Years ago we identified 4 critical elements all healthy churches practiced, regardless of size or stripe:
Integrity: systems, processes, infrastructure to get the mission accomplished
Passion: an energy and enthusiasm for Jesus, his work, and your church
Servanthood: an outward-focused culture to serve those beyond the walls
Imagination: a capacity and willingness for change and innovation
We cover these extensively in the book Elemental Leaders: Four Essentials Every Leader Needs…and Every Church Must Have. Our team has spent the next several years developing ways to assess and actually measure those critical traits.
But two of them seem to be the most affected over the life span of a church: Passion and Imagination.
If you think about it, that’s not dissimilar to us carbon-based bipeds as we age—we seem to lose the drive, energy, and passion that we had when were younger, and a diminishing sense of curiosity and wonder about possibilities as we grow older. On the flipside, most people in their later years will have developed processes and systems to manage their lives with routines that make day-to-day activities work (Integrity). Likewise, they may still have a “servant approach”—perhaps with adult children and new grandchildren—that helps them to keep others-focused (Servanthood). But Passion and Imagination seem to be the most affected by age-ism…and they appear to be linked. Likewise, churches have similar issues as the decades pass. A few years ago the Hartford Institute did a comprehensive study on megachurches and discovered an odd datapoint—and I can’t help but wonder if this is common in any sized church. They found a correlation between the “spiritual vitality” of a church and the “age and tenure” of the senior pastor. “Spiritual vitality” is obviously connected to passion and imagination.
The study reported:
“The increasing tenure of the senior pastor is negatively related to spiritual vitality and a clear mission and purpose of the church. Likewise, the older the senior leader the less likely they are to identify their worship as innovative or to see the church as constantly changing to improve and adapt. In other words, the older the senior pastor is and the longer at the church, the greater likelihood that the church will routinize and become less flexible within an ever-changing cultural context.”
I would guess this is not just the case for aging senior pastors, but also for aging elder boards who help lead a church.
This is not meant to be an age-incrimination screed, but rather a reality check. And of course every person is different. Maybe you’ve known an older leader who was forever curious and excited about the Kingdom…or a millennial who was not only an old soul, but locked in their thinking and dispassionately cautious about everything. Nevertheless, it’s smart to look at the data, be more “organizationally-aware”, and, obviously, listen closely to the Holy Spirit…the Ultimate Agent of Change.