Leading Across Generations

July 28, 2016

by Nathan Kirkpatrick

generationIt is often said that churches are one of the last intergenerational places in American society -- and this can be a gift to the church. An intergenerational community gives us a depth of wisdom; it gives us a diversity of experiences and perspectives that can prove instructive. If we listen to the stories that get told in congregations, we can hear of God’s enduring faithfulness across generations. We can find examples of the way the Spirit enables the resilience of the church even against incredible odds. The intergenerational nature of the church can shore up faith, confirm our hope and enliven our witness.

But the church’s intergenerational nature presents clear challenges for our life together. Different generations can have different theological understandings of the mission of the church and whom the church exists to serve. They can have different priorities for the work of ministry that reflect both differing visions of what it means to be in ministry and the unique spiritual needs of a particular generation at a particular point in time. Furthermore, generations may have different senses of what membership or commitment means, which can lead to unfulfilled expectations and resentments.

Different generations may also have different understandings of what is considered “professionally appropriate.” As Haydn Shaw has indicated, people of different generations have differing notions of professional dress, work hours, and the purpose and place of meetings. Regardless of your generational identification, you have to navigate these stated and unstated expectations.

Part of leadership is learning how to receive the gifts that come with the intergenerational nature of the church while at the same time working to overcome the challenges inherent within it. How can you best do that?

First, utilize your best communication skills. When you find yourself bridging generational differences, the skills of speaking clearly, listening deeply and facilitating dialogue between others matter all the more. Ask open-ended questions, the kind that will encourage self-reflection and story sharing rather than a flat “yes” or “no.” The aim of every encounter, as St. Francis reminds us, is to understand before seeking to be understood.

Second, listen for values. Listen beyond what is being said for what is being expressed. Oftentimes, when we find ourselves pinched between generations in a discussion or disagreement, we are experiencing a conflict of values or priorities. So listen for what matters to people. Your capacity to perceive and articulate values is an essential gift if people are to be able to hear one another and, ultimately, find common ground.

In my first field education placement, I remember a parishioner declaring in a meeting, “You know what the Good Book says, right? ‘The church is the same yesterday, today and forever.’” He almost got it right (according to the writer of Hebrews, it’s Jesus that is the same), but if we listen, we can hear what this traditionalist (a member of the generation born before 1946) was trying to express: the value of the reliability of institutions. Change in the church was threatening to him, because it meant that an institution he cared about might not be lasting in a form he recognized.

Third, keep in mind the complex events that have shaped a generation’s worldview. Every year, Wisconsin’s Beloit College publishes its “Mindset List,” a list of things that have somehow defined reality for that year’s incoming freshmen. In past years, the list has included things like “The Soviet Union has never existed and therefore is about as scary as the student union” (Class of 2010); “Caller ID has always been available on phones” (Class of 2012); “Two-term presidents are routine, but none of them ever won in a landslide” (Class of 2018).

While Beloit’s list is year-to-year, we can imagine a list that is generation-to-generation. For traditionalists (born pre-1946), we would need to include experiences like the Great Depression, World War II, suburbia, the baby boom. For baby boomers (born 1946-64), we would note generation-shaping experiences like the Cold War, the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. For Gen X (born 1965-80), we would remember the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed, the Gulf War, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, the Clinton impeachment; for millennials (born 1981-2001), the attacks of Sept. 11 and the subsequent war on terror, the economic downturn of the late 2000s, the influence of technology. These events, and others we might name, have shaped the mindset and worldview of entire generations.

Within the church, other significant events have shaped “generational” mindsets. Within denominations, there are clear generational fault lines. There are generations who have lived through debates about the participation of women in ordained ministry; there are women who were the first to serve, many of whom did so in hostile environments. There are generations who have endured fights over questions of LGBTQ inclusion; there are LGBTQ people who know what it is to have their worthiness debated before them. There are generations who will come after these questions have been answered and will wonder why they were ever questions at all.

Likewise, within a local congregation or institution, an experience of pastoral or lay misconduct, a pastoral transition deftly or poorly handled, a season of profound growth or decline, the addition of a building, a community tragedy -- all these things will form and shape congregational “generations.” Within the congregation, there will be people who predate the experience and people who come after, with no memory of it and little understanding of why it matters.

As a leader, you will want to keep these generational lines in mind even as you work to bridge the divides that they represent.

Fourth, harvest wisdom. Within each congregation and each institution, there is a hard-fought, hard-won wisdom about what it means to be a community of faith and what it means to serve the world in Christ’s name. Often, this wisdom is not shared without an explicit opportunity to do so. As a leader, your presence (along with your thoughtful questions) can allow people to articulate things that they know but have never said before. You can be a catalyst for cross-generational wisdom sharing.

Fifth, continue learning about generational differences. There are many good books written on the subject. Yet in your reading and learning about generations, remember that it is possible to make too much of generational differences. Generational categories are meant to be descriptive, not predictive, and not every difference causes disagreement or disaster.

We share a great deal across generations, and even when we do have substantive differences, the Spirit still works, sometimes leading people beyond their own preferences and predispositions. We must give the Spirit room to surprise.

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