Why are so many senior church leaders having problems with 20something staff members? I've talked with several pastors and staff members of late who find the working arrangement challenging at best, maddening at worst.
Common complaints among the older folk include pride (they feel like they know how to do things better than everyone else), they see their role here as a placeholder or a means to an end; a sense of "entitlement," an unwillingness to pay their dues, refusing to give honor to those who have gone before them, an elevated sense of their gifting/readiness for senior leadership and an unteachable spirit.
From the 20something side, complaints include a sense of being bound in terms of creativity and change, not having a voice at the table when decisions are made, being devalued because they are young, not given opportunities to grow or develop, not given real opportunities to lead, and not being willingly mentored by those who are more senior in leadership.
I can sympathize with everyone. I've been a senior leader that has dropped the ball with 20something staff members in the past, and I've been a 20something staff member that was frustrated with those in charge.
Now? Meck is in a season that is perhaps the richest, most rewarding, most invigorating in its history. We are growing at an annual rate of over 20% and skewing younger each year (I've written about this dynamic here). But perhaps most atypical of all, the church is led by someone pushing fifty while more than half of the staff is in their twenties.
And we're loving it. The old and the young.
I asked several of our 20something staff, in light of the difficulties that face many churches with multi-generational leadership, what it is that makes our team work.
Here are seven of their observations, using their words, with some comments of mine following each one:
The ability to make a difference.
- "It's fulfilling to see that we're not just taking up space, but that we're growing, baptizing people, and serving our community."
- "I love being a part of something bigger than myself."
- "I work and live for something that is so much larger than myself; and that conviction is so inescapable here."
Comment: If there is one thing that anyone in their twenties longs for, it is to make a difference with their life.
Knowing the Senior Pastor's heart.
- "If I didn't think you sincerely desired God and His mission I don't think I could last long doing ministry here. Good leadership can help staff remember why the work we are doing matters."
- "It's easy to respect you because you lead and live in such a way that deserves and commands our respect. It's a lot easier to disagree…but maintain a good attitude about it because I respect you."
- "I'd say it's a lot more about good leadership than it is about ‘relating' to the age group."
Comment: Authenticity and integrity matters to 20somethings, and if they don't feel they know your heart - and know that it's true - they will not follow your lead.
The freedom to lead.
- "I feel trusted and set loose to lead this ministry with guidance, but also true freedom. I don't feel micromanaged."
- "You let leaders lead."
- "You recognize that youth is not always a hindrance when it comes to being a leader, and because of that, I've been presented with a world of opportunity to grow in ways that are not available to me really anywhere else."
- "I have a voice here…[I am] a valued member of the team capable of contributing in big ways towards the life of this church."
- "The biggest contributing factor to feeling like I can thrive under your leadership as a 20something is that you are eager to try new things…create fresh environments and you don't cling to what's been done before."
- "You (our pastor) aren't afraid of Meck evolving."
- "You're more than allowing me - you're challenging me to find and play current music with fresh sound."
- "You motivate me and all of the staff to action while refraining from micromanaging unless there is a need to do so."
Comment: 20somethings want to be allowed to make an impact, which means allowed to DO things. They don't mind being reigned in, but they don't want to be boxed in.
- "For me, working here is fun because it's challenging…we're constantly challenged to move to the next level, the next step, the next vision…all the while we are asked to keep in mind that we're not chasing the next fad but rather the next God-ordained project to get more unchurched people in our doors."
- "Not only do we feel empowered to make decisions but we are constantly learning."
Comment: 20somethings want to be on mission, not maintenance, and to expand their own personal horizons along the way. They want to feel like they are in an environment of growth, not stagnation. And they crave mentoring.
Allowed to work my way.
- "We're all free to work in our own way. If we need quiet we can sneak away…If we need interaction with people there's never a lack of people around. We're encouraged to find our own groove (within reason) and work it to the advantage of the kingdom."
Comment: This may seem trivial, but it's not - the freedom to structure a day, set a work environment, or cater to a temperament is akin to setting them free to be who they are and make their mark accordingly.
- "…being constantly encouraged by the people we work with and our leader. That's certainly helpful to a generation who grew up with constant encouragement (i.e. everyone wins and gets a trophy)."
- "I think there is a lot to say about how the senior staff treat the newer staff. They always react to us with love and respect and they actually want to teach us instead of push us away."
Comment: The need for encouragement is not unique to 20somethings, but they did grow up on large amounts of it and wonder at its absence…"If I wasn't happy, I would tell you" isn't enough.
A sense of community.
- "Staff unity is so highly valued at Meck that it's just the culture for staff to appreciate and respect each other."
- "I love the people I work with."
- "I think the factor that holds the most value in my life as a member of Meck's staff is the family dynamic between staff members... not only because my family isn't in Charlotte, but also as an unmarried, 20something with no children, the time I spend at work makes up a huge part of my life."
Comment: Community is one of the most deeply-held values for 20something adults. Creating and cultivating it is decisive.
There can be little doubt that working with younger staff can be a challenge for older staff. Generational differences are real. But I can't imagine what our church would be like without them. They bring energy, vision, passion and creativity.
And for my life, just plain joy.
So get, and work to keep, 20somethings on your team.
They are, after all, the future of…well, it all.
James Emery White
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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