant advances over their parents in terms of educational achievement and standard of living, there has been little or no correlation in terms of increased happiness. The primary challenge for them, he found, has to do with the issues of “purpose in life.” Seeking to make a difference in their communities, Boomers have always invested large amounts of time and energy into their work.

Now that a large number of Boomers have retired or are soon to retire, the question of meaning takes on even greater significance. As many retirement coaches have observed, retired Boomers often struggle with too much leisure time on their hands, even though they had for many years looked longingly for a life without the long hours, harried schedules, and heavy demands of their jobs. Indeed, one of the biggest problems retired Boomers face, now that their lives are not defined by the job, is what to do with all the ‘unstructured time’ retirement brings?

This is why an article by Derek Thompson in this month’s The Atlantic, caught my eye: “How Civilization Broke Our Brains”.  Quoting researcher and sociologist John P. Robinson, who reviewed more than forty years of happiness, he discovered that genuine happiness is not a life without stress, as much as we may often complain about not having enough time to do everything we need to do and feeling ‘too rushed.’ The real cause of most discontent is the absence of any schedule. As Robinson says, “Happiness means being just rushed enough.”

Thompson quotes a recent Pew Research Center survey in which people were asked about the secret to happiness. Interestingly, of the people who responded to the survey, who by the way were of all ages, most “ranked ‘a job or career they enjoy’ above marriage, children, or any other committed relationship. Careerism, not community, is the keystone in the arch of life.”

Thompson then goes on to review a new book by James Suzman, Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time. It is worth the read. But for now I would like to invite you to consider the points raised above. Is it possible, for example, that the very thing many western people dream of – Freedom 55 – may not actually be the answer to but in fact the cause of the anomie from which a large number of Boomers suffer? Could it be, moreover, as Robinson asserts, that “happiness means being just rushed enough” and that the secret to a satisfying retirement is to structure time and energy into projects that bring both meaning and purpose? And, finally, what does it mean to be “just rushed enough”?

Retirement as Reformation and Jubilation!

Happy New Year, Friends! The past year was certainly one like we have never experienced before! But hopefully, with a new vaccine available to fight the deadly Covid-19 disease, we can look forward to better days down the road in 2021! I hope to make more appearances on this webpage too. (Covid-19 meant that I had to direct much of my time and attention to other pastoral matters!)

At the moment I am in the process of planning two webinars for retired — or soon to be retired — clergy. One of my colleagues, Rev. Kevin Steeper, who is part of the planning team and on the staff of our local United Church of Canada region, recently forwarded me this article by Bruce Epperly. Have a read and then look out for his book too! I know I plan to read it!

You will note that Epperly talks about retirement as jubilation. I think it is interesting that the Portuguese word for “retired” is “reformado” or “reformed”. I would like to think that our later years can be a time when we re-form ourselves!

Blessings for a safe, happy and healthy New Year,

Sheila

Bruce Epperly: The Jubilee Years

Posted on December 17, 2020 by Alban

I regularly get a chuckle from friends when I reported that “I’m still in midlife provided I live to be 134!”  Having just reached my 68th birthday, I’ve now had to adjust this to “136,” a joyful reminder that I hope for many years of creativity ahead and also a grim notice of my mortality.  I have now reached far beyond the actuarial midpoint of my life and am on my descent, at least chronologically. 

Is it possible that the descent may also be an ascent and the years ahead be a time of spiritual growth and service, a Jubilee?  Can retired clergy, like myself, be transformational agents and partners, promoting the moral and spiritual arcs of history, once they have left the constraints and rigors of full-time ministry?

The title of my new Alban book, “The Jubilee Years,” emerged from the insights of a small group participating in the Pastoral Study Grant Program sponsored by the Louisville Institute.  When I reported that I would be studying the challenges and hopes of clergy retirement, one of my colleagues noted that in Spanish the word retirement is “jubilacion.”   As I pondered her comment, I began to imagine retirement from a different perspective, as a time of jubilation, joy and exuberance. 

Retirement can be the initiation of a pastoral vision quest. The Jubilee years can be an invitation to let go, forgive, and embrace novel possibilities in relationships, ministry, and mission, which inspire us to move forward to new adventures in learning, creativity, and service, unencumbered by the politics and responsibility of congregational ministry. 

