The Importance of Successors

Is there something you do that is important to you? It doesn’t have to be something you get paid to do, it could just as easily be a hobby or a pastime. Is there something you are good at – paid or not? We all have something. Whatever your is, do yourself a favor. Find someone younger than you are and teach them what you know – and start right now. If you can, find a few people and teach them. It’s very important.

I am fifty-one years old (but not for long!). My parents’ generation was, on the whole, not very good at mentoring their eventual successors. If you look to the Church, the situation gets even worse – and if you look at the Historic Black Churches, the situation is abysmal. The business world has long recognized that an effective leader starts training his or her successor their first day on the job. The truth is that knowing that principle is very different from implementing it, and the reason is fear and insecurity among those who should know better.

My parents’ generation was born into a time of great uncertainty. Born during the 1930s, the entered the world on the heels of the Great Depression and into the mouth of the Second World War. To be honest, I can’t imagine the uncertainly that pervaded that time. When you add to those tumultuous beginnings the reality that the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam Conflict, and a Presidential assassination marked the time of their graduation from College; we put a man on the moon when they were in their early thirties,  President Nixon resigned in disgrace six years later and our national economy transitioned from a production economy to a service economy by the time they were in their early forties. By the 1980s the impact of the technological advances of the Space Program had started revolutionizing the world in a way that would render the world of their youth unrecognizable in a few short years. They can hardly be blamed for holding on to their positions and whatever power they had with all their might. In refusing to train mentors, however, we lost much of their expertise.

I see the same kind of foolishness going on here in Milwaukee in many Church-related endeavors. Some young clergy are interested in working with a group in need and the old farts – you know, people my age – appear to be bogging them down with endless requests for meetings and procedural nonsense like broadening the size of the group to include others aligned with them (and so increase their influence while marginalizing the young people). It’s becoming clear to me that what is really happening here is the old farts are trying to protect their turf rather than being responsible and allowing younger people to learn from them. Quite honestly, there is no place for that kind of nonsense in the Church. If you know me, you know I am going to put an end to that nonsense.

It does raise a larger issue, and the issue has to do with aging. We do not age well as a culture in America. We put seemingly endless effort and untold resources into creating the appearance that our physical selves do not age – the result being more than a few people like Kenny Rogers and Chuck Norris who have had so many eye jobs they can no longer blink. In our obsession with our physical selves we neglect the much more important issue of our spiritual and emotional selves. You can hardly swing a dead cat in America without hitting some pathetic old fart (you know, someone my age) so hell-bent on holding onto their position and power that they haven’t actually had a conversation with anyone younger than them in fifteen years. The result is that they have become so out of touch that they have effectively undercut their own viability and work. In trying to avoid being “replaced” they have rendered themselves impotent – and there is no small irony in that.

The greatest loss occurs not in the unraveling of these one time leaders, but in that their unwillingness to move into a mentoring role and share their wisdom will result in a lack of preparedness in their successors It’s understandable that some of our current day leaders would make bad choices about training their successors. What’s inexcusable is their wholesale abdication of the work they were at one time passionate about! When we are doing important, life-changing work that people depend upon we simply cannot allow our ego to get in the way of what is best for the people we serve. Our current day leaders need to see the value of moving into the role of mentor and wisdom teacher.

What I plan on doing is being a voice that agitates my contemporaries to do embrace the role of mentor and wisdom leader. More importantly, I will equip those young clergy with the information and procedures they need and encourage them  to move on with the work no matter who we upset. The days when the Western Church could afford to bow to ego are long gone, we have work to do!


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