It's time for baby boomers to cede control

By Tom Ehrich
Posted Sep 13, 2012

[Religion News Service] As baby boomers start clicking the senior citizen box on travel fares, I want to say a word to my generation and to the one that preceded us.

It is time for us to get out of the way.

I don’t mean easing into wheelchairs. For the most part, we’re way too healthy and energetic for that. I mean the harder work of relinquishing control.

I see that need most clearly in religious institutions, where I work. But I see it elsewhere, too, from taxpayer “revolts” led by seniors against today’s schoolchildren to culture wars that we won’t let die.

At a stage in life when God wants us to “dream dreams,” we are fighting against change and empowering demagogues who use our control issues as cover for their soak-the-people, feed-the-rich schemes — including playing political football with our own Medicare and Social Security benefits.

I see this most clearly in mainline Protestant churches, which are literally dying under the weight of old ideas, old methods, old expectations, and old leaders who behave as if they would rather see their congregations die than yield control.

Healthiest congregations tend to be startups, not because young startup pastors are more capable, but because they don’t have older members standing in their way.

I see it in suburban communities where older taxpayers are rejecting school spending that would benefit a younger generation’s children.

I see it in progressive seminaries, where older leaders are still fighting feminist battles in a post-feminist era. I see it in the Roman Catholic Church, where old men are forcing yet another generation to fight the abortion battle that gave them purpose after Vatican II.

I saw it in crowd shots at both parties’ national conventions. In a nation where the average age is said to be 25 and the nonwhite presence is growing, both parties seemed oddly old and, at the GOP’s convention, oddly white.

I doubt that younger cadres are any wiser or more skilled. Many, in fact, are proving unprepared for complex decision-making. But the answer to that is training and experience on the job, not exclusion.

I doubt that today’s fresh ideas have magical properties. Some new ideas in technology seem shallow and trivial. But fresh ideas at 25 can mature into better ideas at 35 — if their creators are allowed air to breathe.

In what seems like another lifetime, we once shouted for attention and demanded that older cadres get out of our way. Fine. That’s what youth does. But we are still shouting for attention, still demanding control. Why?

I think many are addicted to control. By that I mean an addiction comparable to alcoholism, an addiction we will feed at any cost even though it makes our lives unmanageable.

I think many are afraid of aging. We hear “senior” and think loss, frailty, sagging, and dependency. We think empty days and empty bank accounts. Clinging to control seems a way to avoid time’s “ever-rolling stream.”

In fact, thanks to improved health care, many in their 60s and 70s feel as healthy and energetic as ever. I think we could be using our health to serve. Serve those who truly are on the final laps and dealing with loneliness, depression, anxiety and failing health. Serve our beloved institutions by saying yes when young leaders ask us to be foot soldiers. And serve our communities by caring for the least.

— Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter (at)tomehrich.

Statements and opinions expressed in the articles and communications herein, are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of Episcopal News Service or the Episcopal Church.

Comments (25)

  1. The Very Rev. Dr. Joyce Beaulieu says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. When I turned 60 this May, I decided my parish needed a more energetic presence and I stepped away. I can’t agree with you more that, as a generation, it’s time to let the next generations have a go at the systems they need to control.

  2. I absolutely agree that it’s time – past time – for Boomer men to cede control. If you can’t be part of the change and follow the lead of the new generation, get out of the way. One of the best ways to lead is by helping to train up and empower the next generation.

    1. I absolutely agree about mentoring!

  3. Marilyn Grantham says:

    I can agree with much of what Tom Ehrich is saying. I belong to the “silent” generation that preceeded the boomers and I have long been taken aback by their overt aggressiveness and constant need for attention. I think it is time they recognized their faults and demonstrated some healthy humility. However, I also watched all of the Democratic National Convention and was bought to tears by the rainbow of people in attendance … far more of a cross-section of America now than was present at the Republication Convention. I have real hope for our future because of that diversity.

  4. The words “cede control” seem provocative and divisive. They suggest that those over 48 years of age have nothing to offer the church – after all, the Boomer generation (according to generational demographics) did not end until 1964. Can we not put this battle between Boomers and GenXers behind us and get on with respecting everyone’s gifts and doing the ministry to which we are all called…together?

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Rev. Kim,

      Thank-you, thank you, thank you! In this commentary one finds talk of power, divisiveness, and gender-bias (“Boomer men”). Jesus didn’t seek to toss anyone to the sides as much as many comments here do – and Jesus never spoke so degradingly of those concerned enough to follow Him. In all of this I read about “get out of the way”, power, control, empower, fight their battles….how about “servanthood”, a concept so lacking in this entire discussion? If it were not for the sacrifices – and I mean sacrifices – of many of the elderly parishioners in our churches then this website, this denomination, and many local churches would not have a thin dime to slam them with.

