In the Beginning (1980s-1991)…
The Association of Lutheran Older Adults began with a dream. Because the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), due to tight budgets, were not developing comprehensive programs for ministry to and with older adults, staff members of Wheat Ridge Ministries of Itsaca, IL convened concerned, experienced people from different parts of the country, both from ELCA and LCMS, to explore the possibility of establishing an independent voluntary association to pursue such a ministry.

In their first and subsequent meetings the group identified and articulated issues to be addressed. They sponsored a random survey prepared by Dr. Douglas Fountain. The survey was designed to determine whether the organizing of such a ministry was needed or could prove useful, and how it might best respond to needs; it attempted to ascertain whether such an organization was viable and whether it would be welcomed in churches.

Perhaps the principal “dreamer” was The Rev. Robert Zimmer, president of Wheat Ridge Ministries. Convincing his Board of the need for a ministry by and for older adults, he obtained $80,000 for the project. Two members of the original planning group, The Rev. Charles E. Mueller of Roselle, IL, and Professor Emeritus (St. Olaf) Dr. Omar Otterness of Apple Valley, MN agreed to serve as unsalaried pro-tem, part-time co-executive directors of the organization the group named the Association of Lutheran Older Adults (ALOA). Under the direction of these two men, the group set in motion plans to charter the organization, to qualify for tax-exempt status, prepare by-laws, locate an office, engage a full-time director, and adopt a logo. Lending counsel to the group were Rich Bimler, Bob Hopmann, and Phyllis Kersten from Wheat Ridge Ministries; Richard Krenzke from the LCMS; and Shery Harbaugh, Ruth Reko and Dorothy Stein from the ELCA. Others involved included Paul Orso, a trained counselor and former Maryland synod bishop; and Luther Bajus, a Slovak Synod Pastor who hosted many of the early meetings. Rev. Mueller’s daughter, Sarah Stegemoeller, did all the legal work pro bono. The organization was incorporated in the State of Illinois on September 9, 1991. Focusing on core goals of the organization, the planners came up with “Celebrate and Serve.” With this slogan and a vision of the organization, graphic artist Wayne Kostermann designed the logo: four hands uplifted in celebration and reaching out in service, all extending from a cross. His contributions were also pro bono.

Most of ALOA’s present structure and programs have roots in the dedicated, gifted and hard work of a founding group of people. The first Board officers and Executive Committee were: Robert Zimmer, Sarasota, FL, President; Shirley Bergman, Seward, NE, Vice President; Chris Haaland, Albuquerque, NM, Secretary; William Seeber, Valparaiso, IN, Treasurer; and Member-at-Large, Otto Otterness, Minneapolis, MN. Also serving on the first board were: Douglas Fountain, Lake Worth, FL; William Heard, Chicago, IL; Lorraine Jordan, St. Louis, MO; Dale Meyer, St. Louis, MO; David Kruse, Green Valley, AZ; Helen Miller, Topeka, KS; Walter Morris, Gig Harbor, WA; Marvin Schultz, San Angelo, TX; and Louise Shoemaker, PA.

ALOA’s first Board was concerned about the growing number of older adults, the general fear of aging, the need for more harmonious relationships between the generations–as well as the diverse characteristics and needs of each generation–and for effective older adult ministry of Lutheran congregations. These concerns guided their planning. The board was committed to an organization that related to all people, to laity and clergy, and to the ELCA and the LCMS.

An Organization Emerges (1991-2002)…
The founders accepted Valparaiso University’s invitation to establish ALOA’s headquarters on their campus. Karl E. Lutze, retired faculty member and former executive director of the Lutheran Human Relations Association of America, was hired as the first full-time executive director. In the winter of 1992, Rev. Lutze published a small publicity piece and questionnaire called “Encore.” In January, 1993 the first issue of Encore Times was published. That same year, seven “Faith Ventures in Learning” were offered at eight locations throughout the U.S. Cost for a five-day event ranged from $145 to $295 per person, depending on location. This series—described as “similar to Elderhostels”—continued in 1994. By that time there were 17 events, one involving a cruise around Puget Sound.

With a grant from Aid Association for Lutherans, ALOA formed teams of Regional Volunteer Associates (RVAs) in seven locations. RVA’s were to provide a “presence” for ALOA, and act as catalysts for senior ministry in their regions. Among the first RVAs appointed were Christine Hicks, Houston, TX; Stanley Jordan, St. Louis, Mo; Dorothy Stein, Chicago, IL; and Elmer Witt, Seattle, WA.

In 1995, ALOA introduced Bless the Years Sundays, and began encouraging a congregation-based discussion series called “Share the Years”. RVAs were given the responsibility of recruiting congregations and promoting the programs nationally. Also in 1995, the “Faith Ventures” programs began to use the term: “Lutherhostel.” There were 12 in 1995, still modestly priced at $195 to $325, depending on location.

