Developing Young Leaders: The Church's Need for Good Grandparenting Skills

The Interview

Scene: An interview Setting: The church parlor Characters: Pastoral search committee and the candidate

First Church of the greater metropolitan area just west of the bypass has seen its pastor of more than two decades retire. The congregation has entered into the search process with great trepidation, and perhaps a small amount of expectancy. On the one hand, their retired pastor is the only pastor many of them can remember. On the other hand, many people who’ve carried the load for so long are excited about the prospect of the new energy they believe a new pastor will bring.

The pastoral search committee is made up, for the most part, of faithful members–which means that almost all of them have been chairperson of the board (session, consistory, etc.) at one time or another. The congregation sought to offer a good cross-section of the membership on the search committee, but a “good cross-section”–owing to a dearth of young people–invariably means that the median age is upwards of 50. There are two young people in their thirties (both with children), the search chair is careful to point out. They have, as everyone is quick to acknowledge with nodding heads, “the core of a children’s program,” upon which, they hope (perhaps a bit too fervently) that the young minister will help them build. They greet the candidate in the nicest room in the church, having laid out a tray of Snickerdoodles and a carafe of designer coffee, hoping to give off a good impression.

Search chair: “Welcome! We can’t tell you how glad we are that you’ve agreed to meet with us. We’ve read your pastoral profile (resume, C.V., etc.), and we’re extremely impressed with what you’ve managed to accomplish. Additionally, your references are all quite positive.”

Candidate: “Thank you. I appreciate your invitation. You have a lovely church. My compliments on the Snickerdoodles!”

Search chair: “We’ve devised a set of questions, which we’ve divided up among ourselves. I think we’ll let Arthur go first. He’s sung in the choir for years, and was, if I’m not mistaken, in one of the first off-Broadway productions of Guys and Dolls. I believe he’s going to speak with you about your feelings on worship styles. Arthur?”

The conversation carries on for quite some time, ranging over a wide spectrum of topics:

  • What does a typical day look like for you?
  • Would you rather we take out radio advertisements to announce your cell phone number, or should we just publish it at the top of the first page on the web site?
  • What is your strategy for growing our church? Take a quick shot; we know there’ll be minor changes.
  • What committee assignments will your spouse be assuming? Only chair of one, though. We like to look out for the pastor’s family.
  • Do you have any felony arrests? Arrest warrants? Arrests without convictions? Have you ever spoken with the police?
  • What things do you believe, things that we haven’t thought to ask you, but that might come back to embarrass us should they become known?[1]

Finally, the questioning process makes its way around to Gladys.

Gladys: We’ve got good leadership in this church. The problem, though, is most of us have been at it for a long time. We’re tired. We’re looking for a pastor who can develop young leaders. What will you do to train up leaders to take our place?

Arthur: I don’t mean to step on Gladys’ question, but this one is crucial. We’ve had great leadership here in the past, but time marches on, and all that. We’re extremely concerned that the new pastor attract and train young leaders. We’ve had our time. Now, we want to hand the baton to another generation."

Candidate: I’m very interested in developing new leadership, investing them with the authority to make the kinds of adjustments necessary for the congregation to change and adapt to new social realities.

Search chair: (Nervous chuckle) I’m sorry, I thought I heard you say, “change and adapt.”

“Oh, now he’s going to start with the beating-up-on-lay-people-thing again.”

Sorry. That last one was sitting on a tee.

No. It’s too easy to say all churches are old, staid, and intransigent. It’s not necessarily true, nor would my saying it again be particularly interesting.

I’m more interested in another dynamic … grandparents.

In Which I Reflect on What It Means to Be a Grandparent

I was in a church one time that announced it was ready to bring in and develop young leadership. Yay! Music to a young minister’s ears.

Turns out, the folks in charge did want very badly to bring in young leadership–but not to lead. The old guard wanted fresh blood to take over the work, while retaining veto power.

I had a colleague at the time who said, “What that church needs is some people who know how to be grandparents.”

I asked what she meant.

“You spend so much time during your adult years, raising your kids. Then, one day, they’re grown up and gone. You grieve, but you figure out how to go on. Then, one day, they show back up at your house with babies. Now, your kids have kids of their own. And something shifts dramatically. Your place in the world is different now.”

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“At first it’s kind of exciting. The babies cry and fuss. You haven’t done this in awhile, so you’re kind of relieved when they pack up and go home.”

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“But as time wears on, you have to sit and watch their parenting decisions. These decisions, many of them, are not the kind of decisions you would have made. In some cases, they do the exact opposite of what you’d do.”

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“So, you start wondering: Are they doing things differently because they thought we did a bad job? Does their failure to raise their kids the way we raised themamount to a repudiation of our parenting?”

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“And your first impulse is to try to correct your children’s obviously shoddy parenting decisions. ‘No, dear,’ you say, ’don’t you think it would be better if you didn’t let little Sally eat quite so much kale?”

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“You comfort yourself with the rationalization that you’re just trying to help. You’ve got years of parenting experience, after all. You’re doing them a favor. If they don’t listen, you owe it to them to press the point a bit harder.”

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“Sooner or later, though, you come to realize that you’ve made it about you–and it’s not about you. It’s not even about the legacy you’ve left them; it’s about allowing them the grace and the freedom to take what you’ve given them, and let them become who God wants for them to be.”

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“Grandparenting is about biting your tongue and watching your kids make mistakes.”

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“It’s about standing by and watching them throw up your mistakes from their childhood to you, while choosing to do something completely different.”

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“It’s about standing by and applauding them when they accomplish something you could never in your wildest imagination see them doing, as well as stooping down to help pick up the pieces of their failed dreams.”

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“That church,” my colleague said, “needs some folks to learn how to let go and be good grandparents.”

“We need young leaders!”

Yes. The church needs young leaders.

But just as importantly, the church needs some good grandparents.


  1. Just joking … mostly.  ↩