Recently I was chatting with a Gen X (born 1965–1980) Christian leader. He said that his leadership board was made up of people in their 60s and 70s. He also said that it was time to introduce some younger leaders into the board. For that to happen, however, some of his present board members would have to retire. He said he wasn’t sure how to raise this topic with his present board members. (I assumed that his organisation didn’t have an official retirement age.)
I hear the above scenario quite often, especially in Singapore. This is a situation that has arisen partly because of the government’s success in taking care of the health of her citizens. In the past, retirement ages were around 55. And with advancing years came the “natural selection” of failing health and mortality. Not today. People can live long and live healthily into their 70s and beyond. How then can we ensure that there is a healthy commitment to new leadership in our organisations? The simplest way is to just have a compulsory retirement age. But people like Nelson Mandela remind us that there may be situations where leaders may have to be around even in the later years of their lives. Perhaps the first thing we can do is to look at some reasons why senior leaders are reluctant to vacate their positions.
A Heightened Sense of Responsibility
Many of our senior leaders are Boomers (born 1946–1964). Many of this generation are loyal to one company. They work till they retire. Faithfulness is seen as a key value. They will stick to a role through thick and thin. They will not leave a role because they will see this as a betrayal. Therefore, if their health is good, they will keep on serving in their leadership roles. They see it as their duty to serve till they drop.
A Conflation of Identities
Another thing that often happens is that leaders identify themselves with their role. We know that a Christian’s main identity is “child of God”. But when people serve in leadership positions for too long, they may identify themselves as their roles. Their primary identity is no longer “child of God”. It is “senior pastor” or “chairman”, etc. To surrender their role is to surrender their identity. If I am no longer the “principal”, etc., who am I?
Related to this are questions like: “If I am no longer <my role>, will people still respect me?” “Will they still have time for me?” “Will anyone still ‘see’ me?” “If I am no longer holding a leadership office, will I still exist?” These are potentially terrifying questions and at the very least we need to empathise with those struggling with this transition.
No New Chapter
It doesn’t help that often there is no clarity as to how the senior leader is to serve after he or she leaves his or her leadership position. We are all made for meaningful work. It is part of our humanity. If we want to help seniors move on from a leadership position, there must be clarity as to their contribution to the cause of Christ in their next chapter. For many with good health, such contributions could include advising, mentoring, prayer, visitation, teaching, etc., depending on the gifting of the individual. Such ministries are not consolation prizes. It is one way we help believers of all age groups contribute what they can to Kingdom work.
A key thing we can and must do is to help followers of Jesus Christ know and embrace their primary identity as children of God. When that happens, Christians will find their self-worth in the love of the Father. They will not need any position to make them feel good about themselves. This means it will be easier to move on from a position when that is needed. As a child of God, I also live with the principle that I will do what the Father wants me to do, whether to stay or to go from a ministry position, for example. My life is not my own. I am committed to live a life of obedience doing what God wants, not what I want.
As some of you may know, I serve as the chaplain of the Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship, Singapore. Recently I told the Chairman that I am happy to step aside if the organisation thinks it is time for a younger person to take over the role. I am creeping towards 70. I was surprised though that I felt a bit sad when I thought of having to surrender the role. Well, a day will come when I will have to surrender all my earthly roles! Might as well prepare! But nothing will ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38,39).