In 1996 the second president of ALOA was elected: Dr. Florence Montz of Bismark, ND. Robert Zimmer had time to begin a new phase of service: tour organizer and leader. He and wife Shirley organized a trip to Turkey and Greece, and Karl and Natalie Thiel hosted an Alaskan cruise. “Pilgrimages” were launched, and the Zimmers would lead many such educational excursions. Also in 1996, ALOA began to recruit “covenant congregations” as partners in ministry.

In 1997 The Rev. Arthur Constein joined the ALOA staff as Associate Director, and ALOA celebrated its fifth birthday. It was a year of celebrating as Bob Zimmer was honored by the Lutheran Laity League and Florence Montz received a Wittenberg Award. These two prestigious awards recognized the outstanding leadership of both individuals. On November 15, 1997, ALOA’s Board presented Karl Lutze with the first “Celebrate and Serve” award (although it would not receive this name for a few years). Walter Wangerin, Jr., began his remarks by noting: “Karl Lutze is retiring. Again.” 33 of the 53 RVAs were able to attend a training workshop, thanks to a grant from Aid Association for Lutherans. Looking toward the future, two endowment funds benefiting ALOA were established at the Porter County (IN) Community Foundation.

Art Constein became ALOA’s second Executive Director. In the fall of 1998 the “Encore Times” carried an article on “Older Adults and World Hunger.” This was the beginning of an ongoing interest in using the resources and talents of older adults to address this issue. On October 10, an official ALOA “Celebrate and Serve” award was made to Col. William Seeber in Valparaiso. Similar awards were made in early 1999 to ALOA leaders in Florida: Doris Hanson, Walter Heyne and Robert Zimmer.

By 2000, Bless the Years, “Share the Years,” Lutherhostels and Pilgrimages were well established. Bob and Shirley Zimmer, along with Suzanne and Walt Rast, led an ALOA group to the Obergammermau Passion Play. “Celebrate and Serve” awards were made to Rev. Willis Erickson, Austin, TX; Chris Haaland, Albuquerque, NM; and Walter Schmidt, Phoenix, AZ.

The Second Phase (2002-2010)…
By 2002 many of ALOA’s founders and original Board members had rotated off the Board, and the organization’s third president was elected: Dr. Doris Hanson, Clearwater, FL. The first “Faith, Hope and Love” certificates were awarded in conjunction with “Bless the Years” Sundays.

In 2003, ALOA needed to make organizational changes. With start-up funds expended, and grants and periodic gifts from the judicatories not dependable, the decision was made to hire a half-time director, with only one part-time staff person. The Rev. Edwin Naylor, retired CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the Capitol Area, was named as the organization’s third Executive Director; and the office was relocated to Shepherdstown, WV in space provided by St. Peter Lutheran Church. The leadership re-defined the mission statement and decided to keep an official permanent address at The Lutheran Center in Baltimore, Maryland (although because of financial constraints the organization’s Operations Center would continue to be wherever the Executive Director resided). Under the leadership of Doris Hanson and Ed Naylor, the Board began serious long range planning and produced a five-year development plan.

Part of the plan involved being systematic about keeping Lutheran leadership informed on matters related to older adults. Keeping in Touch became a bi-monthly newsletter sent to all ELCA bishops, LCMS presidents, communications people in both synods and districts, and covenant congregations. In the fall of 2003, the Encore Times made its first reference to “boomers.” In an article by The Rev. Walter Schoedel, ALOA began to educate its members and constituent congregations about the coming “age wave.” This theme would continue as ALOA, through its events and publications, intentionally tried to educate Lutherans nationally about both the challenges and the opportunities associated with this demographic shift.

In 2004 ALOA received a grant from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans to reorganize the RVA network. That spring, the Arizona Lutherhostel—led by Walter and Lois Schmidt, Pastor Art and Gladys Mees and others—celebrated its 10th anniversary.

In the summer of 2004, ALOA received a $19,800 grant from the Retirement Research Foundation to develop a series of regional events called “SeniorFests.” Judith Baker was hired as Associate Director, and charged with the responsibility of developing the SeniorFest project and administering the grant—working with Ed Naylor until his retirement on Oct. 31. In 2004, ALOA got an email address and launched a website: ALOAserves.org. That same year ALOA received the first of several generous grants from the Weber Family Foundation.

In October, 2004 Ed Naylor was awarded the “Celebrate and Serve” award at a Board dinner in Chicago; and on November 1, Judy Baker, a retired nonprofit manager from Dayton, OH became the organization’s first female and first lay Executive Director. She moved the office to Kettering, Ohio, to space provided by Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. A SeniorFest Manual was published that fall, and the first SeniorFest was held November 10 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, PA. It was organized by Rev. John Jorgenson.

