By Frances Stebbins
(This is a chapter in a ,emoir, “Give Light…” of the six decades the author has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.)
It is hard to believe that 35 years have passed since I first became aware of aging. A yellowed 1984 clipping reports on a two-hour seminar a Presbyterian pastor, who had become a specialist in issues of senior adults, led for the ecumenical and interfaith clergy group which I covered regularly for the daily Roanoke newspaper.
The Rev. Dr. Albert Dimmock was on the staff of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (PSCE) in Richmond. He was 64 and spoke at the Friendship Manor Retirement Home’s Lakeview Club in the Hollins area near where I then lived.
I was a decade in age behind Dimmock, my newspaper career in its best years. Newsman husband Charlie and I were well on the way to being empty-nesters; our daughter had moved to Georgia five years before, and our older son had his own place in Botetourt. We were all transitioning.
Dimmock’s special interest, according to the column I wrote about his workshop, was educating church members in their treatment of the 65 and over group. He pointed out that it was easy for the lay leadership— and even some pastors— to treat their long-time members as “over the hill” in their desire to get young families and singles active in the church.
In the worst scenario, older members were stereotyped as conservative and resistant to changes and were quietly eased out of service on governing boards.
In the Salem church I now attend, the views of Dimmock and others were taken seriously enough for the pastor to make those of advancing age the theme of his enrolling in the new Doctor of Ministry program which attracted a number of clergy and laity during the 1980s. Those enrolled remained in their churches except for short periods at a participating seminary; the whole “D Min” program was designed to be of practical help to the congregation.
It resulted in a strong and lively group of senior adults which continued for many years. I wrote about many of these groups, which often were given such names as “XYZ-Extra Years of Zest.”
It would be many more years before Charlie and I truly transitioned into old age, but meanwhile, the graduate school attached to the historic Presbyterian seminary in Richmond made a profound impact on me. In 1978 it was suggested by a member of our church’s regional staff that I take a week’s summer class at “PSCE.” This was to test my call to a possible career change to adult Christian education.
Having been learning about Western Virginia faith groups for some 25 years by this time and with our family at home shrinking, it came to me that I might put my newspaper writing knowledge to work directly in a congregation.
In the summer of 1978, I spent a wonderfully stimulating week at the Richmond school not far from the professional institute where I had received my undergraduate education nearly 30 years previously. The following summer I enrolled in another class, this one taught by Dr. John Westerhoff, then influential in our denomination’s continuing education.
My interest in Christian education for adults had been sparked by two factors. At my small Roanoke parish our minister for six years was especially gifted in encouraging us to keep learning. Never being one to relate well to children, I found I had acquired valuable knowledge for those older.
Too, when my sons with perceptual school problems were enrolled in a remedial research program I found it exciting to work with their parents.
My change of vocation did not come to fruition. I discovered that to go to graduate school such as PSCE most of my professional institute credits would be useless. In addition, when my supportive pastor moved on, his successor was gifted in ways other than enabling lay leadership. I gave up the idea of pursuing a true graduate degree.
The Richmond graduate courses, however, opened a new door, for at the school I met its dean, Dr. Malcolm McIver. He and his charming wife, Mildred, became pioneers in a movement to strengthen the stable marriages of couples like my husband and me. In 1980, we began sharing with other Roanoke area church people leadership of small groups now known as Better Marriages.