When I began my first pastorate, I was all of 24 years old. I was old enough to lead the annual overnight youth retreat, but young enough that I couldn't rent a van to drive the kids to the campground. The church boards were full of baby boomers, my parents' generation. The other major demographic group was their parents' generation, some of whom had helped to found the church some 50 years before. Each generation had its own way of relating to me. For some, I was like a son, full of promise and potential but with plenty of lessons to learn. For others, I was like a favorite grandchild, the one who had made good choices and wound up a happily married pastor instead of whatever "worthless" things other kids were doing.
Each generation created its own problems when it came to issues of authority. In what sense could I say I was a—even the—leader of a church like this? How could I avoid being a mascot, prized for cuteness and youth but not taken seriously in the pulpit or the boardroom? How could I avoid being a workhorse, willing to do all the jobs my parents' generation were too busy and my grandparents' generation too tired to do? How could I speak authoritatively without feeling like I was representing a whole generation, making every conversation about the difference in our ages? I would like to say I did this perfectly or even well; in reality, though, I fell into each of these traps many times. But along the way, I learned some important lessons about the unique challenges young leaders face in establishing authority.
Integrity is your greatest asset. You cannot magically create ministry experience that will convince older generations that you can be savvy at deacons' meetings and sensitive at a deathbed. But as a young person in ministry, you do have a certain unspoiled sense about you. You may come across as naéve at times, true, but you likely also possess a certain energy and idealism that has a deep appeal to Christians of all generations. At the very least, older, "wiser" folks will be reluctant to disappoint you; at best, they will see in you a chance to make a fresh start and move beyond previous conflicts or difficulties.
However nothing destroys that positive energy and goodwill quite like a breach of integrity. An ill-timed negative comment to a deacon about a fellow staff member, a visit to a questionable website on a church computer, a failure to return a phone call or e-mail: these may be rather minor errors on their own. But failures like this confirm older church members' worries that you really are not up to the task, or worse, that you do not respect or like older people. Seasoned ministers can afford a few hits here, but younger pastors cannot, since young pastors must rely on integrity to create momentum and energy.
Receive other generations with joy. Related to this is your ability to gratefully receive the gifts other generations offer you. A mature faith realizes that every stage of life has strengths and weaknesses because we are shaped by our life experiences. As a young father, I have a certain slant on the world that I did not before I had kids, and I will have a still different slant when I am the father of teenagers and then an empty-nester.
This is why God calls us into churches, where every age group—not to mention every tribe, language, people, and nation—can bring their praise to the one God from their unique perspectives. In the church we also use our gifts, shaped by our experience, to strengthen each other. It is especially important to remember that, as a young pastor, your energy is not the only gift God can use. In my case, I initially distrusted the baby boomers' corporate world experience because it did not have that defiant, us-against-the-world attitude I thought was central to the faith. I also sometimes chafed under the older generation, when I felt they were treating me like a kid. I had to learn that these gifts were offered with the kindest of intentions; once I could see that, I could be genuinely grateful for their gifts offered in humble kindness. In turn, they were willing to be grateful to me for my gifts. Authentic gratitude for another generation's contribution helps them to be grateful for the gifts of your youth, rather than threatened by them.
Be aware of—and honest about—your weaknesses. When I went to seminary, we talked a lot about clergy self-care. We learned techniques for advocating for ourselves at business meetings, in counseling sessions, and in salary negotiations. We learned the importance of taking a day off each week, and not caving to parishioners who may want us to perform some ministry task on that day. All of this was important. But for a young minister, it painted a picture of a church which would inevitably take advantage of its pastor, a church either too cruel or too clueless for its own good.
This way of viewing the relationship between pastor and church has its consequences. Self-righteousness is among the most dangerous. In many small churches, there is already a mutual suspicion between clergy and laity. Laypeople sometimes think that clergy have designs on changing the church in an unwelcome way, and pastors are often angry that laity seem to lack their vision. Self-righteousness inflames this delicate situation when the congregation picks up on the pastor's frustration and feels predictably frustrated with the pastor. Self-righteousness is a common coping mechanism for young pastors, and it is reinforced by many of our educational institutions and denominational structures. True, nothing feels quite so good as venting about your benighted church when you gather with colleagues for a meeting, but it is ultimately that self-righteousness which inclines people to ignore you and erodes your authority.
Reserve a piece of yourself that cannot be touched. Being a pastor is an intense, at times overwhelming, commitment. It is no exaggeration to say that, after "husband" and "father," "pastor" is the title that has most shaped my identity. The seven years I spent at my church marked me indelibly and helped me to mature in a way I could never have grown apart from that role. It is as if being a pastor has given me glasses I can never take off. All of my life experience is filtered through those lenses.
Since the role of pastor is so consuming, it is essential to reserve pieces of yourself which are not given to others. If you enjoy baseball, get tickets and go—alone or with your spouse or friends. If you desire more education, find a way to take a class, or develop a reading list that no one in the church knows about. Exercise. Go places where no one knows you are a paid holy person and just watch people—without imagining how you can get them to come to your church. Whatever it takes to renew you for the task and commitment of ministry, do it.
This is essential to maintaining authority as a young leader. Likely part of what makes you appealing as a young leader is your energy, your zest for life. The intensity of the pastorate will crush that if you do not intentionally set aside time to be a human being first. To wilt as a human being is to fail as a pastor, because it is to fail as a person.
Sometimes the church realizes its need for young leadership; sometimes it doesn't. If you are fortunate enough to be a young leader in these times, don't waste it by failing to responsibly use the authority granted to you by God and others. Your youth is a gift from God. If you can treasure and use its strengths, and humbly acknowledge its weaknesses, both you and those you lead can grow in grace.
Michael Jordan works for church relations at Houghton College in Houghton, New York. He is also an adjunct instructor at the college and an associate pastor at Houghton Wesleyan Church.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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