Below is an email message I got from an empty-nester after the vision talks I gave a few weeks ago. I thought s/he asked some really good questions, and I wanted to pass along the answers I gave.
As we go forward and you’re fleshing out the vision and finding ways to help us all get involved with it, here are some questions empty-nesters wrestle with that may have an impact on how they participate in our inter-generational church.
1. My kids are gone. Now what?
Suddenly, we have choices. For some, this is actually a new concept, surprisingly enough; and at least to me, I feel like I’m being selfish to even think about them. Do we live near our kids? Do we take those vacations we never could? How do I spend my money? How do I balance my ‘Bucket list” with the needs in the world around me? I can live anywhere I want?! That’s weird. How do I make those decisions? And if I move to a new community, as many people in Madison do, how do I make friends now that I don’t have this automatic school/kid activities factor built in?
A number of these questions are about deploying resources. Freedom that gains us access to more options can complicate how we deploy them. But ultimately, more options are just distractions – they don’t change the fundamental question about priorities.
It seems the empty nest years, barring misfortune, would lead to both an increase in enjoyment and an increase in generosity. Growing discipleship might also cause us to take more enjoyment in new forms of generosity and service – making the dichotomy of competition between generosity toward ourselves or others more of a unity – being generous to ourselves by being generous to others.
Ultimately, we were always free to do whatever we wanted – our children were just such obvious priorities and so completely dependent, that making our decisions about investment were more obvious and easy. The logic of investment hasn’t changed – we just need more focus to navigate multiplied options.
It’s still all comes down to what it always came down to: you have a certain limited amount of resources. They are from God and put into your hands. They’ve belong to God and they belong to you. How are you going to use them?
2. Who am I really?
I’m not just a dad or mom anymore. I know my gifts, mostly. But how do I use them in new ways? I have half my life yet to live (I plan on living to 100 by the way). What do I do with them?
I’d argue this is one of the wonderful things about the existence of the local church. It gives you access to a community and a number of families in which your gifts can be used. I would start looking for families in your church to mentor or opportunities within the church to serve.
Also, if your family experiences were decently good, or if you learned a lot from them, this is a good time to realize the endangered nature of the family. If you’re having trouble making a specific application, I would talk to somebody on the staff of your church – they usually have pretty good ideas about where you could start.
The real difficulty here is not finding something to do, but inserting yourself into it. You used to watch your own kids, and you can just as easily watch somebody else’s. The difficulty is to get in the situation where somebody else has invited you in and you are watching their kids. The community of the church, especially through the medium of small groups, allows the relationships through which this easily happens to form.
3. How do I relate to my kids and my grandkids?
What is this world they live in? Since it’s true we need mentors, how do I as an empty-nester mentor my kids and their generation? Is there anyone left to mentor me in this new stage?
I think the best way to mentor people in younger life stages is by focusing on things that are universally human. Cultural shifts often obscure human universals – and people can be profoundly ignorant of what is inescapably human. If you become a good observer of human nature, you can impart things that will help people deal with the differences of their cultural moment.
Concerning mentors for advanced life stages, I would just simply look to people who are older than you who seem to be doing decently well in that life stage. There are several small groups with mostly advanced Saints in them that you could connect with. But medium-sized social gatherings are often some of the best places to meet life stage mentors – missions luncheons, potlucks, pre-installation service dinners, and gathering times before and after church services.