Gordon Monson: Latter-day Saints and their top leaders should remember those who too often are forgotten

Older members have much to offer. They just need to be asked, listened to, and embraced.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Monson.

Do you have gray hair or less hair than you once did? Are wisdom’s wrinkles creasing your face like the street grid on a folded city map? Are the rings around your trunk rivaling an ancient redwood?

If so, you may be on the back shelf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, living in a shadow. Or it might seem as though you are. Other than an emphasis on temple or full-time missionary work or welfare assignments and an occasional call to endure to the end, how far is the church’s reach toward — how should we say this? — boomers, toward boomers-plus, toward the Greatest Generation, toward older folks?

Even though the pews in many wards are loaded with people who actually know who Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart and Audrey Hepburn and Lauren Bacall and Grace Kelly were — and the church’s top hierarchy is filled with leaders who are contemporaries of many of those bygone Hollywood stars — the faith’s more mature crowd in the collective often finds itself existing in shaded corners.

They are the forgotten congregation.

It might not be universal, not the case in every ward and stake, but an informal, unscientific poll of Latter-day Saints, blended with my own experiences in various places, indicates that the phenomenon does exist.

Ironic and confounding it is on account of the aforementioned — that general church leaders, the most influential ones, are a bunch of oldsters, people who may or more likely may not vibe all that well with younger humans. Why is it that those leaders are almost exclusively geriatrics who grew up watching “The Lawrence Welk Show,” as opposed to the body of the church that relates more directly to “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones”?

Wouldn’t it be better to have a strong mix of old and young at all levels? More youth at the top, more finely aged in local congregations?

In the latter, the more seasoned group often is pushed aside, feeling unheard or underutilized. Their children are raised, gone to live in a different household, rearing a new crop of children. Their mortal journey now is edging toward or near its end. There aren’t a whole lot of talks or lessons given on remaining faithful and useful as their eyes grow sleepy.

It’s not that sexagenarians and septuagenarians and octogenarians are plumb — yeah, antiquated term — ignored or uncared for. It’s more that there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of initiatives to keep them engaged or valued. They are just sort of out there, floating in faith on their own.

Some of them might like it that way. They may feel as though they’ve run a good race and are ready to sit back and spectate.

Frequently, they don’t have much of a choice.

The young and the zestless?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Youths from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints greet President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Wendy Nelson, at a devotional in 2019 in Rome.

Youth programs for Primary kids and teenagers and young adults are plentiful. That’s where the church’s emphasis lies. Those young souls need guidance, even as many of them are choosing different paths. And to help them build belief, many callings — volunteer jobs within the church — are issued to the eager and energetic, to the ambitious middle-aged, to those who consider “The Shawshank Redemption” or “Titanic” or “Avatar” or “The Dark Knight” to be old film classics.

Combined, they are the church’s future. And its present.

Not the older bag of bones sitting in the back of the chapel. Those types, it’s figured, have made it this far, so they can be taken for granted. They aren’t going anywhere other than perhaps the Celestial Kingdom. They are made men and women. They are … forgotten. They are the shadow members.

Funny thing about that is this: Brother Bald and Sister Sag way in the back are some of the smartest people in the ward, in the church. Their life experiences hold within them more knowledge and enlightenment, more discernment and sagacity than can be found anywhere else.

They should be leaned upon for guidance. They know what’s worth worrying about and what isn’t, what’s important and what’s insignificant. They should be teachers and leaders, or at least stirred into the mix, not left to graze out in some far pasture. They should have emphasis put on them, a blend of gratitude for their contributions and encouragement for whatever lies ahead for them.

There are exceptions, but it’s been my experience, and the experience of many others, that in church classrooms — Sunday school or women’s Relief Society or male priesthood — it’s often the younger people who, when a question is posed to the group, are so quick to answer, to have all the answers. And it’s the old veterans sprinkled around the room who either really know what the response should be or know that nobody actually knows what that response should be.

Life has taught them that much.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I could ask my dad — who’s been gone now for 21 years — a question or seek his counsel of one sort or another. I’m almost certain he’d have some sage advice. And if he didn’t, if he were stumped, he’d acknowledge that, too.

He knew what he knew — and he knew what he didn’t know.

Just like a lot of older folks at church, the ones who hesitate before they speak because they’re fully aware the issue being discussed needs deep thought, not a canned answer or a quick flash of parroted brilliance.

Maybe there aren’t a whole lot of church programs or initiatives planned for or talks and lessons aimed at the elderly and those edging toward it because they are — what’s the word? — tired.

They deserve to be left alone, given a rest, allowed some peace and quiet if that’s what they desire. But Lord knows, there’s a mountain of acumen and perspicacity or, in plain terms, good horse sense stored in those minds and souls.

Words of wisdom

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Apostles Jeffrey R. Holland, left, M. Russell Ballard and Dallin H. Oaks confer at a General Conference in 2017.

And perhaps younger Latter-day Saints, the ones who so often are targeted and cared for and fretted over, would be more apt to listen to Brother Bald and Sister Sag than they would the more common generation between them. Not always, just sometimes.

It’s one thing for older leaders and teachers to pontificate to the rising generations from the cushy chairs at the Conference Center; it’s another to have loving grandfathers or grandmothers from the ward, ones who have seen all sides of life, wrap their arms around the young people while guiding and advising them.

Some, granted, are old-fashioned and out of touch, indoctrinated in stale rudiments and preachments of the past. I get it. Some have ideas that may make you cringe. But others know how to love, how to live the spirit of the law more than the letter, in ways that have not yet dawned on the less experienced.

Has anyone else noticed that sometimes Grandma and Grandpa are respected and listened to more by kids than are Mom and Dad? Yeah, it’s a thing, at least sometimes it’s a thing.

While it’s in the church’s best interests then to include a few more fresh minds and updated attitudes in its top leadership, it’s also beneficial — or would be — for it to do additional maintenance on the gray and the wrinkled, to value them, to highlight them, to honor and emphasize them.

They, in turn, can return the favors of faith to the younger body of the church, a group that not only needs them but also first needs to remember them, those who are forgotten, the ones now living out their long, varied, valuable and veridical lives in a shadow.

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