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Apr 11
2014

The Graying of A Ministry

Posted by: Steve Marr

Tagged in: Untagged 

When asked to assist Christian ministries in decline or struggling to stay afloat, one of the first things I look at is the age of board members and staff. If all board members are over 65 and the youngest staff member is 50, it grays the organization. I say this as one who is gray and Medicare eligible.

Older individuals often run nonprofit organizations.  These people may have limited contact with younger people. It takes effort for older people to interact with young adults.  I know because every day I make a determined effort to make sure that I don’t just have coffee with gray hairs.  I look for ways to interact with young people in business as well.  Organizations must do the same if they want their ministry to survive in the future.  However, it is difficult for an organization to recruit prospective leaders who have 30 to 40 years ahead to serve the mission. 

Churches have solved this problem for almost 2000 years.  They are always looking for ways to recruit new, younger members. This is why churches have survived for so long; it is part of God’s plan for the church.

Modern nonprofit organizations often suffer because they don’t know how to recruit, train, and partner with younger employees.  The young men and women who come on board are enthusiastic.  They want influence. They want opportunities for service and leadership. However, they lack experience. They are likely to make mistakes. For that reason, they are usually put on a short leash. Experienced members of the organization give them selected opportunities to see how well they perform.  These leaders want to see responsible performance over a long period of time. They don’t want to clean up messes when inexperienced employees are given too much responsibility.

Regardless of the challenges, it is essential that older leaders find younger colleagues. If they don't, their organizations will die.  Without young leadership, their business will not make the transition into the future.

Another issue that a nonprofit organization fails to address is that senior leaders retire or die.  Without passing their knowledge on to younger leaders, they leave the company compromised in their absence.   

Furthermore, too many times leaders act as if their financial donors live forever; but they don’t.  These financial assets must be replaced by middle-aged donors early.  There must also be a dedicated effort to add young donors, even though they may not have a lot of money.  There is always attrition.  That’s why this ongoing process is critical to their future growth and success. Any organization that ignores this biological reality is not going to survive.

I have had experience with a number of organizations that avoid conflict with the younger generation by excluding them or firing them rather than working through issues.  King Solomon wrote, “Intelligent people are always open to new ideas. In fact, they look for them.” (Proverbs 18:15, NLT) The rub is to gain balance.  Understand and celebrate past successes while embracing the future. This is easier to talk about than to act on.  And it is a perennial issue.  Young employees, who are pushed aside, start new businesses.  However, in thirty to forty years, they face the same issues. 

Here are my summary recommendations to an organization that wants to affirm experienced leadership while beginning to mentor young leaders:

  • Carefully select opportunities for younger employees.
  • Create lines of accountability and mentoring.
  • Give young recruits opportunities to prove their skills within a reasonable time.
  • Add responsibility according to skill development and success.

The younger employees may chafe against tight reins.  Older employees may resist letting go of long-held responsibilities.  Help the young develop patience while encouraging the experienced to transfer skills.    

When I was the young person in business, someone used these principles with me.  Because I was the one on the short leash, my mistakes had limited impact on the company.  Later, I used these same principles when bringing young employees on board.  Keeping the right balance is hard, but necessary.  If we restrict too much or push too hard; good, young people will move on.

I don’t spend a lot of time with organizations that insist on staying gray. When they refuse to work through generational issues, I know they will fail to exist as their older leaders die.

Paul wrote to Timothy, “Don't let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity.” (1Timothy 4:12, NLT) Moses wrote, “Stand up in the presence of the elderly, and show respect for the aged. Fear your God. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:32, NLT)  Ministries and churches that grow strong over time learn to embrace this balance

 

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