“Why don’t you love me like you used to do?
How come you treat me like a worn-out shoe?” Hank Williams
Here’s a phenomenon I’ve seen a number of times. If you’re an experienced leader, I’m sure that you’ve seen it too.
Sooner or later the older leader realizes what’s happening. He has become yesterday’s lunch du jour, old hat, the perfect leader…for a bygone era. In the hearts of his followers he has been supplanted by a whiz kid, a fair-haired boy, an upstart.
What happens next can be ugly. The older leader (1) resigns in anger (2) continues in his work, in anger (3) begins throwing verbal (fortunately) spears like King Saul (I Samuel 18:10) at the younger leader.
The younger leader is usually both innocent, for he’s not trying to make this happen, and ignorant, as he doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on.
On rare occasions, the younger leader is neither innocent nor ignorant. He is being flattered, he believes what he’s hearing about himself and he’s enjoying it immensely. In no time at all he buys into the criticism he’s hearing of the “old” leader. Like David’s son Absalom, he is tempted to tell others how great things would be if only he was in charge (II Samuel 15:1-6).
And let’s face it: even the godliest young leader takes some pleasure in the situation and also feels some shame over taking pleasure in it.
This is all very sad isn’t it?
In most cases, nobody plans this or even envisions or anticipates it. It’s an accident, pure and simple. It’s not a distinctly spiritual phenomenon – though spiritual forces can certainly be involved in it. It’s a human, psychological phenomenon – inevitable and accidental – with Kingdom ramifications.
I’ve actually been on both sides of this. I’ve been the fair-haired boy, the whiz kid, and I’ve also been the worn-out shoe. I don’t think I was seriously guilty of anything while on either side of the table. It just happened.
As one with more experience with this than I ever asked for, let me offer some suggestions.
- Try not to take it personally, even though it feels oh-so-personal. It’s not really about you. You may be able to recall the day when you were the whiz kid.
- Try to take it providentially. How is God working through this? Is this young man (or woman) the God-ordained leader of the future? What else might God have in store for you? Ask yourself if your ministry has become stale, routine and dull. Maybe you needed a wakeup call. Are you preaching every sermon in the same format, year after year? Have you stopped launching new ideas and new initiatives?
- Forgive your fickle, foolish followers. They are not being evil, they are being human. You yourself may have shifted your allegiance to a whiz kid at one time in your life. Or you may have been the younger leader and bought into the flattery you were receiving.
- By way of much help from the Spirit of God, maybe you can begin (or improve) a coaching, mentoring relationship with the younger leader. It’s possible that the best thing you can do at this stage in life is to pour yourself into the “upstart” who seems to be stealing your followers. A veteran youth leader I know saw the hearts of his kids moving in the direction of a younger leader. This man had the godliness to accept it and invest much time and energy into the young leader instead of reacting with resentment borne of insecurity.
- Acknowledge the possibility that the old shoe treatment might be deserved. David became the fair-haired boy in the glaring light of Saul’s failed leadership and bizarre behavior. Years later, David became the old shoe after failing miserably in his parenting of Absalom (II Samuel 13, 14).
- Beware the flatterer! Too many churches and other organizations have power-hungry individuals who will do almost anything to increase their influence, including the cultivating of “close” relationships with young leaders, whom, the bully hopes to control for years to come. Sometimes the warm welcome of the powerful church member involves the attachment of his tentacles to your life and ministry.
- Don’t get too excited about what you hear. Of course you have more energy and enthusiasm: you’re thirty years younger and haven’t been through the struggles of your senior leader! It’s pretty easy to present exciting sermons when you’re only preaching every couple of months. A good rule is to not get too down on yourself and to not get too high on yourself either. You’re probably not the next Spurgeon. Allow your spouse, your mother, or a trusted mentor to speak truth into your life: you need it.
- Don’t discount the wisdom of the older leader. You might have some gifts and energy which he lacks. More than likely, he has some wisdom – or lots of wisdom – that you lack. Be wise and listen! If you share more opinions than he does when you’re together, there’s something amiss in the relationship. Read the Book of Proverbs until you “get it.”
- Give the older leader the respect that you would like to receive if you were in his place. It is wise to respect our elders (I Peter 5:5). Learn this timeless principle now, before you become the disrespected, resentful, older leader. The essence of wisdom is knowing you’re a fool; the essence of foolishness is thinking you’re wise.
- Do right, do right, do right. Have nothing to do with plots, schemes or conspiracies to dethrone the senior leader and put you in his place. Everyone should know that you are going to be loyal to your supervisor, that won’t listen to gossip about him, and that you’re not after his job.
The old shoe phenomenon happens. It is a reality to be dealt with in the world of leadership and followership. By heeding the wisdom of the Scriptures and relying on the strength given by the Holy Spirit, both senior and junior leaders can handle these situations in ways that lead to our growth and God’s glory.