Authored by Duncan Field, Manager, Research & Executive Projects
Imagine a ministry that is built to last and to serve your community long into the future, secure in its mission and its vision.
Imagine a ministry that people want to support, and feel comfortable supporting, knowing that the organization will continue to be a relevant and effective asset to the needs of the community.
Imagine a ministry that is always evolving and always renewing, which easily draws in new and younger generations as it ages.
I want to help you build that ministry. This is my challenge to you.
Now and Always
Organizations in the charity and ministry world are busy. Staff are not always as well-resourced as we’d like. Funding can be unreliable or transient. This means that most often the organizations that stay afloat are the ones who work most efficiently. They make the most of what they have. They differentiate between the signal and the noise, and discern which problems need to be addressed in what order.
Knowing this, why would it be important to talk about demographics and generations? If we survive by separating important work from simple busy work, surely there are better things to occupy our time. There are grants to apply for, fires to put out, and clients and congregations to serve. But generational differences isn’t a topic that takes us away from our important work, understanding these differences is one of the foundations of doing good work. Discussion about serving and embracing generational differences allows us to both survive the present climate and thrive in the future.
Maybe this is an easy sell. Generational differences are constantly in the news and discussed by industry publications, perhaps even to the point of exaggeration. Maybe your organization is already taking advantage of the millennial talent that is available. Regardless of where we stand, it just as important not to focus on millennials alone. That kind of focus causes organizational tunnel vision that is just as damaging as resisting the integration of the next generation of leaders. This isn’t about millennials, or generation X, or baby boomers. The challenge is to think about what’s coming next, and further after that – a change of organizational thinking, not a single demographic shift at a single point in time.
The challenge doesn’t stop there. Millennials, those born between 1984 and 2000, are beginning to take leadership positions in ministries across the country. They’re also making huge strides in organizations that they themselves founded. How well equipped are we as an industry to help develop these leaders? How do we make good use of these leaders to fulfill our purpose? I’m not talking about simply employing young people. Instead, we can look at millennials and challenge ourselves to change how we think about our organizations and our visions for the future. As a group, they are creative, underemployed, and underutilized. Millennials are a great and untapped resource that can help our ministries now, but it is the shift in thinking that will help us in the future.
Take a look at the demographics in Canada:
Millennials make up a substantial part of our country’s population and represent the largest percentage of the current labour force, but remain disproportionately unemployed. There is great potential in viewing this generational shift from generation X to the millennials not as a problem to be solved, but as an opportunity to develop new talent within our organizations. As we adapt to changing stakeholder needs, we must also adapt our approach to developing talent within our organizations, up to and including the leadership level.
The Millennial, The Marathon, and the Relay
I often catch myself thinking of both my own career and my organization’s life cycle as a sort of marathon. There is a beginning, middle, and an end. Along the way are challenges – aches and pains, the infamous ‘wall’, and a second wind. It is tempting to think of generational transitions as points along a lengthy timeline. We move incrementally from decision to crisis to resolution, ever forward.
As a matter of practicality, this view is misleading. Barring a lengthy discussion on eschatology, it’s a lot more useful to view generational transitions through a cyclical lens. Most of our organizational goals will remain at least partially unfulfilled beyond our lifetimes, so how are we preparing now for the next leadership cycle, and how do we prepare at the organizational level for long term success?
We are not running a marathon, we are in a relay race – our part to play isn’t the whole story. We are moving forward, experiencing those same challenges, but the perspective is substantively different. It involves a constant awareness of who and what comes next, several cycles into the future. Rather than tackling one problem or transition at a time, the relay requires a change in organizational thought that challenges us to not only anticipate the next big thing, but to embrace it, plan for it, and rely on it. Mission fulfillment extends far beyond the problems of this month, this quarter, or this year, so our actions and visions should reflect that.
This difference may seem insignificant, but consider the current widespread discussion on millennials – While they represent the big new demographic, within ten or fifteen years it will be generation Z, and something else beyond even that. Do we want to be having the same conversation in the same way ten or fifteen years from now? Or can we challenge ourselves to take the current millennial transition and change how we think about our organizations’ visions for the future? Can we incorporate generational change into the core of our organizations’ cultures?
This is where small differences between words really matter. There are lots of churches that embrace generational challenges, and who call themselves multi-generational. They feature collections of people who have differing viewpoints, needs, and strengths. Yet it’s entirely possible for a ministry to foster a multi-generational environment without taking full advantage of its diversity.
You’ll notice that the name of this blog is “The Inter-Generational Ministry”. While inter-generational isn’t a widely used phrase, it denotes the very thing that allows us to succeed long-term. It emphasizes collaboration instead of categorization. Fostering an inter-generational organization involves embracing differences, integrating the next generation of leaders, and compromise. It challenges us to adapt, from volunteers to the highest leadership positions. Adapting doesn’t mean catering or pandering to the next big thing, or the next generational shift, It means challenging millennials to adjust to the work place, and to add real value to your organization’s vision and purpose. It means taking advantage of the unique perspectives that millennials, and those who will follow, have to offer. It is about being willing to pursue new ideas, staying on the edge, and reinventing ourselves. It is about changing the conversation from ‘how do we work with them’ to ‘how do we work’. True integration involves acknowledging differences and taking advantage of unique strengths to advance our organizational objectives.
The inter-generational ministry is hard to achieve. It is uncomfortable, at least at the beginning. It requires everyone to be self-critical and identify what we’re doing because that’s the way it’s done, and what we’re doing because it is effective. It requires new generations to be self-aware, collaborative, and humble. It requires all of us to be bold.
The relay forces us to think of change and progress as constant companions. Our journey towards mission fulfillment is not a linear journey. We are required to integrate and to change, and to have the wisdom to discern what needs to change and what needs to remain as it was. Change for its own sake is just as damaging, if not more so, than refusing to change when it is needed.
My hope is to have a conversation about what it looks like to have truly inter-generational organizations. The change from marathon to relay is conceptual, and challenges us to think about our organizations differently. When you run a marathon, you take each pain and each hill to climb as they come. A relay involves cyclical thinking, forethought, and collaboration. We must keep our organizations’ feet moving, ever forward, ad infinitum. This is a challenge, but it shouldn’t be negative or bleak. The relay isn’t about us, it is about fulfilling our organizational goals. We are all contributing to a mission that will continue far beyond our lifetimes, so we should be ensuring that our current leadership is equipped to develop those who are coming next.
Our focus should always be pursuit of that mission – not millennials, or any other demographic. Inter-Generational thinking is not about pandering, it’s about collaboration and fundamentally changing the way we think about how we accomplish our mission. The challenge is to build and contribute to an organization that will survive beyond us, so that the communities we serve are continually and effectively cared for. This is far bigger than you or me. We must think not only about the problems of this month or year, but about how we fulfill our mission long into the future.
This is my challenge to you – to think about how we integrate, train, and develop the next ministry leaders, generation after generation, all in pursuit of mission fulfillment.
I invite you to take up the challenge, read along, and join the conversation.