Saturday, May 14, 2011

On Marginalization and Leadership

Carla and I were once invited, by the pastor of the church we belonged to at the time, to attend a big denominational conference on "Emerging Leaders." Since we were emerging as leaders within our church, it seemed like good timing. Also, the three of us had an inkling that Carla and I might be called to eventually plant a church (this particular denomination places a high priority on church planting). We were quite excited to go.

Once at the conference, however, our excitement turned to disappointment as we realized that "emerging leaders" was a euphemism for "young leaders"--as in, twenty-somethings. Since we were over 40, Carla and I were clearly outside the intended demographic and thus, undesirable. We were has-beens; past our prime. We felt excluded. During one of the Q&A sessions, I brought this up to the man heading the conference, who was also in charge of leadership development for the denomination. I specifically asked for his views on the place and value of elders in leadership. He replied that he was only interested in "investing" in young adults. These were the leaders he was looking for. Carla and I left feeling marginalized and dejected. Our pastor was apologetic.

It is exciting to see young people being encouraged and mentored for leadership. Young people bring passion, vigor and relevance to the dominant media culture. But, in my observation, they also tend to bring impatience, inexperience and not- yet-fully-formed personal character. I have seen much damage caused by immature leaders who were sent out to plant and pastor churches.

A few years later, Carla and I became Quakers and joined a Quaker meeting which had more elderly people in it than I had ever interacted with in a church. Contrary to the stereotype of cranky old people "stuck in their ways", we found these elderly Friends to be warm, open and pliable to the Spirit. The crucible of time has developed in them tremendous reserves of wisdom, patience and character. But they do tire more easily and tend not to be up on Twitter and Facebook.

It seems to me that what works best in leadership is a partnership of old and young. The older ones provide steadiness, the younger ones provide energy. The younger ones push their elders a bit, the elders pull the young leaders back a bit.

Timothy needs a Paul and Paul needs a Timothy.

Additionally, who are we to limit whom God can use? I'm certain that the leader of that conference, if consulted by God, would never have suggested Abraham and Sarah as candidates to conceive the child of the promise. But God often doesn't do things according to our assumptions and methodologies. Instead of filtering people according to our parameters, shouldn't we instead simply look for whom God is using and bless them? This is why I like the Quaker term of "recording" ministers, as opposed to "ordaining" them. It puts the emphasis on observing and noting what God is doing, rather than asking God's blessing upon what we are doing.

The "Emerging Leaders" conference was a valuable learning experience for me. As a heterosexual middle-class American white male, marginalization is something I have not had a lot of personal experience with--certainly not compared to my gay or female or poor or non-white friends. I've tried to hold on to the memory of what it felt like to be told that I was ontologically unsuitable, so that I can endeavor to never make anyone else feel that way.


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