Leading Those Who Are Older In The Ministry

Maybe its just my age-maybe it’s watching those around me get older within our organization.  But I am observing that there is a mutual tension between organizations wanting to retain good people and those same people desiring to be significant contributors till the end.  It’s a common refrain in our organization that we do not do a good job with older staff.  It’s also a fairly common refrain from our older staff that they do not feel maximized.    I think one of the critical issues is the continuum between commitment and contribution.

When you join with an organization, especially if you do so at a fairly young age, you often do so because of a commitment to the cause or the vision.  And I think this is correct.  Your commitment should be high and you should be willing to learn a broad array of skills and tools.  My organization, Campus Crusade for Christ, does a good job of developing young laborers and leaders by forcing them to become well-rounded in ministry understanding and skills.  You are asked to do a lot of different things as part of a hands on training program.  It stretches you and allows you to find out what you truly enjoy and are gifted to do.

As you enter your thirties you ought to be narrowing your skill set down.  Sure, you are able to do twenty different things for the organization.  But some are not near as motivating as they once were and you begin to realize that certain aspects of the ministry give you more life and energy.  This is a normal maturation process for anyone in ministry.  It was your commitment to the organization and your willingness to try anything that allowed you to better discover who you truly are.  And up to this point you have probably followed a fairly predictable career path.  Maybe you have changed roles once or twice and taken on greater scope and responsibility.

Howard Hendricks, a distinguished professor at Dallas Seminary, once remarked that your best years of ministry are between the ages of 40 and 65.  He went on to suggest that these are the years where you should make your strongest contribution and potentially have your greatest impact.  I think that this is also correct.  The main reason, hopefully, is because your character matches and undergirds your abilities-and provides you with a credible foundation for ministry.  But here is where the continuum should begin to shift.  By the time you reach this stage of your life you should have a much more clear picture of what you are good at and what you are passionate about-so that you can have maximum impact.  But it is at this very point where organizations (churches and other mission agencies) fail.  They are still honoring total commitment to the vision and the cause-when they should be honoring a person’s unique contribution out of their gifts, abilities and passions.  You see at this point, if a person has maintained their integrity and foundation for ministry, they are able to utilize their gifts and abilities in a number of ways-and with a number of different organizations.  Their narrowing could actually broaden their opportunities.  But the language you will often hear from the existing organization is “just stick with us, something will work out.”  But often that results in only being offered “plug and play” roles and mid level leaders can feel devalued and stuck in less than meaningful ministry.

Ministry organizations that want to retain their people should actually narrow as the people narrow.  The organization should pay closer attention to their people who are 40 and beyond so that they truly understand what they have to offer and steward it well.  It doesn’t mean they have to move up the title ladder-many leaders at that stage are not caught up with that.  But they do want to make a unique contribution that taps in to all that they are.  Most still believe in the cause and the vision that brought them to this point-but contribution should rightfully trump commitment to an organizational cause.  Ultimately they understand that God’s Kingdom is what truly matters-and they want to contribute well out of who God made them to be.  It would behoove the top  organizational leaders to pay close attention too.

15 responses to “Leading Those Who Are Older In The Ministry

  1. Another great post, Gary. Made me think of Charlie Clary. You’ve described him in every way in this post. This post is also something Kari Kennedy and I were JUST talking about TODAY—-how we feel like we still believe and are committed to the mission, but we’re getting to the point of not wanting to organize yet another freshman retreat! We’ve learned what we enjoy, but are still expected to “do it all”.

    • Thanks Ali for your comments-I think it can be kind of a tough transition in our ministry. I think we have to both lead down and up. We have to lead down in delegating and empowering others towards those things that we can do, but shouldn’t. And we have to lead up in such a way that our leaders above us better know and understand what we have to offer and how we can have a better impact. I am seeing that we can’t be shy about that. And of course, over time, it may require a change of organization or audience so that we are having he greatest impact on the kingdom that we can.

      • I agree—I’m in the “I’m trying to figure out what all that looks like day in and day out” phase! Please keep writing your jewels of wisdom…..you spur my thinking in a good way! PS. I have recommended this particular post to several others this past week!

  2. donna kushner

    Excellent! Thanks for sharing these wise words!

  3. Warren Culwell

    Well stated. So, you didn’t finish this….what now…..

    • Warren-thanks for the comments-I keep waiting on you to figure this out and let me know. I do think we have to keep leading up in such a way that we can determine that our gifts and passions are best served in unique ways within Crusade-or we take the faith leap to leave and steward those things somewhere else. My observation at times is that Crusade staff and staff in other organizational settings “have quit but they are still here.” Meaning they have good support and a decent life-but they are not really engaged in maximum ways in their current ministry setting-but the pain of change is greater than the pain of staying the same.

  4. Tim Patterson

    My wife and I have been 35 years with our mission organization and returned from 20 years overseas about two years ago. You have well described what we are facing now. My question is this: Is there any solution?

    • Thanks Tim for your comments-where did you serve overseas? We have been in Italy for the past five years. I think there are solutions that require healthy and humble “leading up.” I think we have to steward well what God has equipped and called us to do. Our agencies and organizations have to recognize that-or it might be time to change entities for the sake of greater impact for the kingdom-of course change can be a huge challenge too.

      • Tim Patterson

        Thanks for your response, Gary. We were in Germany for about four years and then Moscow for 17.
        I think that it sounds well and good enough to steward well what God has equipped and gifted us to do and then “lead up”, but I have found both aspects incredibly more complicated to do here. For one, how can any of us really know what it is God has “equipped and called us to do”? I have taken a battery of tests to help me determine this, but it still seems quite presumptuous to say what “it” is. It also quite difficult to change entities, especially if there are none to be found that recognize what we are equipped to do. I have reached a point in the two year long search where I am thinking that sometimes one just needs to be still and stay put. I am not so sure it is quitting, as it is ceasing to strive and know that He is God. I may be wrong in this, but it is quite a striving to find a place within or without where one feels he is in the right place. If indeed I am quitting then I need the same kind of power at work in my life that was when He first saved me.

  5. Alice Fredricks

    I SO agree…but then I’m in “that stage of life”!

    • Thanks Alice for your comments. I think for sure this dilemma is related to stage of life. But I also think that we have a stewardship before the Lord that we have to pay attention to and lead up in such a way that our leaders over us hear and heed well how to get the most out of us.

  6. I’m getting in late on this discussion… Good wisdom, Gary. Thanks for challenging the way so many of us think. I find myself thinking about and talking way more about “fit” and “maximum contribution” now than I ever have. I also appreciate the attention to character built up to match leadership ability. Just rings really true. Thanks.

    • Thanks Shawn for your comments. Didn’t know if you knew or not-but we are moving back to Austin to work with the Lillestrands. Hope to be settled in August sometime.

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