January 9, 2008
Disarming the Boomers
Can a younger pastor bring change without getting blown away?
Let's be honest. The distance between the Boomers and Busters isn't just a generation gap - it's a generation gorge. The cultural, technological, and philosophical shifts that have occurred in recent decades have given these two generations fundamentally different perspectives. Although some younger pastors have abandoned the Boomer church to launch their own communities, there are many struggling to serve side by side with the older generation. In part 1 of his post, David Swanson shares the lessons he's learned as a younger pastor attempting to bring change on a team dominated by Boomers.
In his letter introducing me as a new associate pastor to the congregation, the senior pastor included the Apostle's advice to his young apprentice, "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity" (1 Timothy 4:12). I was 25 years old and, while it was a nice sentiment, the verse hardly seemed necessary. Five years later it is clear Paul's words were more than a kind gesture; they were a hint at the reality to come.
The generational gap between myself and those I was leading quickly became perceptible. As long as my energy was primarily spent maintaining ministries, the difference between the Boomers and me was negligible. It was when I began asking questions about our ministry strategies and effectiveness that Paul's councel took on new significance.
The leaders at our church are too gracious to have looked down on me as I asked my ministry questions. However, as more time was spent looking for ways to answer those questions, the differences in our ages and ways of seeing the world were a constant reminder of my youth. Even as we came to understand and accept the differences, there continued to be surprises. Three of these came up repeatedly.
Trust must be earned again, and again?and again
As a young staff person, I rightly trusted our church's leaders. These were men and women who had been commended with the significant task of leading our community. And while I knew these leaders liked me and appreciated my gifts, in those first years it was clear they didn't entirely trust me. One morning I was venting about this to my senior pastor when he said, "Just wait until you're 30. I'm not sure why, but something changes on your 30th birthday."
In hindsight I see how true his observation was. Who knows why, but people's perceptions of a young leader change when he or she is no longer in their 20's. In the meantime, I had to accept the fact that trust was not mine to lose, but mine to earn?again and again. It's a slow process that required a lot of relationship building over a lot of coffee.
Last decade's battles feel like yesterday
One of the ministry questions I asked of our leaders was whether we were intentionally engaging our culture with the love of God. One person consistently pushed back when this topic was raised. He would say, "How can we be sure this kind of engagement won't lead to relativism?" I never understood where this question came from, but we shared many lunches where I hoped to convince him that I had no interest in relativism of any kind. I would walk away assuming the conversation was closed, only to receive an email the next week asking the same question in a slightly different way.
Over coffee with a different leader, I expressed my frustration with this person's questions. "He's like a broken record!" I huffed. From across the table came the reply, "You have to understand that moral relativism was the battle of our generation. Everything hinged on that issue for us Boomers." The stars aligned in that moment. Suddenly this individual's concerns seemed much more valid. While at times I still got frustrated, I was also more patient knowing the source of his concerns.
My slow is your fast
One of the phrases that a young leader grows to loathe is, "You need to be patient." Or at least I did. The truth is that "slow" and "fast" are very subjective. After a couple of years, I began to recognize the subtle looks of panic as I would suggest strategies or new ideas for the church. While these ideas seemed reasonable to me, to some of our Boomer leaders they sounded quite risky, radical even.
Perhaps, as a leader ages, it is inevitable that the tolerance for risk diminishes. What once seemed reasonable eventually appears risky and fast. I don't know. This is one surprise that continues to be frustrating to me at times. While I see the need for the wisdom of my elders, I also do not want to lose the sense of urgency for the work God has called us to.
These are just three of the surprises I encountered as a younger leader. For those of you in this category, are there additional things that caught you off guard? And for you Boomer leaders, what do you find tricky about working with or being led by the younger generation?
In part 2 of his post, Swanson will suggest a few ways the younger leader can intentionally serve and lead an older generation.
David Swanson is the associate pastor of Parkview Community Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.