January 17, 2008
Disarming the Boomers (Part 2)
The key to bridging the generation gap between church leaders: massive quantities of coffee.
David Swanson is back with the second half of his post about working with a church leadership team dominated by Boomers. He believes there are a few simple strategies that can help a younger leader not only survive in a Boomer church, but even begin to influence the congregation toward change.
This morning I met one of our church leaders, a self-identified Boomer, for breakfast. We talked about the tendency for younger leaders within established churches to eventually leave for greener (more exciting, more like-minded, more missional) pastures. As one who has remained, I shared how lonely it can be as a young leader whose priorities and passions are often not shared by the congregation or its Boomer leaders.
I imagine loneliness is not a unique experience among young leaders. Not long ago a youth pastor in his twenties visited me from out of state. His first year in ministry was going well, but he was beginning to feel like a fish out of water in a church dominated by older leaders. After commiserating, I shared with him the limited wisdom I had gained from working with Boomers.
Paint pictures of the future
In Part One I pointed out the need to repeatedly earn the trust of older leaders. Skepticism was often expressed when I shared new concepts and ministry ideas. Whether it was fear, resistance, or simple misunderstanding, many conversations would end with those dreaded words, "You're just going to have to be patient with us."
One day I summoned the courage to share a very specific and, in my mind, risky ministry initiative. Bracing myself for the usual hesitancy, I was amazed by the enthusiasm of one leader's response. So I shared the idea with another leader, and then another, and finally to an entire team of Boomers. Each time the response was the same, "We could do that!"
This new ministry initiative was informed by the same concepts and ideas that had met with such uncertainty before. What had changed? The difference was that my co-leaders could now imagine the future I was talking about. What seemed radical as a theoretical concept now looked reasonable as a specific ministry initiative. Their inconsistency didn't seem rational to me, but I was not about to argue with their enthusiasm.
Answer the questions being asked
There is a line in a song by Over the Rhine that reads, "You need questions, forget about the answers." It's a judgment about the tendency to give simplistic responses to complex realities. Many young church leaders can relate to this lyric. Call it a generational shift, deconstruction, or good old-fashioned rebellion; the fact is that many young leaders are not satisfied with the overly-pragmatic Boomer mentality.
We are more comfortable with questions and ambiguity. As a result, we present ideas based on a way of seeing the world that may seem peculiar to the previous generation. As to be expected, our ideas are met with raised eyebrows and lots of practical questions - questions we believe often miss the point.
In Part One I related how the disconnect between a young leader's ideas and a Boomer's questions is often rooted in the battles the older leader fought a generation ago. But this doesn't make their questions illegitimate. That is a lesson I am continuing to learn. We may not like the Boomers' questions about our ideas, but they still need to be answered. Our new initiatives will have a greater chance of success if we take the time to address the concerns of the older leaders, despite their apparent irrelevancy and no matter how often they are asked.
Drink a lot of coffee
Those of us who itch for change are faced with the fact that, in most cases, it is the senior leadership's prerogative to initiate those changes. This can be a frustrating reality for a young leader. Our options are to give up on large-scale change, disconnect from the church to attempt our own new thing, or drink a lot of coffee. Tea works too.
A couple of years into my time as an associate pastor I began scheduling regular breakfasts, afternoon coffee breaks, and evening conversations with some of our church's Boomer leaders. These conversations were agenda-free. It was a chance to talk about past experiences, current challenges, and future possibilities for our church. The only measure of success was that coffee was consumed and good conversation was had.
Over time, as relationships developed, it became apparent that my ministry ideas were being met with more acceptance. Some of my new ideas even became conversation topics among our older leaders. It was deeply satisfying to participate in a strategic vision for the church that had begun as a conversation over coffee. Don't underestimate the importance of investing in relationships.
I still have a lot to learn about working with Boomers, and I'd welcome stories and wisdom from other your leaders reading this blog. What has been helpful to you as you initiate change among your Boomer congregation? And to the Boomers among us, what council do you have for the next generation other than, "You're just going to have to be patient with us."