Older and Younger Leaders: Forging a New Relational Vision

Photo by Christin Hume

Hi, I’m Cass, and I’m an emerging adult and a church leader

Not too long ago, I was invited to a conference concerning emerging adults. I was excited to see on the itinerary a panel discussion on Emerging Adults’ spirituality. That is, I was until I saw who was on the panel. Every single person was over 40.

I looked around confused. Surely they weren’t going to speak for all emerging adults in over-generalizing terms, were they?

Oh, they were.

I sat there and listened as a group of well-intentioned older leaders missed the mark on what my generation is experiencing when it comes to spirituality. I felt confused, as I knew that they were a group of people who were thoroughly committed to the flourishing of emerging leaders; but instead of taking the time to hear from some of us, they just talked about us as if we weren’t even in the room.

After that panel, a mic was passed around the room, and those present were asked if anyone would like to contribute to the discussion. One brave young woman stood up and asked the question we were all thinking: “Where were the emerging adults on your panel? And when is someone going to ask the emerging adults in the room how we actually feel?”

The conference’s attempt to highlight emerging adults’ experiences inadvertently made us invisible, generalized into one homogenous group. In that moment I felt trapped: diagnosed by older, well-intentioned adults, but not heard or understood. Acknowledged, but not seen. Categorized, but not understood. I realized that all I wanted was to be seen for me.  

Seeing emerging adult leaders in our congregations

Cass’s experience is quite common—not just at conferences but also in church offices, volunteer retreats, and Sunday worship services. We both talk with younger leaders who want to work with older leaders but often feel unseen and misunderstood. At the same time, I know many of my contemporaries who genuinely want to support younger leaders but often feel unsure about how to do it well.

If younger and older leaders’ intentions are well-meaning, perhaps we need to take some first steps toward one another and start overcoming the relational barriers we often feel.

Tweet this: If younger and older leaders’ intentions are well-meaning, perhaps we need to take some first steps toward one another and start overcoming the relational barriers we often feel.

Older leaders, younger leaders need you to go first. Younger leaders, older leaders need you to help them understand. To help you take those first steps, we’d like to offer a few topics we think can start you on a road toward many valuable conversations.

Understand the tension younger leaders experience as they bridge two worlds they love

In my role as professor and coach, I have the opportunity to encourage emerging leaders who believe that they would eventually find a way to synthesize their faith with their newfound questions. But many share that they worry about expressing their doubts, offering their newfound beliefs, or challenging the status quo for fear that:

Their dad would be angry.

Their mom would be upset

Their mentor would be disappointed.

Their pastor would judge them.

And, their church would place them on their prayer list.

Notice what these emerging adults are communicating–- When they express their spiritual doubts, questions, or new ideas, they worry that there will be relational consequences.

The tension younger leaders feel isn’t just about them. It’s also about their commitment to serve their generation. Younger leaders often share with us that they find themselves in ministry contexts trying to hold together two competing realities which are edging further apart.

On one side, there is the traditional church which younger leaders feel compelled to honor because of the investment they received from a mentor, community, or denomination. They feel a deep appreciation for the support given them in their formative years, and desire to perpetuate that experience by giving back to the faith traditions that shaped them. 

On the other side, their relationship with their denomination often becomes shaky when the communities from which they come are unwilling to address the most pressing topics facing their generation.

Thus, while younger leaders appreciate where they’ve come from, they are less confident that their religious tradition can relevantly bring good news to the future. Young leaders want to join in the spiritual, social, political, and relational conversations that reverberate in every bar, ball game, coffee shop, lunch break, dinner table, student union, and podcast.

Unlike older leaders who can view the current culture from a secure and safe perspective, younger leaders must activate their assumptions about faith, belief, and theology in the current conversation. The gospel becomes irrelevant if it cannot or will not speak to contemporary issues such as the environment, religious pluralism, sexuality, marriage, war, immigration, sexual abuse, and equality (to name a few). Will the churches that younger leaders truly love provide space for the necessary conversations young people need to have? Younger leaders say, “we must” and get anxious when their churches say, “we might.”

Tweet this: Will the churches that younger leaders truly love provide space for the necessary conversations young people need to have? Younger leaders say, “we must” and get anxious when their churches say, “we might.”
 

Recognize that younger leaders are growing, but often feel a relational strain in their congregations.

Recently, we asked 50 younger leaders who either worked for or volunteered in youth ministry contexts to describe how their beliefs have shifted or have affected their relationship with their leaders, churches, or ministries.  Here’s what they said:

Our contributions aren’t welcome or don’t matter.

It hurts that I don’t feel like I can have open conversations.

Our relationships with leaders are strained.
 

We feel anxious, dismissed, confused, lonely, overwhelmed, or alone.

We feel bad, like there’s something wrong with us.
 

There’s no room to be in the middle of a challenging topic.

I feel confined, unable to express my points of view.

I still feel treated like a kid.
 

I feel like an outsider in my own church.

Older leaders, before you’re tempted to dismiss these reflections, sit with them for a moment. The young leaders’ responses are consistent with research I conducted with emerging adults who reported a similar perspective: When one’s beliefs shift or change away from the communities of which they are a part, they experience a relational disconnect from the leaders they care about.

Reimagining and risking your own conversations

Older leaders, younger leaders want to connect with you and learn from you. They are searching for relational conversation partners who want to understand them, acknowledge them, hang in there with them, and really see them.

Questions older leaders can ask younger leaders
  • Tell me about your spiritual journey. At this point in your journey, what are the biggest questions you, personally, are working through?
  • What topics of life and faith does our church have to do a better job at in order to really support young people? What are we doing well? 
  • What books, articles, or podcasts are you accessing to help you with your spiritual life and ministry?
  • What’s something you believe that you don’t think I believe?
Questions younger leaders can ask older leaders
  • Tell me about your spiritual journey. At this point in your journey, what are the biggest questions you, personally, are working through?
  • From your perspective, what are the most pressing topics older generations are concerned about? What do younger people need to understand or appreciate?
  • What books, articles, or podcasts are you accessing to help you with your spiritual life and ministry?
  • What’s something you believe that you don’t think I believe?

Planning your conversations together

Often, attempting conversations like these can be logistically hard or relationally awkward at first. Make extended time together to share your life stories with one another. Give permission to each other to ask questions that seek to understand, not judge. Remember that these conversations will happen over time. Commit to meeting, talking, understanding, and learning from one another. To get you started, consider:

  • Print or send this article to your younger or older leader, ask them to read it, and then invite them to have a conversation about it.
  • Try using the questions above to learn from each other.
  • Once you have a first conversation, pull out your calendars and set up a next meeting.

Growing up doesn’t have to mean growing apart

Filled with brand-new research and real-life stories from remarkable families, Growing With shows you how to close the family gap, giving parents courage to take the next faithful step on a mutual journey of intentional growth that trusts God to transform you all.

Buy Book