“I don’t trust you anymore.”
That’s what I said to one of my church elders as I confronted him about a serious issue with his character. This difficult conversation, which came after many heated and frustrating talks with him, was hindered further by our age difference—I was the same age as his oldest son.
Challenges of Being Young
When I was 30 years old, I became the lead English pastor of a Chinese church. I had previously been the youth pastor and assistant pastor, and so this was a big deal, because it showed me that the older leadership was willing to work with younger leaders. I was excited to lead.
But I quickly learned that while the older elders may have said they want to work with a younger pastor, their actions communicated a different message. They were not keen on a younger pastor challenging them or leading them in more difficult matters. The same elder who had been my biggest advocate was the one I eventually had to confront.
Even now, I am the youngest member of our elder board, and one of the most challenging issues has been navigating generational and cultural differences.
Many younger Asian-American pastors who minister in established churches struggle to relate with older pastors and elders, and it can be hard to balance our role and our age. But in every circumstance, we must shepherd humbly and let Scripture guide how we lead members of our church—especially older members in leadership roles.
Thankfully (but not unexpectedly), Scripture addresses this challenge that younger pastors face. Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to establish elders at the church there, and one of the issues the 30-year-old Timothy faced was leading older men, as seen in 1 Timothy 4:12–15 and 5:1–2.
These passages give us the pillars of how younger leaders ought to relate to older leaders. John Stott helpfully categorizes them into six ways Timothy should commend his ministry and gain acceptance for it.
1. Timothy must watch his example
2. Timothy must identify his authority
3. Timothy must exercise his gift
4. Timothy must show his progress
5. Timothy must mind his consistency
6. Timothy must adjust his relationships (1 Tim. 5:1–2)
Paul’s words to Timothy have become a personal manifesto for my leadership. As these words shape how I aim to lead, my hope is the Holy Spirit will continue to sanctify me in these ways.
Two Lessons Learned
As I applied 1 Timothy 4 to my life, I learned two major lessons on how to lead older leaders.
1. Remember they are not the enemy.
There will be times when you disagree strongly with an older leader. It may be of great significance, or it may be something relatively insignificant. The issue may be ministry-related or personal.
In all circumstances, we must resist the temptation to look at the other person as an enemy. We know we’re guilty when grace is nowhere to be found in our approach. We know we’ve made the person an enemy when we’re concerned with justice and the Word of God, but really we don’t care about the image-bearer of God.
This is a temptation for younger leaders when we are zealous but lack patience (Prov. 19:2). Even when we need to correct someone, we must remember we are still approaching a brother or sister in Christ.
When Paul tells Timothy not to rebuke, he doesn’t mean Timothy must give up his convictions from Scripture or stop caring about character and the truth. Paul means that Timothy’s attitude and approach must not be harsh. The goal is not to put people in their place. The goal is restoration.
Timothy’s actions ought to be similar to how he would approach his earthly father. This means respecting the older person and learning to love them. The concept of family should shape our relationships with those in the church.
2. Bleed the Bible.
Charles Spurgeon wrote illustratively about John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress: “Why, this man is a living Bible! Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him.”
We ought to have Bibline blood. Timothy was to devote himself to public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and to teaching. We need to lean our weight on the Word as well.
This is especially important when leading older men, since Scripture is the authority above all of us, no matter our age. We cannot assume we have the right answers simply because we’re young and know the most popular things. Neither can older men claim to be right merely because they have experience. We have no authority except that which comes from God’s Word.
Scripture is the authority above all of us, no matter our age.
This is also important as we look to lead across cultural differences. We all have cultural blind spots that show up in our values and leadership. Whenever I hear someone start a sentence, “Well, in the Chinese congregation . . .” or “Americans do it this way . . .” I want to pause and say, “While we recognize there are cultural ways of going about this, what does Scripture say about this?”
No one with a high view of Scripture wants culture to define how we lead in the church, but we must guard ourselves from naively presuming that Scripture alone is functionally directing our values. We are more influenced by our culture than we would like to admit.
For young pastors, leadership books with practical guidance can be helpful. But more importantly, we need to be a leaders formed by God’s timeless and trustworthy Word. May we lead with Bibline blood.
If I Had a Do-Over
If I could do it over again, I would not have said “I don’t trust you anymore.” Those words were weaponized to hurt. I used my concern for correcting a problem to rationalize my harshness. I allowed my frustrations to diminish the need to encourage and listen patiently.
If you are leading upward in your church, anchor yourself in Paul’s words—and let your leadership flow from there. I’m so thankful God has kept that elder in the church even though we’ve had our ups and downs throughout the years. It is testimony to his patience with me, a reminder of my need to grow in leading upward, and a sign to the other leaders that we want to pursue Christ across our differences. Praise God that Christ builds his church, even with weak leaders of all ages.
Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at SOLA Network.