    2. Dan Furgason says:

      Right on. We were all called by out Lord to do this together. It is not us and them.

  5. Salin Low says:

    I think the commentary said all Boomers should get out of the way, not just the men. We need to let the next generations define and fight their own battles.

  6. Robert Sherwood says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. Power in society, but especially in the church, is something that ought to be wielded by everyone, young, old, male, female, white people, people of color, solely on the basis of ability. No one should be excluded from leadership because they’re “too old”. I’m afraid that Tom’s point, while well-meant, is going to lead some to pushing seniors out of leadership positions and out of the church. I want no part of a church like that.

  7. Eleanor W. Winsor says:

    We will all gain when we allow change to occur. Thank-you for saying it so well. The Boomers might even find that there are exciting new things with which to fill there time.

  8. Dianne Aid says:

    Wonderful commentary. I am classic baby boomer, I am not ready to give up active justice work, but am honored that the leadership in community organizing are those in the 25-35 yr. old range.

    I am so excited to see and follow this new leadership.

  9. Bee Jay Mar says:

    As a geriatric social worker with 33 years in various aspects of the field, before retiring, I see lots of holes in this essay! I’m 65 and active in my church. I think we older adults need to provide leadership, to mentor those coming up behind us.
    It’s our job to keep The Church together until the youngsters are ready to take over. As a saying I read recently said, “Older adults ARE the church of today!” A dear friend is pastoring in the United Methodist Church in North Florida. She tells me in another 20 years, there will be no UMC in Florida. Why? Because the current average age is 70.
    Will the up-starts, the GenXer’s, Millenniums, and iGeneration be ready? Not if us old folks sit on the sidelines!
    Will the upstarts

  10. Susan Willm says:

    As a United Methodist, I agree on behalf of my denomination! When I was active in conference and jurisdictional work I was appalled by all the 80 and 90-year-old retired people who held offices, and vowed then that I would begin mentoring younger people to grow into leadership roles. We Boomers were vocal about wanting younger leadership in our country, so let’s take our own good advice and lift up and nurture younger leaders.

  11. The Rev. Michael Link says:

    I, too, agree with your article. I am at the tag end of the Silent Generation and in my 47 years of ministry, I have found that the “Silents” are more generous, supportive, and do not seek to be rewarded by accolades for their good works.
    The Boomers, you say, are addicted to control. I’ll add another adjective, “entitled.” Some even may lack emotional maturity. There are hundreds and hundreds of exceptions.
    Perhaps what the generations after the boomers need to do is create an intervention to heal the boomers.

  12. Fr. Charles Searls Ridge says:

    After fifty-one years of parish ministry including five interims since “retirement,” I will continue to assist younger clergy, when asked to do so, but I will no longer lead. Not only do I have insufficient energy, but I know that my concerns and preaching address questions and situations past. Also, while I am relatively tech-savy for my age, when I am around younger clergy I become away of how much they are–and need to be–beyond me and most of our congregations.

  13. John Schaffer says:

    The following paragraph is unnecessary to your argument Tom; and, frankly, it turned me off to your overall message. Just who is the demagogue here?

    “At a stage in life when God wants us to “dream dreams,” we are fighting against change and empowering demagogues who use our control issues as cover for their soak-the-people, feed-the-rich schemes — including playing political football with our own Medicare and Social Security benefits.”

  14. The Rev. Betsy Carmody Gonzalez says:

    As a Gen Xer, I just want a place at the table, an invitation into leadership and shaping where the church is and the possibilities of where God is leading us. Previous generations carry the DNA of who we are. We map that DNA to discover who we are and where our traditional struggles and where challenges lie. Terms like “intergenerational” and “multigenerational” used in faith settings are not terms made up by boomers who still want control, but used freely by younger folks who value where we are and have been on the road to what is next and to God’s kingdom.

  15. Becky Robbins-Penniman says:

    When I spent my sabbatical in 2009 visiting “emerging church” groups (not just Episcopalians – lots of different flavors, including independent), I asked them what they thought of someone like me, who was old enough to be their mom (if not their grandmother) taking part in the movement/conversation. Would they prefer we not horn in? To a person, these youngsters said, “Don’t go away! we need your wisdom. BUT, do let us make our own mistakes, and do let us talk about things you don’t understand (especially in pop culture) without getting bent out of shape. There’s nothing lamer than an AARP member trying to be a hipster.”