Over the course of a year, I interviewed approximately one hundred retired ministers throughout the United States and Canada.  I discovered that although most retired clergy experience the normal physical and mental challenges of the aging process, they are also experiencing fulfillment as they pursue new personal, relational, and political adventures.  Many have responded to aging by laying out new pathways toward health, intellectual growth, mental acuity, and physical wellbeing.  Many retired pastors rejoice in the opportunity to deepen relationships with spouses, children and grandchildren, and dear friends.  Others delight in continuing their pastoral vocation, occasionally preaching or taking congregational or regional leadership roles, without the stresses and time constraints of fulltime ministerial leadership.  Many also pursue new avocations and hobbies unrelated to their pastoral careers – writing, painting, poetry, gardening, and travel.  A significant number of pastors with whom I spoke are seeking to be “good ancestors” by immersing themselves in local and national politics and environmental concerns.  Many looked forward to canvassing and making phone calls in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections and are now elated at the results of their efforts.  Virtually all of them realized the importance of the biblical counsel, “let us count our days that we might gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12)

While most retired pastors find that they need to be more intentional about health and finances, virtually every pastor reported that they felt free for spiritual and vocational meandering and, for the most part, could – in the pre-Covid days – travel more regularly to be with family or to explore North America and the planet. 

Most pastors shared that flexible planning prior to and during retirement was a significant factor in their physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.  The majority noted the importance of having daily, weekly, and long-term polestars to guide their daily lives.  Those who had made no plans tended to drift through the first several months of retirement. For these pastors, an unplanned life wasn’t always a negative experience. For the first time they accepted the grace of a day without agenda.  As Tolkien says, “not all who wander are lost.”  Eventually however these retired clergy felt the need to create flexible visions for the future.  As one pastor confessed, “I don’t have to preach or get involved in the community as part of my job.  Now it’s pure grace with no pressure and I’m doing more in the community than I did before.”

Many retired pastors reflected on the importance of theology, spiritual practices, and service in shaping a lively and positive retirement.  Time in theological reflection provides guideposts for the journey and gives us perspective in responding to the aging process.  Spiritual practices enable us to experience the sacrament of each new day.  Service expands our spirits and joins us with our fellow pilgrims.

Clergy retirement can be a time of abundant life and generative service. The right blend of intentionality and flexibility, service and serendipity, and solitude and relationships can make retirement a Jubilee, a season of delight and transformation, in which we claim our vocation as good ancestors for the generations to come.

Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including, The Jubilee Years: Embracing Clergy Retirement; Hope Beyond Pandemic; Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision of Contemplative Activism;  and A Center in the Cyclone: 21st Century Clergy Selfcare.  

The Science of Happiness and what it has to teach us in the face of Rising Loneliness, Narcissism and Inequality

To say that the last six weeks have been rather surreal would be an understatement! Our communities have never seemed so peaceful,  the traffic so quiet or — for some — the days so long. Indeed, it has been a difficult and frustrating time for many. The biggest complaint I have heard from people is that the “alone time” that many of us used to crave at the end of a usually over-busy, over-stressful work week, is loneliness. We miss visiting with our friends. We miss seeing family members. We miss our colleagues. We miss seeing our neighbours at the kids’ sports tournaments. We miss chatting with our brothers and sisters in worship or during fellowship hour. Although we have been learning new ways to connect with one another, there is nothing quite like getting together face-to-face with a good friend over a real cup of coffee in a real cafe.

I can’t help but think that this is probably much harder for those of us who are Boomers (or older). Raised to work all the hours God sends and to treat “busyness” as though it was the highest of virtues, it can be challenging to find that we have nowhere to go and no-one with whom to go. I am probably one of the luckier ones in that my work has continued at almost the same frenetic pace, since regular Zoom meetings, online worship, pastoral phone visits and daily e-messages to our church family have kept my days full. Earlier in the month I even had a funeral that was live-streamed. But I still really miss the one-on-one human contact. It’s a much lonelier world.

Perhaps our experience of self-isolation will help us to empathize with those who suffer from chronic loneliness. This week I have been on study leave, pursuing three different online courses that focus on how we read (1) Scripture and employ ritual in worship and other aspects of church life (and what we can learn from mediaeval religious communities), (2) Jesus and the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and (3) the Science of Happiness.

Why study happiness? Suffice it to say that we are healthier physically and mentally when we are happy or enjoy a reasonable level of contentment and well-being. But here is something else that the research has discovered. Over the past thirty years, as we Baby Boomers were busy raising our families, buying homes and pursuing our careers, our world also became much lonelier, more consumer-oriented, and less democratic. The researchers have found that loneliness, narcissism and a lack of concern for others, and inequality have risen exponentially. The scientific study of happiness, as well a study of the philosophic and religious traditions that provide one of the best foundations for a happy life and a happy society, have much to offer us as we seek ameliorate these problems. I hope to share more insights from this study which is offered through the University of California at Berkeley. Stay tuned! There is much for us Boomers to learn!