In February, 2005, the SeniorFest movement really took off in Florida. A capacity crowd turned out at DaySpring Conference Center in Ellenton to hear Dr. Paul Meier. Under the joint leadership of the Florida- Bahamas Synod of the ELCA and the Georgia-Florida District of the LCMS–who formed a joint Older Adult Ministry Task Force–Florida became a model for Lutherans interested in senior ministry. Multiple subsequent SeniorFests were held in Wisconsin, California, Texas, Illinois, and Ohio.

In the spring of 2005 Rev. John Kinzel, Audubon, PA, who had long chaired the Philadelphia Lutherhostel Committee, was presented a “Celebrate and Serve” award. In June, 2005 ALOA hosted a “Leadership Summit” at the ELCA’s Lutheran Center in Chicago. Partially funded by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, volunteers from all over the country met to plan for the future. Author Bill Diehl and wife Judith challenged the group to use their time and energy productively. “Celebrate and Serve” awards were made to Dorothy Stein, Glen Ellyn, IL and Helen Thal, Clearwater, FL. RVAs present were recognized and thanked. But with the number of active RVAs decreasing, and funds for recruiting, training and administration lacking, the RVA project ended. Instead, volunteers were re-deployed into planning SeniorFests and Lutherhostels in their respective regions. With a 2004 grant from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Share the Years had been revised, updated, and produced in a spiral binder so that congregations could purchase one copy, duplicate lessons as needed, and easily add to it as needed. At the Leadership Summit, the LCMS committed a second $10,000 for a future publication.

In the fall of 2005, Walter Schmidt of Phoenix, AZ, who had long been a volunteer and board member, accepted a contract position as Director of ALOA Lutherhostels. He and wife Lois committed to developing new events across the country. The Rev. Willis Erickson, Austin, TX received a Service Award.

In 2006, President Doris Hanson retired from the board, and she and Bob Hale received the first Hanson Awards for Service, named in honor of Dr. Hanson. In June, the new president, The Rev. Dr. Loren Kramer, Dana Point, CA, presented a Hanson Award to The Rev. Dr. John Reumann, moderator of the Philadelphia (Seminary) Lutherhostels since their inception.

In 2006, the pricing structure for covenant congregations was revised. Instead of requesting major gifts from partner congregations, the Board decided to ask for modest annual grants based on the size of the congregation.

Also in 2006 the Board formed an Advocacy Task Force to help think through a corporate policy on advocacy. Former Executive Director Ed Naylor chaired the group. With the assistance of the ELCA Research Department, members were asked to identify the issues that concerned them. In 2007, the ALOA Board adopted a policy that called for educating and informing Lutheran leaders, congregations and members about issues related to older adults that had been researched by Lutheran Services of America and/or The National Council on Aging. In addition, ALOA would continue to periodically use its publications and websites to educate about hunger and poverty, locally and internationally.

Out of the Advocacy Task Force came a proposal for a “Passing on the Faith” initiative. The Board adopted this as a theme for 2006 through 2009; and it appointed a second task force chaired by former director Victor Bryant, St. Louis, Mo.

That fall, The Rev. Gloria and John Weber of St. Louis, MO, received a “Celebrate and Serve” award for their leadership.

SeniorFests continued to grow in 2007. Florida now hosted three events; and there were two in Texas. Lutherhostels were also growing. Events were held in Indiana, Minnesota, New York and South Carolina. Thrivent Financial for Lutheran awarded ALOA a grant to develop and co-sponsor an event to be held in their new Heartwood Conference Center in Trego, WI.

In the spring of 2007 ALOA volunteers in the Chicago area rallied in support of the annual Wingspread Conference on aging and spirituality. A joint project of the National Council on Aging’s National Interfaith Coalition on Aging (NICA) and the American Society on Aging’s, Forum on Spirituality and Aging (FORsa), this event had become the one place where academics, practitioners, and the faith communities come together annually to address their shared concerns. With ALOA’s Executive Director serving on the Delegate Council of NICA, this had become an ideal venue for learning from one another—and for sharing what we learned with congregations and church leadership. Dr. Martin Marty and Dr. Roger Wiese were co-presenters. ALOA volunteers served on the planning committee, promoted the event, and served as hosts—although the event itself was held at 4th Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

The Passing on the Faith Task Force also met in Chicago that summer. The group decided to publish a book for grandparents, compiled from suggestions of Lutheran grandparents convened for the purpose of brainstorming how to spend quality time with grandchildren. Grand Days, published by Group Publishing, would become a reality the following year. Meanwhile, Lessons I Learned in Life, written by Rev. Robert Zimmer for his grandchildren, was given by Pastor Zimmer to ALOA for distribution, with proceeds benefiting ALOA. The Zimmer book quickly sold out and has since been re-printed. A grant from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod supported the work of the task force and the printing of Grand Days. In the fall, ALOA was awarded $50,000 in Thrivent’s Charitable Gift Initiative (CGI). In addition, because the first Lutherhostel at Heartwood (called “COLORAMA”) had been such a success, Thrivent awarded grants for two such events for 2008.

