How Aging Congregations Thrive

photo of people at a cookoutThe last time Bishop Nicholas Knisely visited St. Andrew’s, Little Compton, a member of the congregation asked what the parish had to do to attract families with children. The Rev. Virginia Army, the parish’s rector, remembers his response well.

“He spoke with warmth, but candor,” she recalls, explaining that rising housing prices and the attractiveness of communities such as Little Compton to retirees meant that fewer young families were moving into the diocese, and that some aging congregations did not have the capacity to support children’s programs.

“He told them, ‘You do not have to have children and youth to be a parish that is worthy and vibrant and serving and glorifying God,’” Army recalls. “I think a lot of the parish kind of took a deep breath and said, ‘We are who we are.’”

In numerous communities around the diocese, congregations are having to recognize that decades of declining church attendance coupled with the state’s shifting demographic profile means they are ministering increasingly, and sometimes almost entirely, to people of retirement age or older. The average age of St. Andrew’s congregation is 82. “We have children and grandchildren at holidays,” Army says. “But that’s all.”

But an older congregation can still be a vital one, says Army, a cancer survivor who works a 25-hour week. “You have to be good at and committed to what you can do and in recognizing what your neighborhood needs.”

St. Andrew’s is especially concerned with food insecurity in the three-town area that includes Little Compton, Tiverton and Westport, Massachusetts. Parishioners support two food banks and are planning a charity concert in July by the parish’s choir director and pianist, Gayane Darakyan, a classically trained concert pianist, to benefit the food banks.

The parish also supports the Little Compton Circle of Friends, a social group for teens and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, holds blood drives and recently co-sponsored a “shred day” with the Little Compton United Church of Christ on which a truck bearing a paper shredder arrived from a local vendor and community members brought documents that needed secure disposal.

St. Andrew’s has what Army describes as a “generous mission budget,” but the parish also likes to “roll up our sleeves and work together, too” she says.

There are particular challenges an aging congregation faces, and parishes must develop the capacity to face them, Army says. Three times this year, parishioners have collapsed during worship. Members of the congregation are now practiced in what to do on these occasions. Seven members of the parish are trained to use an automated external defibrillator or attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and on any given Sunday, Army says, at least three or four are present. On each occasion, after the ambulance arrived, members of the parish accompanied the afflicted person’s spouse to the hospital, and the community rallied around them, arranging meals and transportation when necessary.

“It has been a complete joy for me to serve with them. And I admire their commitment to taking care of each other and their neighbors, whether they know them or not,” Army says.

One misconception about older congregations is that they do not receive new members, Army says. “New people will come but they will just likely be older,” she says. “There are still people out there, like recent retirees who have moved to the area, who are looking for a warm, welcoming and faithful community who do their best to serve and glorify God. That’s where the sustainability can really come from, and there is nobody on the vestry who doesn’t understand that this is the challenge of our time.”

St. Columba’s, Middletown serves a broader demographic than St. Andrew’s, but in recent years it has also paid attention to the particular needs of older members of the congregation. In 2017, three years after her husband Art died as the result of a bicycle accident, parishioner Sara Chadwick put together a three-part series that began with a highly personal exploration on aging, death and dying and included one session with a registered nutritionist and another with a staff member of the American Association of Retired People, who spoke about driving, specifically about convincing older relatives not to, and home safety issues such as getting rid of loose scatter rugs and putting grab bars in showers.

At the first session, Chadwick told those gathered that her husband’s death had left her without passwords or other essential information for taking care of his unfinished business. “I talked about what people did for me when Art died, flowers, food and endless support,” she says. “And I talked about getting rid of his clothing. And then how I started coping with money matters. Like who is our oil company. Things I’d never paid attention to because he was so good at those things.”

Her co-presenter, Lois Rogers, another longtime parishioner at St. Columba’s, spoke of the long, slow death of her husband, Ray: how he prepared for his death and how she and her children carried on afterwards.

That first session was raw, Chadwick says, but the congregation was supportive, and attendance at the sessions grew. In 2018, she organized a four-part series that began with a similar presentation by her and Rogers, followed by a return visit by a local nutritionist, and sessions with a home organizer who gave tips on downsizing and a police officer who spoke about avoiding scammers who target the elderly.

The series was interrupted by the pandemic, but Chadwick says she hopes to relaunch it.

St. Columba’s has seen “an influx of younger couples” under the Rev. Anne Bolles-Beaven, who became priest-in-charge in 2020 and rector in 2022, Chadwick says. But the parish still relies on the experience and energy of older parishioners in mounting event such as its annual English garden party, held this year on June 10.

“Nobody seems to give a hoot about how old anybody is,” Chadwick says. “Nobody says, ‘You’ve done this five times, why don’t you let somebody else handle it?’ They say ‘You’ve done a good job, why don’t you do it again?’”


– Jim Naughton, Canticle Communications