Leadership Questions

When I visit with sessions of congregations that are considering if and when they should close, I notice a phenomenon that I have noticed throughout my entire ministry. I am often the youngest person in the room. I was 24 when I was ordained, so there was a good reason for me to be the youngest in the room on many occasions. But I would never have imagined that almost 40 years later I would still end up being the youngest person in the room from time to time.

So many churches get stuck with the same people being in leadership over decades and I think this is sometimes a part of what has led to the demise of the congregation. Younger people were either overtly or subtly discouraged from being in leadership. In an effort to keep things steady, to be sure they are done correctly, and (perhaps) to protect young adults from being even more over-burdened than they are, people who are my elders hung onto the reins. For some of these congregations, money is not the deciding factor in closing. Instead, the combination of dwindling resources and dwindling energy on the part of a handful of leaders leads to the inevitable decision.

I was recently at an event at the church my husband serves. It was a fund-raiser for two mission projects—a boys’ home the church started in Mombasa, Kenya after our daughter served there as a Young Adult Volunteer; and a snack pack project for a local school in Peoria. This fundraiser has been going on for about a decade. Until this year, it had been the kind of fundraiser where one is expected to dress up, bid on silent auction items, and wander around with a tiny plate of appetizers and a glass of wine. It raised money, but there were not many young people in attendance. It was too expensive for them and it did not appeal to them. It was planned by people close to my age.

This year it was completely different. It started in the late afternoon. It was a trivia game. No one had to dress up. Babysitting was provided for a small fee. The bidding on a handful of silent auction items was handled in a different way. And, most impressive was the fact that it was planned and executed by people in their thirties. I was commenting to the people whom we had invited to sit at our table (half of whom are not church members) that I thought it was great that the old guard had turned it over to the younger people and was letting them manage it.

The next day, I found out from my thirty-something daughter that it was a knock down drag out fight in the mission committee. The younger people prevailed. One of the people who had fought hardest to keep the event exactly as it had been volunteered her time for the preparations and during the event. She even got her retired physician husband to be the bartender. There were twice as many people as there had been the year before.

Will this make a lasting change in this congregation? Time will tell. But they have all seen that a new generation can have a good idea, that they can carry it out and that it might even be an improvement. Best of all, those who have to set aside their preconceived notions about how things should operate can help something new to grow without losing face.

When was the last time someone in your congregation under the age of 40 was encouraged to be completely in charge of an event? When did your educational institution last let an assistant professor make a change in an existing program and have a full professor serve in a supportive role? When did your health care institution last make a change that was suggested by someone who was in their first five years serving there?

We can cling to systems that underpin our own understanding of ourselves as the true leaders, telling younger people that they must wait their turn so that they can learn from us. Or, we can remember that our purpose is not self-preservation but to bring hope in the name of Jesus.
Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago