"The church building is not a monument. It's an instrument for God," Timothy Williams, pastor of Bethsaida Missionary Baptist Church in Mexia, believes.
His wife, Cheryl, director of apartment ministries for Buckner International, is praying her church and others will use that instrument to help grandparents called upon to take responsibility for their grandchildren either full- or part-time.
Taking on parenting duties—sometimes after years of living in an empty nest—and giving up their own plans can take a toll.
While many participate in senior adult activities and programs their churches offer, they still have needs most congregations aren't yet meeting.
"Unfortunately, the church in America has been very slow to recognize the importance of grandparents in the lives of children—and even slower to acknowledge the growing issue of grandparents raising grandchildren," said Cavin T. Harper, executive director of the Christian Grandparenting Network.
Harper, author of Not on Our Watch, started the network to help churches understand that role and to provide some resources to grandparents.
Sandy Abernathy, a retired licensed assisted-living/Alzheimer's administrator in Tennessee, also sees that while churches offer ministries for mature adults, few target grandparenting issues.
She believes the help some grandparents get most often comes from their peers.
Cultures with strong family ties seem to better understand the need. "Our rural, black and Hispanic sister churches may have been quicker in addressing these issues … because historically, families within these churches may have held to a stronger maternal home-lead tradition and/or greater ties to grandparent involvement within the immediate family unit," she said.
What needs can churches help meet?
• Provide a support group.
Cheryl Williams points to emotional needs as a place to start. Emotional and financial issues are the primary concerns caregiving grandparents face, she explained.
"They have already raised children, and now they're starting over," she said. Parenting "looks very different now because of the different struggles children face."
Some adults feel guilty that their adult children are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to care for their family.
A support group provides a safe haven in which to express guilt or even anger over the situation.
• Provide an after-school program for the children, which will help them and give their caregivers a break.
• Enlist members to mentor children, to show them other adults care for them. Enlist grandparents with similar experiences to mentor those who are just beginning the journey.
• Provide helpers to go with grandparents to meet with teachers and social workers or to secure assistance.
"It makes a difference in the way in which people deal with them," Williams said. Often grandparents will not completely understand teachers' explanations, and sometimes officials and agency heads will talk down to older adults.
• Help grandparents become immersed in the church's "culture," Abernathy advised.
"The church can offer the expanded world of loving support through all its programs." Encourage grandparents to get their grandchildren plugged in to activities—giving them opportunities to grow and providing the adults some respite.
• Discover ways to provide financial assistance. Many congregations provide school supplies. But churches also can help grandparents network with one another to swap or exchange services. Congregations can provide presents at Christmas or for birthdays, and offer childcare. A clothes closet or a swap day to exchange school uniforms might be needed.
"Many seniors are on fixed incomes. Taking care of their grandchildren requires additional expense a grandparent wasn't prepared for," Williams said.
• Deal with issues. Offer seminars on cultural changes, educational needs and changes in parenting approaches.
Self-care also is an important issue, Williams and Abernathy agreed.
Churches can provide exercise groups and workshops on emotional and spiritual well-being.