March 2, 2024

Hey Gen-X! Now That We Have Our Hands on the Ministry Wheel, Here Are Some Do’s and Don’ts.

King Charles and Gen X

A good friend was commenting over lunch with me the other day that suddenly it seems that the generation that is constantly being passed by when it comes to leadership, the Gen-Xers, is suddenly coming into its own. His generation. My generation.

He likened it to the late blooming of King Charles III. It will be a shorter reign than the Queen (aka, the Baby Boomers), but it will be significant.

So too ours. Just when it seemed like we’ve never get our hands on the levers, we have! Suddenly, and at one of the most tumultuous times in the West, it seems we are filling a gap that the next generation down is not quite ready to fill. In other words, all that talk of the Boomers handing onto the Millennials (or Y-Gen) was just talk. Charles was never going to abdicate before he got the throne. He saw the need for his own leadership, shorter though it would be.

My friend’s no slouch. He just happens to be the head of The Gospel Coalition Australia, and this interview of him in a recent TGCA piece as he “hurtles towards fifty”, makes a lot of sense for leaders. It’s fair to say he didn’t come up with this stuff overnight. It’s been a ministry long-haul. And as I’ve worked alongside him in the past, I can testify to its truth in his own life.

The real gold from the article is this:

Part of what I learned out of that is that you really need to know yourself. Lacking self-awareness is a dangerous thing in leadership. It’s dangerous for you and it can be dangerous for the people you lead. You can end up theologising things that are really just part of how you are wired. You can end up being inattentive to how you respond to certain people or situations. You can blame others for what you are responsible for, or blame yourself for things that are beyond your control. You can expect things of yourself that are, in all honesty, just not things for which God has given you the gifts or capacity.

A lot of what we said got me thinking. There was a lot of chat and airplay for the fact that the Boomers would favour their own progeny, the Millennials, and bypass those whining Nirvana, flannel shirt and Converse types such as I.

But there’s always a gap. Just as Charles is King, despite the clamour to pass him over in favour of William, it seems the Gen-Xers might be in for a significant, if not shorter than the Boomers, term of ministry.

And what a time to be alive! What a time to have to do ministry! In the “grey zone” of seismic change, cultural hostility and the great de-churching of the West. What a time to have to stand up at the start of the great conflicts around anthropology that the church is facing (What is a human?/Who is a human?Who is a human for? etc).

What a time to watch as peers fall by the wayside, and Boomer seeker-sensitive leaders fall off the perch or fall from grace. We didn’t think we were going to get that influence and leadership calling, but hey, it’s suddenly been thrust into our hands. All that griping about how we would never be allowed to lead, and suddenly, “over to you”.

Don’ts (The Do’s Will Come Later)

In light of this short reign, even if it be in tumultuous times, here are some Do’s and Don’ts that I think we need to pay careful attention to, if our truncated leadership period is going to have any positive effect on the generations who are going to lead in our wake.

I will write a blog post on both of these things, but let’s start with the Don’ts, so that we can end on a high (yes, yes, unusual I know for us Gen-Xers, but go with it).

Don’t Throw Away Your Holiness: Old word I know, but when you read that we should pursue the holiness “without which no one will see the Lord”, there’s a good chance that throwing away your holiness will mean that you don’t see the Lord!

And boy has that throwing away come in bucketloads. Not just for Boomers, mind you, but we can see the trajectory of the lives of those who are twenty years ahead of us. I can guarantee that if you are a younger X-er (I’m older), then the next ten years as your kids grow up, you will experience the temptation, especially in ministry, to feel entitled.

Entitled to what exactly? This or that. Her or him. There’s a sense in which, by now in ministry, you will have, as my friend says in his article, a good sense of what you are good at and what you are not good at. And a good sense of what you can lead into and what you cannot lead into. Don’t seek the sugar rush of pleasure for the dopamine hits that you think you need.

And often as we age in ministry, and we reflect on the tough times, we can become entitled. We see it in the secular world among – especially – men in their fifties. It’s no exception in ministry. It goes a little like this:

“All these years I have slaved for you and you have not given me a great church/a great wife/a taste of financial success that I might celebrate with my friends.”

We will always feel like the older brother at an inarticulate level, and then bam! Something derails us and we realise that we had forgotten that everything we have is a gift, and if it is a gift, then why would we ever boast about it. Or feel entitled to have something more than it.

Don’t Seek Friendship With The World: And by that, specifically, in this moment in which anthropology is the most contested issue we are facing, don’t look for affirmation from the world by being affirming on the sexuality and gender identity freight train that is mowing down Christians left, right and centre.

