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Learning to Lead Differently as You Age

As we watch the news, we often see leaders retire. It happens in the sports world, the political realm, the educational system and even in the religious community.

The pope retired. Pastors retire from their church ministry. Leaders of Christian organizations retire.

We all have an expiration date.

If your vision has expired, you need to step out of your leadership role.

The expiration date, though, is not always determined by our health. Instead, it’s often determined by our vision. If your vision has expired, you need to step out of your leadership role.

But it’s not just an age thing. I know people who still have the vision in their 80s and are still doing some really amazing things.

Leading With Vision or Fear?

Here’s what often happens to leaders: A fear factor sets in. It’s like they’ve got to finish, even if they don’t finish well. You know the mentality: “I don’t want to rock the boat, because this is my retirement. I just sort of need to make it through.”

I’m in my late 40s now, but a few years ago I was sitting down with Troy Gramling, who was interviewing me and asked, “What are you doing to invest in the next generation?”

I responded, “I am the next generation. What do you mean? I’m just 43 years old.” We are about the same age, so he (correctly) replied, “No, we’re not anymore.”

As leaders, we age—and we have to invest in those in the next generation. It changes as we age so that when you’re getting into your 60s and 70s, you need to be spending most of you time investing in people that are younger than you—passing it on.

Reaching Out or Hanging On?

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I led differently than I do now that I’m in my 40s. When you’re in your 60s and 70s and particularly your 80s, your role has to shift.

The fact is, this is hard for some to hear. However, we sometimes have to be the ones who say to older leaders, “You know, nobody’s putting you on a shelf, but you’ve got to lead differently. You can’t lead the way you led when you were 35. Because people aren’t going to follow you the way they followed you when they were 35. They’re going to follow differently.”

I shared this with a group of bishops and exhorted them that, because of their polity, they have to be the ones to speak truth into the lives of their pastors. They need to know that many, though certainly not all, older pastors have not transitioned how they lead. Some pastors in their late 60s and 70s are just hanging on for dear life.

I should add that there’s also a different side to this issue. The church culture often wants to push older leaders aside based purely on age. This can have a devastating impact on a pastor, who may not be able to find another church at the age of 60. It shouldn’t be that way. That’s not biblical.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.