There’s an article on the The Lead making a bit of a stir, especially in the comments. The Lead pulls from a Religious News Service article by Tom Ehrich, titled “It’s time for baby boomers to cede control.” The title gives a pretty clear picture of the contents—Ehrich (a baby boomer himself) is saying, more or less, that baby boomers are addicted to a power they’ve now held for decades, and that they should step down or stand aside to make room for younger generations.
This can feel like a personal attack to those being asked to stand back, and their reactions can feel similarly excluding to their younger counterparts. These responses made me think that perhaps the problem is not a power imbalance, but a need for better communication—for an atmosphere where everyone feels welcomed and respected and valued, and no one feels threatened or silenced. Happily, this has been my experience as a young parishioner/vestry person/committee member. I know this has not been everyone’s experience, and so I am even more thankful for mine.
The thing is, I don’t want to be in church leadership built entirely of under-40s. Mainline churches are aging, yes. Praise God! But for a vital church, the aging has to be counterbalanced. There’s a richness in intergenerational worship and leadership, a strength in diversity wherever it may be found.
There’s a little bit of this diversity even within my parish’s 20s and 30s group—students and professionals; singles, marrieds, and families; 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings and more. Some of this diversity is born of necessity: while our young adult ministry is thriving, our participant pool probably couldn’t support smaller splinter groups (separating married from single participants, for instance, or 20-somethings from 30-somethings). I’ve said this before, but I’m so, so glad. I love being part of a group with members in different stages of life.
I had coffee this past spring with an old friend who’s moved to California to teach. She described her church there, a large church where small community groups meet during the week to enjoy one another’s company and discuss the service/sermon. These groups intentionally incorporate congregants who are in different places, different ages and careers and relationship statuses. (Okay, so I think I found the webpage for these groups. It seems the average age is pretty young—but after all, this isn’t a mainline church.)
Maybe our leadership panels should look more like the table at the Episcopal Generations booth. The EG booth had a sizable chunk of real estate (and video games!) right in the middle of the exhibit hall at General Convention, and in the middle of the booth’s space was a table. Around the table were chairs representing a diversity of ages—and the many ministries of Episcopal Generations—from a highchair to a wheelchair.
Not everyone wants to be a leader, but for me nothing makes me feel like part of a group as much as being asked to participate in the group’s leadership, to take ownership in the groups decisions. Nothing makes me feel like an outsider more than having decisions made on my behalf. Expertise and ability should be taken into account—for instance I don’t have the expertise to lead a stewardship campaign. But I’m not going to get that expertise without practice, without being welcomed into the group (spoilers: I’m on the stewardship committee).
In the comments on The Lead, Ann Fontaine calls for a different kind of article: “I can see a helpful essay asking those of us who are older – how are you mentoring and making space for others who have not yet found it? Rather than shoving us out the door with the rude – time to fold your tents – an invitation to think creatively and generously – or to tap into what many of us are already doing. For instance, some of us have helped engineer getting younger deputies elected to GC – how about asking how we did that?”
Welcoming others does not have to mean ceding control—church leadership is not a zero sum game. Welcoming others means approaching the question of inclusion with care and communication. It means asking questions and actively listening to answers from those with different perspectives and experiences. It means not becoming defensive. It means inviting everyone to sit around the leadership table—to be intergenerational, all the generations have to be included.
What do you think? Is it time for Boomers to cede control? Is it possible for multigenerational communities and leadership structures to work?