By February, 2008 there were four SeniorFests scheduled in Florida; and the Florida joint older adult ministry task force had received several grants to facilitate outreach to Florida congregations. Because the programs had expanded, ALOA was asked to serve as fiscal agent for both SeniorFests and the Florida outreach program. In a sense, ALOA became a partner with the Florida group–and began to see them as a model for what might be done in other states and regions. The Rev. Richard Hafer, formerly an ALOA board member and a local pastor who had helped start the SeniorFests in Florida, was named director of the outreach program.

Throughout 2008 and 2009 many of ALOA’s events used “Passing on the Faith” as a theme. With the Thrivent CGI grant, ALOA’s treasurer, Rev. David Solberg, developed a “Celebrate and Serve Forever” workshop designed to provide a biblical background and encouragement for Lutherans to consider various forms of deferred giving and the intentional distribution of a portion of their appreciated assets for the work of the Church. This workshop was offered at most ALOA program events throughout 2008 and 2009.

With Pastor Solberg’s leadership, ALOA’s membership program was revised in 2008 to reflect the concept that members are building the church of the future by becoming “Living Stones” to help ALOA strengthen the church and its congregations. At the same time, ALOA launched “The Weber Legacy Society”—an organization named in honor of The Rev. Gloria and John Weber for people who had committed a deferred gift to ALOA. There are eleven charter members.

ALOA continued its involvement with Wingspread, and in 2008 a “Best Practices” award program was incorporated into the format. ALOA Director Rev. Brad Hales won the first national “Best Practices” in senior ministry award for his program at Reformation Lutheran Church in Culpeper, VA.

Two “Celebrate and Serve” awards were given in 2008: one to The Rev. Charles Mueller, Roselle, NJ and one to The Rev. Arthur Constein, Chicago, IL. Dorothy Stein, Chicago, IL, received a Hanson Award for Service. With a grant from the Weber Family Foundation, ALOA premiered a DVD which became available to members and congregations who wanted a visual way to explain ALOA and its mission.

At the suggestion of The Rev. Herb Brokering, ALOA convened a Lutherhostel Think Tank in Trego, WI in conjunction with the 2008 COLORAMA Lutherhostel. Chaired by Dr. Brokering, the group recommended that new Lutherhostels be developed that intentionally target younger “older adults,” that relate to Lutheran history, and that encourage intergenerational programs. In the spring of 2009 a similar task force was convened in Tucson, AZ, in conjunction with the Arizona Lutherhostel, to discuss SeniorFests. The Rev. Dick Hafer received a “Celebrate and Serve” award for his efforts in Florida.

Through planning processes in 2006-2009, led by ALOA’s Vice President, The Rev. Dr. Robert Hughes, the ALOA Board recognized that while its events were a strength to build on, there was a greater need to do more to encourage and help congregations develop, expand and improve senior ministry in local churches. In 2009 ALOA continued to sponsor SeniorFests, Lutherhostels and Pilgrimages. It continued the quarterly publication of Encore Times and the bi-annual newsletter, Keeping in Touch. In addition, however, ALOA began electronically distributing information about webinars, emagazines, and pertinent articles and research from a wide variety of people working in the area of older adult ministry. ALOA began to be more intentional about providing practical assistance to people and congregations interested in comprehensive senior ministry.

Resources to be truly effective, however, remained elusive. At the end of the decade, ALOA had one half-time salaried director, one person contracted to manage Lutherhostels, and three part-time office staff whose combined hours totaled less than one full-time person. ALOA had a reputation for excellent programming and was becoming the Lutheran “go-to” source for information on senior ministry. The chronic lack of funds, the magnitude of the mission, and controversies within the church, however, combined to threaten ALOA’s ability to continue providing quality services, let alone to begin addressing all of the issues the founders had articulated nearly 20 years ago. In 2012, the staff was reduced to one part-time office staff person, and the board voluntarily served in many capacities that had previously been handled by staff.

The “Third Phase” began with the “Karl Lutze Visionary Leadership Fund” fundraising campaign in 2016 which raised enough support to begin the search for an Executive Director and to reset the vision and path forward. Mark Schoepp was brought on board on a part-time basis and served from mid 2018-2019. Together with ALOA’s Board of Directors, a vision was cast for “EncourAGING and Equipping Congregations for Older Adult Ministry” and a new web site was launched in January of 2019 that outlined a simple “blueprint for ministry.” ALOA’s Board of Directors has their eyes set on a lively 30th Anniversary celebration in September of 2021. It is hoped that by that time, ongoing financial support would be at the level to fund a full-time Executive Director and necessary support staff.