What if you don’t HAVE to get less effective as you get older?
What if you just have to CHANGE?
I don’t know about you but I am not getting any younger. After playing softball for decades, I now find it painful to bend over to pick up a bat, much less scoop up a ground ball. I have less range, a slower hand eye response, don’t as routinely make routine plays and need a calendar to time me running the bases. I split open my little finger on my right hand recently because I couldn’t handle a ground ball hit to me at first base (I was a shortstop for years). That never used to happen. Terrible. Fortunately, I don’t make a living as an athlete, my shelf life is longer. Much longer. If athletics were my life, I am washed up but athletics are not my life. I have a far bigger game to play!
Getting older isn’t optional, in fact it beats the alternative but I am convinced that becoming anachronistic and irrelevant is optional. I believe myself to be effective, relevant and vital in my mid-fifties in ways I could never have hoped a decade or two ago. I am smarter, more experienced, better connected, less ego driven and more interested in investing in others. Legacy has become as important to me as success. I have been the Sr. Pastor at Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997. Leading a single congregation this long is a constant process of holding fast to a mission on one hand and constant reinvention on the other. At fifty-seven, I can no longer lead by being the “best player on the team” but I am clearly not ready to hang up my cleats. I have to offer value in different ways. It is a paradigm shift for sure but not as difficult as you may think.
How to “Lead Young”
- You are no longer your intended audience On Easter this year, I walked into the sanctuary a bit after we had started our first service and heard a song being played that sounded just like every song I hate. I felt like we were “clubbing for Jesus” and I was wishing someone would hit me with a club. Then I had an epiphany! I was not the intended audience. When I looked across the worship space, I noted dozens of Millennial’s completely into the music who were no doubt thinking, “This is best song we have EVER done at church!”
- Rely on more than your instincts As a leader, you build your organization by going with your gut; even if all the facts point a different direction. My gut is still golden if I am wanting to reach people roughly my age but I honestly don’t “get” the sensibilities of people in their twenties and students are a complete mystery. These days I still pay attention to my instincts but I have to equally trust the instrument panel as well.
- The 15 year both ways rule I figure a leader can have strong appeal about fifteen years both directions. That means I can effectively relate to people 40-75 without trying too hard and frankly that is a wide swatch! But if I hope to reach people on either side of that spectrum, I am going to have to be intentional. A couple years back I was asked what our church had to offer older people. I smiled and responded, “Me!”
- Hire two to three decades younger When we try to get organizationally younger, we are often tempted to hire people a decade younger than us but the reality is that you can relate to those folks yourself. Where I need help is connecting with people under forty and the best way to connect is by hiring people in that age range.
- Stay current (but don’t embarrass the people around you) There is a fine line between looking archaic and looking like you are trying too hard. I want to dress like a person my age who is paying some attention to fashion and style but I don’t want to embarrass my family. Leaders my age who are rocking the jet black dyed hair and skinny jeans look really young…from a distance. A very long distance.
- Get input from young people I often ask our young people what they think of their church. Their responses can hurt your feelings because they are often blunt and they seem so certain. When you get these responses, remember three things: 1) They are attending so they must like something 2) You can’t be defensive and 3) You need their insights. After all, you did ask…
- Pay attention to what draws young people We have a Wednesday evening service featuring stripped down music (led by Millennial’s) and forty-five minutes of preaching (led by me). Nothing we do draws a higher percentage of young people. This tells me that there is a market for peer led worship music and straight up Bible teaching from an old dude. And since that perfectly aligns with our mission, it is worth noting as we look to the future.
- Shift roles Though I am still the face of our organization, I am letting others assume more of that role to focus on the things I uniquely can do. No one knows more people, has a better 30,000 foot view, thinks as strategically and can better raise resources than me. Lots of people look better on stage.
- Know the culture/don’t judge it I am at the age where I am convinced that everything from music to sports was better when I was a kid. I am not sure I could name two New York Knicks today but I can still name the complete roster from my childhood. I must resist my temptations to place value judgements on the current culture and I must make myself engage at least a part of it. The bottom line is that God called me to reach people in 2019 and I won’t be effective if I spend my days waxing for 1969.
- Start the next wave before the current one crests This is tricky but it is the key to sustained organizational growth. You have to start the new thing before the old thing has run its course. New worship styles, programming and ministries must be introduced before the existing ones have completely lost their steam. Once attendance, participation or giving actually drop off, you are already WAY behind the curve.
- Reach the grandchildren (and you will keep the grandparents) I love taking my four grandkids to breakfast. I treasure the time but they ALWAYS pick the restaurant and I ALWAYS have to buy. Spending quality time with them requires some sacrifice from me but I am happy to make it. Reach the grandchildren and you will keep the grandparents! Believe me on this one, grandparents get it!
If my vocational life were a softball game, I am now in the middle of the fifth inning (softball games go seven innings). Do I plan to score a few more runs? You better believe it!
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop is the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois and a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church.