Leading by Letting Go

Frederick W. Schmidt"Pigs in the demographic python"—this is the way that sociologists often describe the boomer generation—and I can't say that I blame them. During the '60s we insisted on being included in leadership positions. When it didn't happen quickly enough we threw a collective fit in the streets and on college campuses. And now that we are in charge, we won't let go.

And the mainline church is no different.

Most of the hair at meetings I attend is gray—or it would be, were it not for chemistry. You can count the younger leaders on a single hand and the younger leaders who are there are almost never in charge.

But the demographic distribution of those gatherings isn't the real problem. That's the symptom. The real problem is the mindset reflected in gatherings of that kind.

I love them, but sit with a group of church folk and what you often hear from boomers is the language that resurrects old divides, old causes, and really old grudges. The lines drawn during the gender, race, and orientation wars are the commonplace of such discussions, as is the language of old party politics.

What's wrong with that? Aren't these important issues? Don't we need to go on fighting the good fight? Doing justice?

Well, yes. But not the way it was once fought and not in the same places or the same ways.

Times have changed—thankfully. And the issues that were at the forefront of our battles are not the issues that our children face. Sexual orientation is not the controversy it was for us. Racism continues to surface here and there, but "race" is a far more complex phenomenon than it was during the '60s, and our children have a far more subtle and accepting attitude toward racial differences. Gender discrimination still exists as well, but our children model new approaches to gender and they are exercising their freedom to choose.

There is no way to prove it, but I'm inclined to think that most young people are disenchanted with the mainline church because they are quite simply bored with our decades-long rant. "So, they have left the building."

And what are we boomers doing? We are holding on and—worse yet—a new, dangerous rationalization has begun to seep into our conversations: "Small is beautiful." "Only a few people are really going to connect with our approach to the Christian faith anyway." "We are too liturgical for the culture." "We are too cerebral for the culture." "We are too progressive for the culture." "We aren't failing or shrinking, we are doing a brave new thing."

There is a place for that kind of language, but a lot it is just self-justifying nonsense. Worse yet, it is the language of control. "We want what we want. We don't want it to change. We won't let go."

I read parish profiles, for example, that describe churches looking for a new priest and here's what I often see: "We have a contemporary service that includes interpretive painting done during the service and liturgical dance." That is not contemporary. It is what we would have done when we were kids, if we had been in charge. But we weren't, so we are doing it now. And if that isn't attractive to the younger generation, well, it's probably because we are too sophisticated? Really?

Here, then, is my point. Leadership is about building, changing, and innovation. But it is also about letting go and the best leaders learn to let go. They mentor. They find a way to include a new generation. They look forward to a time when they aren't here any longer. They grasp that they are stewards of a gift. They let go. They let go of the reins. They let go of their agendas. They let go of their stories, listen, and learn.

In that sense, the leadership of letting go is a spiritual discipline, marked by the humility to grasp the limits of our strength and the limits of our vision. A spiritual frame of mind that grasps, "It's not all about us." It's all about God and God's next generation of children. They will need to set their own agendas, do their own building, and in time, lead by letting go.