The life of a Chinook salmon can be summed up in a single word: adaptation. Born in the freshwater streams in the upper reaches of mountainous river systems, juvenile salmon spend as little as three months in their birth habitat. Then, some impulse compels the salmon to leave their home and migrate downstream to estuaries, then into the open ocean.
They feed and mature. They swim the sea for two to four years, before instinct drives them homeward. Adults migrate from their marine environment into the exact freshwater streams of their birth in order to mate; spawning once before death. I've heard of salmon disintegrating in the water as they fight upstream towards their birthplace. They are literally falling apart, yet driven towards the spawn site with fierce determination.
Pizza and brick walls
In my first year of full-time ministry, I sat down for lunch with the leader of my past church's men's ministry. The church had been struggling for a while. Much of the trouble stemmed from a stagnant church leadership culture—it didn't seem like the people in leadership were listening to opinions other than their own. I felt hurt and frustrated, and like we were headed in the wrong direction.
My friend was just as tired and drained as I had been. Since he had been in his role longer than I had been in mine, I asked him how he continued to lead in this environment. "I'm still here because I think God can still change things," he said. "But when you've been beating your head against a brick wall, eventually it's going to knock you out."
Years later, over another pizza in a different restaurant, I sat across from the lead pastor of the church. Past experience said that a lunch conversation initiated by your lead pastor or an elder meant there was some "issue" that needed to be "discussed." I was wary. Before, these conversations had became monologues as an older leader spent much time correcting my mistakes, and little time listening or letting me ask for wisdom.
So I was caught off guard when this pastor listened, asking in-depth questions, and seeking my own authentic answers before offering his own wisdom. It was a dialogue, not a monologue. He was humble and gracious about it. I hadn't experienced anything like it before—an elder church leader initiating genuine relationship, dialogue, and mutual growth with an emerging leader.
Generativity or stagnation?
As a young pastor, I have a lot of conversations with other leaders early in their career who desire this kind of reciprocity. Their frustration often comes out in immature venting about their elders. It's easy to dismiss it as cynicism sometimes, without hearing the truth under the surface. But there's something deeper there. We young leaders want to grow into our calling, to begin, like the salmon, our life cycle. We want to run the race. We want to take the baton. But often it seems like our mentors are loathe to hand it to us.