    Those of us Boomer parents who were NOT helicopter parents are perfectly capable of walking with and encouraging younger folks without being overbearing or jealous, whether it is at home or in the workplace or in the church. But the phenomenon of the helicopter parent (not only a Boomer parenting issue, by the way) is also a factor in all those spheres. Perhaps that’s where the conversation needs to focus – on intergenerational respect and trust and interest in what life is like for the other.

    Personally, I think the biggest church challenge looming in the next 20 years or so will be the buildings. If you ask my 20-something kids, “Which should the church be spending money on? fixing up old sanctuaries, or feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and the prisoners?”, they just laugh.

    1. Becky, what you say about buildings is now and will be a massive crisis very soon. The average building requires about $55K per year “to live.” The same is of course true if a building has be “mothballed.” Check out commercial real estate just about anywhere in cities and towns, and there are already many church buildings for sale at a fraction of their insured value.

      Re. the Boomer participation, there is certainly a place of us but should the average age of newly minted clergy for 48? We must quit ordaining so many middle to elderly clergy and provide well financed education for younger men and women to take over our ordained leadership. Those new priests, yes, we can help mentor them!

  16. Donald Hill says:

    AS the leading edge of the boomer generation I find I can still serve to encourage the sharing and ceding of power to the younger generations. What is most difficult is to find people of younger those demographics willing to take the amount of time it will require to remold and reform the church into new models of servant leadership. When there is a vacuum the elders will step up and do. Lets not demonize them for that.

  17. James Maury says:

    One area not mentioned specifically would be secular jobs. While a number of seniors need supplemental income, many do not, but continue to hold onto jobs that could be filled by the under/unemployed. Volunteer work can be most meaningful and helpful for all involved.

  18. Doug Desper says:

    Considering the reality of the statisics of who is actually present and supporting most local Episcopal Churches each week I can only say “thank God for our reliable seasoned citizens” who are present, willing, paying the bills, and holding the doors open in hopes that one day others will follow their example!

  19. Robert Smith says:

    “I see it in progressive seminaries, where older leaders are still fighting feminist battles in a post-feminist era. I see it in the Roman Catholic Church, where old men are forcing yet another generation to fight the abortion battle that gave them purpose after Vatican II.” As a 24 year old Roman Catholic seminarian I was horribly offended by this statement. Since the earliest days of America the Episcopal Church has treated Catholics like children, telling us how we should believe and what we should do. How can you insinuate that our seminaries “force” things on us when you are not a Roman Catholic priest, do not profess the Roman Catholic faith, or teach at Roman Catholic seminary? You have frankly shown a typically historical anti-Catholic attitude towards us in many of your posts. I assure you that I, and every other Roman Catholic Seminarian, will continue to fight the battle with abortion long after the babyboomers are dead, as will those who follow in our footsteps. We follow because we want to to fight the good fight for what we believe is the truth of the gospel. NOT because we are “forced.” Indeed my generation of Catholics is far more antiabortion than our parents. But once again a protestant is critiquing our church. It should be a point of pride for Episcopalians, that it was an Episcopalian of the babyboomer generation who urged the Episcopal Church to acknowledged its long standing anti-Catholic sentiments, rooted in an Anglo fear of the Irish and Polish and do away with them. Sadly the lessons of Philip Jenkins seem to be forgotten. I usually have nothing but the deepest respect and indeed, love, for the Episcopal Church, but your statements about our seminaries were uncalled for, unwarranted, and frankly, hurtful.

    1. John Kirk says:

      Dear Robert:
      Don’t be offended. The author simply doesn’t grasp that truth is immutable and the age of the person either professing or denying that truth is irrelevant to that truth’s immutability (strange, isn’t it, in an ecclesial community that embraces gay marriage, permits openly gay bishops, “ordains” women priests, etc., that this egregious ageism is tolerated). Nor does he grasp that a large number of people actually DO believe that abortion is a grave and dreadful sin. It’s because his own ecclesial community isn’t quite sure what it believes in any more, at least in terms of sin, redemption, salvation, etc., though they can quote the Millenium Development Goals to a fair- thee-well. As a former Episcopalian turned happily Roman Catholic some twenty-four years ago, I would urge you to pray for the author’s repentance and for the continued expansion of the personal ordinariate authorized by the Holy Father in “Anglicanorum Coetibus,” that more and more Anglicans will come into the unity that is inherently and inalienably the essence of Holy Mother Church’s very nature.

  20. Doug Desper says:

    This commentary, while hopeful and idealistic, ignores the well-documented statistical reality of who is actually present, willing, and reliably supporting the Episcopal Church these days – that is, our older members. Thank God for our “seasoned citizens” who continue to be the Church in season and out.

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