Sometimes, young leaders make stupid mistakes. Sometimes, more senior leaders shake their heads in dismay, wishing that these foolish young leaders would just listen, learn, and quit being so bullheaded. There are times, however, when young leaders take unfair heat from older leaders because of generational misunderstandings.
This article attempts to explain the tension from the perspective of misunderstandings that older leaders might have towards younger leaders. The broad brush strokes used are not an attempt to stereotype “young” or “old,” but to sort out some misunderstandings that might arise.
Why Young and Old Church Leaders Might Clash
1. They might mistake confidence for arrogance.
Confidence is an essential leadership trait. No one follows someone unless that person possesses some level of confidence. Sometimes, however, confidence can be viewed as arrogance. And yes, there is sometimes overlap.
When an older leader mentors and guides a younger leader, the older leader must be prepared to encounter the younger man’s confidence, without judging it as arrogance. Confidence comes with experience, but it also comes from conviction. Allow confidence to flourish where it is permitted. Without it, the younger cannot lead effectively.
2. They might mistake innovation for insubordination.
One mark of a great leader is their ability to come up with innovative solutions to perplexing problems. Solutions change according to the present needs. Today’s solutions — pioneered by younger leaders — will look different from the solutions of a decade or two ago.
Understandably, change is hard. We tend to resist change, and view it as an affront to our tried and true practices.
By its very definition, innovation demands making changes, and introducing new methods or ideas. Such innovations are not by themselves a sign of insubordination.
3. They might mistake relevance for irreverence.
I’m concerned that the “relevance” idea is overplayed in some church ministries. It’s been commandeered as a license for capitulation to worldliness, rather than true gospel-focused contextualization. Nonetheless, some facets of relevance that must be accepted.
Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding regarding relevance and irreverence is in the arena of worship music styles. Wisdom and grace should characterize these discussions, and we should work hard to understand the fine line between that which is appropriate relevance and inappropriate irreverence.
4. They might mistake questioning for rebelling.
When I was younger (I’m still sort of young), toiling through seminary and embarking upon life, I had a lot of questions. What I learned in my context was that asking questions was dangerous. My questions brought negative responses from others before they produced answers.
I’ve seen this happen many times. A young leader who wants to learn asks questions — “Why are we doing it this way? What is the purpose of this? Why can’t we try this? Why is this important? Why isn’t this working?”
Maybe the young leader’s questions come across in the wrong way. Maybe they seemed to be an attack upon time-honored practices. Maybe they came from a heart of arrogance.
But maybe the young leader was simply trying to learn. Maybe it’s not rebellion at all. The church should be a place where it is safe to ask questions. Even in the realm of leadership, asking questions is often the way to arrive at solutions.
Advice for Young and Old Leaders
Each of the points above is directed towards helping older leaders understand younger leaders. Young leaders, however, should learn from and respect older leaders. Here is some advice for how young leaders can benefit from older leaders, and how older leaders can help younger leaders.
How young leaders can profit from older leaders.
• Glean the wisdom of older leaders.
• Ask their advice, even if you think you know better.
• Respect their advice, even if you don’t agree with it.
• Do more asking than teaching.
• Seek to understand their positions rather than throwing out challenges.
• Spend as much time as you can with them.
How older leaders can help younger leaders.
• Let them make mistakes.
• Recognize their need to lead, and to eventually replace you.
• Understand their role as the new generation of leaders.
• Acknowledge the changing cultural milieu, and be open to change
• Ask them questions.
The point where young meets old — where the torch is passed, where the lessons are learned and, yes, where tensions can arise — is the perfect opportunity for change, discovery, progress, and power. The church is kaleidoscope of people, perceptions, visions, ages, races, backgrounds, income levels, IQ levels, nationalities, confusions, sanctifications, and personalities. And it’s beautiful.
Yes, there will be some friction and disagreement from time to time. This is nothing new.
Regardless of our age, let’s embrace our role as leaders and love, learn from, submit to, respect, and humbly work together to exalt the name of Jesus.