Hearing God’s call… in retirement and beyond

Many of those ministering to older people as part of BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy network are themselves over 60. In advance of this year’s UN-designated International Day of Older Persons (1 October), and as part of our series on hearing God’s call, Anna Chaplaincy Pioneer Debbie Thrower highlights why you’re never too old to be called to this vital work…

19 September 2021

Never too old for ministry

One unexpected bonus of Anna Chaplaincy is that many of those delivering the ministry are themselves older people.

In the Anna Chaplaincy team at BRF, we are frequently asked whether there is an upper age limit. The answer is no. Our network includes Anna Chaplains in their 30s and 40s but also some in their 80s. Our Impact Report 2021 highlighted the fact that the majority are in the age range 61 to 70. Some are in paid posts; others are volunteers.

It should not really be a surprise that people of more mature years are increasingly attracted to such work.

Together on the journey through life

Anna Chaplaincy is about drawing alongside people at whatever stage of later life and speaking to one another as equals. Just as evangelism is often described as ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’ (D.T. Niles), for older practitioners, Anna Chaplaincy is, essentially, one person speaking to another about the experience of growing old – what it actually feels like.

Who we are as we get older – and who we are becoming – fascinates both chaplain and the person being listened to, the one receiving the chaplain’s full attention.

Ageing successfully

Michael Jackson, author of Still Love Left: Faith and hope in later life (2021), says:

Those who age successfully are in my experience those who acknowledge the need to meet the challenges of later life by continuing to explore their spiritual identity. This has been well described as ‘making your soul’, particularly as one nears death.

This spiritual searching is a creative endeavour. American writer Margaret Guenther calls it ‘crafting our lives’, and, as she rightly points out, says Jackson, ‘many older people may have God-questions without necessarily having the God-talk’.

Jackson continues:

It is of fundamental importance that the Church engages with this aspect of ageing. Its track record has not always been good. Happily though, greater interest in ageing and spirituality is resulting in initiatives such as the rapidly growing Anna Chaplaincy for Older People sponsored by BRF.

Following God’s call in later life

It is certainly true that older people make effective Anna Chaplains – some of the most senior in years have led the return to ministry in care homes this past year. At 84, Pam Shaw, Anna Chaplain in Lowestoft, Suffolk, was one of the first to get back into her local care home and can sometimes be seeing up to 15 residents – one at a time – in a single day.

Reflecting on her initial return during the pandemic, Pam is grateful for the encouragement she’s received, including from the core team at BRF:

I feel so grateful for the amazing support of everyone involved, including the Anna Chaplaincy team, and for the positive first visit. The highlight was a 98-year-old saying she had been a Christian since going to Sunday school, where they sang ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam’. She duly sang it to me as she was wheeled down the corridor on her way back to her room!

Pam Shaw

In Northumbria, Mary Priestley became an Anna Chaplain in villages near Morpeth in retirement. She says her chaplaincy skills stem from her background in home economics and as social services tutor, ‘along with many years of church work and, as my faith journey deepened, prayer ministry and pastoral care’.

We should also not forget that many older people in care homes find joy in ministering to those around them. For example, one person we came across said she was keen to see how she could serve fellow residents in her care home where she has moved recently despite being widowed only a few months ago. Anna Chaplaincy recognises that resourcing Christians living in care settings to support others is part of the job, never assuming that they are only recipients of our support!

‘Many older people in care homes find joy in ministering to those around them.’

A lifetime of experiences, gifts and skills

A recently commissioned Anna Chaplain in Kent, John Styles, is a former acting governor of St Helena in the South Atlantic. He explains what drew him to Anna Chaplaincy:

We would regularly visit the isolated and elderly in the mountains of St Helena, giving home Communion and prayers. I felt God’s strong presence, and I knew what I must do in supporting elderly people.

So, I continued doing this after I retired and moved to the UK. I was formally licensed as a reader in Canterbury diocese in April 2019 and I subsequently picked up on the role of Anna Chaplaincy during the annual readers’ event in Canterbury Cathedral.

Like John, a significant number of Anna Chaplains combine their chaplaincy work with that of a licensed lay minister, or reader. It is also noticeable how many have been teachers, health-care professionals or social workers. Nowadays they are finding fresh impetus as voluntary Anna Chaplains.

For example, Wendy Wilson, a retired health visitor, is now Anna Chaplain in Eden Valley, Cumbria. She says:

I feel called to Anna Chaplaincy, in part because it brings together the experiences gained in my professional life with my wish to share the comfort of God’s love with older people in the community, wherever it is wanted and needed.

Fruitfulness in later life

Throughout the national network – made up of people from many different denominations – we see the significant contributions of older people taking up Anna Chaplaincy in their later years and the ways they are finding meaning and purpose along the way. It’s evidence of a surge of fruitfulness in older age. A recurring theme is that each receives as much (if not more) than ever they are able to give in their encounters with older people in such diverse settings.

Older Anna Chaplains are finding meaning and purpose… a surge of fruitfulness in older age.

Debbie Thrower is BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy pioneer.

Finding your calling in later life

Read more stories of people like John, Pam and Mary who have heard God’s call to minister to older people, on the Anna Chaplaincy blog.

Make the Most of Retirement

Grounded in personal experience and extensive research, and rich in quotations, Paul Beasley-Murray explores how retirement is part of God’s rhythm for our lives and can be a time of new opportunities.

Retired and Inspired

In this book, Wendy Billington draws on her pastoral skills and life experience to ask: what is a Christian view of retirement? With questions for discussion, a meditative thought for the day and a closing prayer, this is a helpful book for those preparing or already in retirement, as well as families, friends, befrienders, carers and professionals.