Vacation Bible School: This One's for Seniors

Posted: 8/31/2011

VBS for older adults at Aberdeen, MIss., missionThe phrase "Vacation Bible School" (VBS) usually conjures up visions of a relaxed, enjoyable summertime gathering for kids at a local church—where they learn about Bible stories, pray, have snacks, and do creative crafts with biblical themes.

But at Glenmary's St. Francis of Assisi mission in Aberdeen, Miss., pastoral associate Susan Sweet has created a VBS with an entirely new twist: a program especially for older adults. The summer of 2011 marked the second time that an adult VBS was held at the mission and drew an enthusiastic response.

The initial idea, she says, was partially inspired by Glenmary's traveling, 90-minute Prime Time for Seniors program presented by Liz Dudas, consultant for ministry development. Susan says that senior adults, especially those in remote Glenmary mission areas, don't have many opportunities to take part in programs that offer the chance for reflection, spiritual growth and adult catechesis.

"A couple years ago when we hosted a Prime Time for Seniors program in Aberdeen, I was also helping out with an ecumenical VBS for kids at a nearby Methodist church," Susan says. "And it occurred to me that a five-day VBS program for seniors could be educational, fun and perfect for our mission, since about three-quarters of our parishioners are over 60."

That led to the mission's first adult VBS program in 2009. "Quite a few older parishioners attended and loved it," Susan says. "It was almost like a retreat, but they could leave each day by lunchtime. Afterwards, the mission members told others about it, and a number of nonparishioners expressed interest in attending the next one."

In 2011, Susan opened up the August program to the larger community, helping make the VBS an ecumenical and evangelization effort. The week's theme was "Body, Mind and Spirit," which emphasized tapping one's inner strength and faith to meet the challenges of living and aging. Local non-Catholic ministers also promoted the program to their congregation members.

Even though the daily VBS presenters didn't coordinate their content with each other, Susan says she was "amazed by how the Spirit was at work in the way the sessions flowed together. It couldn't have been better if I had planned the whole program myself!"

Each day began with a song and prayer, followed by a short t'ai chi session and then the day's main, Scripture-based presentation—marked by a give-and-take approach instead of a lecture. Activities and exercises reinforced each presentation.

The mid-morning break featured fresh fruits and vegetables from participants' gardens. And for the craft activity, the group assembled several baby quilts to present to the Save-a-Life Foundation, a Mississippi pro-life organization.

The week's five presentations were as follows:

On day one, Dr. Len Pinkley, a retired physician with a master's in pastoral studies, spoke on "Body: Made in the Image of God." He emphasized that all human beings have the same breath of God in them. He also stressed that older adults need to take care of their bodies for both physical and mental health, and that people's spiritual nature is closely connected to those other aspects.

"Mind: Awake, Aware, Alive" was the day-two topic for Sister Alies Thérèse, pastoral coordinator of Glenmary's Eupora, Miss., mission. She emphasized that people need to keep developing and renewing their minds throughout their lives, and that the ways of the mind lead to prayer and spirituality.

On day three, Father Henry Shelton, a retired pastor from Tupelo, Miss., presented "Spirit: May the Word of God Be in My Mind, on My Lips, and in My Heart." He led a lively discussion in which participants shared their views on prayer. He also facilitated an exercise in Scripture-based contemplative prayer.

"Balance: To Everything There Is a Season," on day four, was presented by registered nurse Jeannine Gaudet from the Health Ministry Network of the Mid-South. She talked with the group about how to deal with the challenges of aging, focusing on end-of-life issues and advance directives for loved ones and themselves.

Finally, Susan's day-five presentation, "Wholeness: You Have Made Us Little Less Than a God," tied the week's themes together, and each participant talked about what he or she learned. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Older adults learn by sharing their wisdom, knowledge and experience with one another, says Susan. "That's what makes a program like this one good. It was about how people can live their faith as they get older. The participants really enjoyed it and said it was very beneficial. I think it opened them to the next steps on their faith journeys."

Susan is still thinking about the workings of the Spirit during this year's adult VBS. "And I'm already thinking about the theme for next year's program!"

This article appears in the September 2011 Boost-a-Month Club newsletter.