How to Lead People that are Older than You

  • Written By 
  • Jonathan Swindal

It is both beautiful and difficult to truly love people who are different from yourself.

 

If you serve in the Church long enough you will discover this for yourself. It’s even more difficult to lead them – together – into discipleship to Jesus. Yet that is what it is to pastor.

Each variation of “difference” that we encounter provides a unique challenge.

The differences between men and women; races, cultures, and ethnicities; differences that arise from the widening political and socio-economic spectrum; and between generations, young and old, are real and require intentionality for all parties to flourish within a single Christian community. I’m convinced that God’s vision is for His Church to be a beautiful witness that emerges from truly diverse communities who are dedicated to embracing one another as they are. This isn’t easy to achieve, but it is possible!

These differences will show up in peoples’ opinions on nearly everything you do – or don’t do.

The generation gap is one of the more difficult to handle well in churches.

 

This is because of our human tendency to prefer (and over-spiritualize) what we’re comfortable with and where we have spiritual memories.

Tracks or no tracks?

Hymns, choruses, or spontaneous songs-in-the-Spirit?

Keys-driven or Electric-driven style?

90db or 110db?

The worship ministry will tend to be the place where people experience the most change in your local church.

The Bible hasn’t changed in… a really long time. But songs and music styles change rapidly.

Think about this: your pastor will preach this Sunday from a text that has been preached from for at least 2,000 years! But the oldest song you’re likely to sing over the next year will be 200 years old and that will only be 1-2 select hymns. It’s likely that 75% of the songs your congregation will sing were written in the last 5 years.

People who have been believers for decades will have experienced a lot of change in worship styles, worship songs, worship atmospheres, etc. And for most of them it’s very difficult to adapt because of the associated nostalgia.

So if this is true, how are we to lead worship ministries with people who have opinions on everything? And, in particular, how do we lead people who are older than we are? 

The first thing I submit is to lead from a posture of humility.

 

In my experience, older people don’t generally take issue with being led by younger people. They take issue with being led by younger people who think they know it all or think can do it all without their older brothers and sisters.

This is key.

I’m convinced that the posture with which you lead is as important as the decisions you make.

Not too long ago I needed to have a potentially difficult conversation with a retired minister who attends our church. I offered to take him to lunch and asked him about the churches he had pastored, I asked him about what he loved from 40+ years of full-time ministry, and I asked about his time in our congregation.

By the time I got around to informing him of the decision we had made he received it gracefully and since has responded with supportive action.

Now this isn’t meant to put my leadership on display as “exemplary.” His response was much more about his own character than it was about my leadership. But because I trust his character I honored him with time over a meal, inquired about his story, and listened authentically to what he had to say. I didn’t ask those questions as a strategy, but because I genuinely believe that he carries a wisdom borne of experience in ministry that is a gift to our congregation. And he responded to a decision he wouldn’t have chosen quite graciously.

The flip-side to this posture of humility is to lead from a place of security in your calling and position.

 

The best leaders are the ones who know that they aren’t self-made people and are in the positions they’re in because God has called, equipped, and empowered them to lead in their context. Once a leader is secure in their calling they no longer have to prove themselves to those who are older or more experienced. They no longer have to (act like they) have all the answers or convince people that each decision they make is always the best one.

It’s usually quite simple to identify leaders who are leading from a place of deep-seated insecurity.

Everything they do is an attempt to garner favor and support. But ultimately they’re not leading, they’re simply appealing. You discovering security in your relationship with God and wrestling your insecurities to the ground is one of the greatest things you can do in any form of leadership. Of course it is a journey you must be both humble and secure in your leadership.

Practically, I believe one of the things that frequently frustrates older people from their younger leaders is a lack of clear communication.

 

Many people will give you the benefit of a doubt if you are open, honest, and clear when communicating your decisions. Those who have been around the block once or twice know that it’s impossible to please everyone.

But leaders who make decisions in silos and then fail to communicate with their people end up making it hard for people to give you the benefit of a doubt that you wish they would.

Share the “why” as much as possible with people when you make changes.

Invite them into the decision-making thought process.

Give them space to ask questions.

When there’s an obvious problem in your ministry that needs to be solved, inquire of those who you know tend to have a different perspective. Listen for a perspective that you may not have considered and thank them for sharing.

Recently one of our worship team members – who is nearly 20 years my elder – took issue with a musical decision that I had made around tracks and song structures…

He sent me a kind, yet very direct email. He was obviously bothered. I was tempted to respond with all of the reasons his logic was misguided, but the Spirit broke in and led me to better judgment! I responded and thanked him for feeling the freedom to share his concerns and told him that I wasn’t yet ready to respond. Eventually we met in person and when he shared his concerns the tone in his voice was much different than I heard when I had read the email.

Two communication lessons here:

1) Do not respond in haste. It’s okay for you to tell someone that they’ve been heard and that you’re not yet ready to respond.

2) when you can meet in person you should because there’s always more context provided. Not all meetings need to happen face-to-face. But when you can tell someone is grieved about a decision there is an opportunity to pastor them that is far more important than you getting your point across that can be facilitated in a face-to-face meeting. 

When this gentleman and I met it took me 90 seconds to share why I had made those decisions – after my extended apology for not having given proper context before implementing the changes – and he was immediately relieved and at peace. Would he have preferred I gone another direction? Sure, but he was wise enough to know that no matter what church he attends there will be decisions he doesn’t like. At least he knows his thoughts are genuinely valued here.

God doesn’t typically wait for us to feel fully prepared and adequate before we’re thrust into ministry.

 

Most pastors and worship leaders begin when they’re fairly young. Rest assured: you don’t have to have all the answers or be flawless in your decision-making to be a good leader.

What people really need is to be cared for and listened to by humble, secure leaders.

And the people God sends you, both younger and older, are gifts to be welcomed and pastored. Treat people with dignity by being open to their perspectives and clearly communicating all that you are able to.

In the end, know that you will rarely make people happy. But you can always treat them with dignity.

If you do, you’ll be surprised how your insecurities are replaced by authentic pastoral care and compassion for the very people you feel inadequate to lead.

 

 

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