Getting Rid of Our Gandalfs

The wise sage. 

The wise sage. 

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Echo Conference in Dallas. I’ve wanted to go for a number of years, and it finally worked out. The folks at Watermark Church were most gracious hosts, and the entire event was well done. 

The opening night keynote was provided by Jon Acuff of Stuff Christians Like fame. I expected a funny talk with lots of jokes, but not a lot serious content. I was pleasantly surprised. Jon is a funny guy, so there was plenty of humor, but he also tailored his talk in a way that really spoke to the audience of creatives and techs. 

One comment he made struck me in particular. He said this, “The church has a bad habit of getting rid of our Gandalfs.” As this is something I talk about a lot, it really resonated with me. But I can see how some context would be helpful. First, I’ll set it up with a simple roadmap that most of us take through life. 

Our 20’s: Learning

We spend our 20’s learning about stuff. College, first jobs, relationships, all that jazz. We tend to try a lot of things, and learn a lot.

Our 30’s: Editing

Having tried a lot of things in our 20’s, it’s time to figure out what are the 3-5 things that we’re really going to focus in on. Rather than trying to do everything, we edit our lives, distilling our passions.

Our 40’s: Mastering

By the time we hit our 40’s, we’re coming up on the 10,000 hours mark of mastery. Those things we selected in the 30’s are now becoming second nature, and we’re getting really good at them.

Our 50’s: Harvesting

Hopefully, we made good decisions in the previous few decades and those good decisions and hard work is now paying off. We begin to reap what we’ve sown.

Our 60’s: Guiding

At this stage of our life, it’s time to give back. We have learned a lot, and it’s time to share that knowledge with upcoming generations.

As Jon pointed out, we’re finding that the ages thing is breaking down a little bit. You don’t get to skip stages, but you can accelerate them. However, there is a problem. It happens everywhere, but it’s a problem in the church, and thus our focus. 

Once people get to a certain age—at least for some ministries—they are let go by quite a few churches. It’s especially prevalent in youth ministry, for worship leaders and tech guys (though for different reasons). Jon shared a story about a youth pastor friend of his who was fired after he turned 42. Too old, the church told him. 

I’ve spoken to many worship leaders who start to get really nervous when they get up toward 40; they’re pretty confident they’ll soon be replaced by younger, hipper dudes with skinnier jeans and more hair product. We may laugh, but it’s true.

Even tech guys aren’t safe. I know several who have been let go and replaced by someone half their age who will work twice as much for a third the salary. The tragedy of this is that the “old guy” has more years of experience than the young kid has been alive. At experience would be very helpful to the young tech, but cheaper is better for many churches. 

Getting Rid of Our Gandalfs

Which brings me back to my original point. Once we have these guys in our midst who have been doing this ministry thing for 15, 20, 25 (or more) years, we should not be replacing them for younger, fresher versions. Ideally, we should be bringing in younger people to learn from the old guys. 

Now to be sure, sometimes the old guys become cranky old men who just complain about the younger generation, and reminisce about the good old days. Those guys need an attitude re-adjustment or do need to leave. 

But the vast majority of experienced church staff—youth guys, worship leaders, techs—would love to be part of a team that helps raise up the next generation of leaders. I know in my 20’s, the thrill came from doing the show. Now that I’m older, while I still like doing production, I get much more joy from helping others do this technical leader thing better. 

The church that is simply looking at the bottom-line of those expensive salaries are missing the big picture, and it will cost us dearly over the long haul. On the other hand, I know some churches that are doing a great job of integrating generations, fostering environments where the experienced can pass their wisdom on to the younger, energetic leaders. Oh that this would happen more often.

 

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