Ignore the siren, false calls that say if we affirm on these matters that the world will give us a hearing. Refute the voices that tell your church that the mission of the gospel is in jeopardy unless we get with the program and revise the Bible’s teaching on marriage, sex and the body.

Goodness knows there’s a huge falling away already among younger people in our churches who are being discipled away by another gospel, and often in the hope that it takes away the tension of living for Jesus in a Sexular Age. But for every two walking away, there is one younger generation person looking to you to teach and live and exemplify the biblical framework for human flourishing and sexuality. Take a hit for the younger team!

What do I mean by that? Simply this, it scarcely seems believable that I am nearly 57. But it’s true. It seems no time ago that I was a callow 35 year old grappling with what it meant to have a one year old who wouldn’t sleep. She’s now nearly 23! But in those ensuing years, as I’ve chugged along with ministry, and as we have as a family chugged along with what pretty much is a double professional life (my work and my wife’s work), we are in a far safer place than many young people.

The Sexular Age is keen to find them out, corner then and demand that they line up with its agenda, if they want to keep the jobs or even attain the jobs that they are in or are training for. There’s every chance that they will not have the opportunities we had. And there’s every chance that they will have to fend for themselves in ministry settings in a more hostile environment, with less money, less committed and less discipled people.

Provide such types – these next generations – with some air cover. Use the finances, skills, learning, pastoral sensibilities, experiences you have to help them take the reins for what will be a much different world to even the one you grew up in.

Don’t Become Bitter: This is my biggest danger. In my role in the past two decades I have had to lean into some pretty tough ministry situations and have become known as one of the blokes who can talk into the toxic-church-leader space. The hardest thing has always been to see those who should not succeed (whatever that means!) be in leadership because of their deeply ungodly, insecure and bruising approach to people.

Watching people be shredded by ungodly, narcissistic leaders, and then not being able to say anything about that whether for a long period of time, or in some cases never, can embitter you.

Of course the way to not become bitter is not necessarily to be a warrior on these issues and resolve them all so that you feel sated,(something I have had to learn in terms of when to speak up and when not to). The way to not become bitter is to remember King Jesus and the fact that when he was reviled he did not revile, but “entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1Peter 2:23).

Let’s face it, the Last Day will sort out much of this toxic leadership, and indeed expose it, as 1 Peter 5 indicates. And Gen-Xers have witnessed a lot of bullying, narcissistic leaders, experienced a lot of them, and been spat out by a whole bunch of those who should never have been in ministry in the first place.

Don’t Embitter Others: There’s the flip side. The worst thing to become is the thing that, at the start of your ministry, you said you’d never become. Unless you pay attention to your LIFE as well as your doctrine, then you could end up become the person you once had no respect for because of how you saw them treat others.

Surely the time has come for the current crop of leaders to not simply assume that getting one’s doctrine right leads to getting one’s life right. We’ve seen that it hasn’t. Now that is not to say that getting one’s life right and ignoring one’s doctrine will lead you somewhere good. It won’t. Life and doctrine are Siamese twins joined by vital internal organs.

The church culture we are leading into already has a huge cache of bitterness. So too has the world, riven as it is by the cultural divisions in society that are shredding our politics and our trust in institutions. The church – and the world. – already has enough toxic leaders to go around. The church already has enough failed leaders who have outstayed their welcome or who have shut the door on people entering the kingdom and are not entering it themselves.

Don’t Forget The Joy of The Gospel: The cliche about my generation being the gloomy Gen-Xers is a cliche partly because it’s true! We were the latch-key kids. And we’ve watched as our generation suddenly became old – and quickly. We’ve watched as our generation, so often taking some sort of fatalistic approach to joylessness, or finding meaning in misery – realises that at 50 that ain’t so cute!

But the joy of the gospel, and the hope of the age to come is the true north that we head to, and which we should, even in these oft-dispiriting times, point others to. I’m completely over the anger of the self-styled prophets to be honest. Perhaps that too was cute when we were thirty five.

But at fifty-five, unless there is some self-reflection in you, some admission that you probably didn’t get a lot of things right in your ministry life in the past, and a concession that you may have contributed to some of the problems you ascribed to others, then cute you ain’t!

I’ve had to struggle for joy in the past year, due to various circumstances, but discovering and rediscovering that joy in the gospel, and seeing the godly conviction in others – both old and young – reminds me that just as there was a joy set before Jesus that kept him going, that same joy – or at least the outflowing of it – is there for us too.

It seemed like I was thirty five just a short time ago, and suddenly I am 13 years away from “three score and ten”. Any years beyond that, as God promised and warned, will be harder. If I didn’t have Jesus I would be a miserable old git! But with Jesus? Well let’s just say, he promises to redeem all of that and more!

SO much for the “Don’ts” I’ll get onto the “Do’s” next time.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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