The Shelf Life of a Leader
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
In Western Christianity, aging can be difficult. While scripture instructs us to honor our elders, our culture generally dismisses them in favor of the younger and more vigorous. Leaders in particular seem to have an unspoken expiration date—a shelf life—which they are expected to abide by in order to make room for the next generation. The sad reality is we generally tend to label an aging leader as an old wine skin, which may sometimes be the case, but they still usually contain fine wine. One of the famous biblical metaphors used in Christianity is that of running the race, found in 1 Corinthians chapter 9, and Hebrews chapter 12. Using this metaphor, I often hear leadership being referred to as a relay race—the old passing off their baton to the young. The problem with this analogy is that within the biblical usage of it, it is quite clear that the end of each person's race isn't a finish line marked by an arbitrary retirement age, but rather death marked at any age. The biblical imperative is for us to remain faithful to the end, not simply until we train up a replacement and hand off our calling and responsibilities to someone with fresh legs. Because rarely is someone more capable simply because they are younger, and they certainly cannot complete your race for you. But older leaders are often tempted—or pressured—to think that their sunset has come prematurely due to up-and-coming leaders, or the notion that they are past their prime. The irony of the idea of retirement from a prominent role in the body of Christ is that being put out to pasture is often the very act which actually causes a deterioration of one's leadership ability. Those who remain active in their calling and involved in the process of iron sharpening iron can still progress their craft and continue to hone their skill far beyond the typical retirement age. Biblically speaking, of course we have several examples of leaders who didn't even begin their calling until their twilight years. So if age doesn't disqualify, eldership is an indispensable gift, and your finish line is death, what kind of race should leadership be? I believe the best biblical examples portray our race not as a relay race, but as a three-legged race. The younger is bound to the elder as they run it together until death separates them. Three Cases of Three-Legged Races To illustrate this principle, think of the stories of Moses and Joshua, of Elijah and Elisha, and of Saul and David. In the case of Moses, it should be pointed out that his calling started quite late in life—80 years old. Moses likely thought that at that age, his best years were behind him—especially considering the first 40 of those years were spent as a prince of Egypt. And yet it was the next 40 years which would define Moses' life and enshrine him in spiritual history. And while he took his brother Aaron as his aid to speak with Pharaoh, the young leader which would apprentice under him would be Joshua. While no age is given of Joshua in the scriptures, Josephus estimates he was around 45 years old when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt at age 80. This means that Joshua faithfully served and apprenticed under Moses for 40 years until he himself was in his 80's. The shift from apprentice to leader only occurred when Moses died. It is also important to note that Joshua's calling as a leader was not a direct continuation of Moses' calling—it was a distinctly different role which marked a dramatic new season in Israel's history. This is important because usually leaders look to reproduce themselves. We're all secretly narcissists, so the temptation is to over-value our own gifts, strengths, skill sets, and even personality and then look for someone who is as near a potential carbon copy of ourselves as possible for our successor. But of course you are uniquely you. Your calling is unique, your season is unique, and your task therefore is unique—none of it can be duplicated. Joshua wasn't another Moses, he was a very different leader for a very different season and situation, but he faithfully served under Moses and knew well the law which Moses had written. His past experience with Moses however would not serve as a template for his future—his time as the leader of Israel would be much different than his time wandering in the desert with his mentor. The next key relationship we can learn from is Elijah and Elisha, who again show an elder leader running alongside his apprentice in the Lord. Elisha's apprenticeship was much shorter than Joshua's, likely being 7 or 8 years rather than the 40 of Joshua. This is important as it demonstrates that the length of time in an apprenticeship is not standard and not necessarily the better part of a young leader's life. However the shift from student to master still came at the end of Elijah's life. Death wasn't the demarcation in this particular story, but Elijah didn't retire—he just finished his race in a chariot. Here we see the double portion given to the apprentice—an indication that if the three-legged race of leadership is run well, a short apprenticeship is not necessarily detrimental, but can still produce a leader capable of surpassing their mentors. Finally, we see yet other important and unique aspects of this race with the relationship of Saul and David. Many leadership books have been written on this tenuous and strained relationship, so I won't repeat too much of what is typically focused on in this story, but I will highlight a few relevant details. First, David was called and anointed long before he walked in the calling (15-20 years) and he apprenticed under Saul without Saul being fully aware that David would be his replacement. This is an important distinction from the story of Moses or Elijah who seemed cognizant of whose leg they were tied to. As such, David's relationship with Saul was not exactly a traditional apprenticeship—he had to serve in less than ideal and edifying circumstances and often learn indirectly. But David still could not advance beyond his status as an apprentice until Saul's death—and not by David's hand. These details are as intriguing as they are challenging as principles for leaders to ponder and understand. Death and Sonship
It's been said, loosely based on a quote from Sigmund Freud, that a boy does not truly become a man until his father dies. While I believe there is definitely some merit to that statement, it should be noted that in a healthy relationship, the son is not looking to speed the coming of that day. David understood this principle, despite not having the benefit of a healthy relationship. The prodigal son did not grasp this principle, and while he was ultimately restored, the parable does not imply that the time and inheritance which was spent during those years was beneficial. What it does communicate, which is critically relevant in the context of leadership, is that the prodigal son ended up very isolated and alone as a direct result. Leadership is only lonely because the lack of sonship. The problem is we "graduate" leaders and cut them off from a senior leader—a father—in their midlife or even young adulthood regardless of whether or not their spiritual father is still alive. We seem to be encouraging prodigals rather than sons.
The reasons behind this are probably pretty straightforward—ambition on the side of the son, and multiplication on the side of the father. Young leaders desire autonomy and old leaders desire a legacy, so an early release suits all parties. As a young leader in the early years of midlife, I understand the tension here. Young leaders begin in their late teens and early twenties when the Messiah Complex is strong and experience and wisdom relatively low, so there is a tendency to evaluate your leadership based solely on ability and gifting. Ambition, zeal, and energy are high in this season of life and young people tend to think they have to accomplish their goals and fulfill their calling in just a few short years. Life and ministry typically lay waste to such optimism however, so most mellow out a bit by their thirties while many become disillusioned and some abandon their calling. But those who stuck it out and remain in ministry at this stage in life can feel even more entitled to autonomy if humility, character, and biblical wisdom have not been prioritized.
Indeed, as we progress in life and even increase in maturity, there can be a greater temptation of pride telling us that we are ready to strike out on our own—plant our own church, start our own ministry, or take over an existing one. The problem is we have a tendency to believe we're more mature, more ready, and more capable than we really are. We act like the prodigal son and ask for our inheritance before the proper time rather than act like Ruth and commit to our Naomi until death. When we seek autonomy rather than authority, what we find is vanity.
This is not to say that younger men and women have no place in leadership, but rather to emphasize the biblical reality that leadership is a long journey of relationship, apprenticeship, and mentorship ended only by death. We do leaders, the body of Christ, and the Kingdom of God a disservice in truncating that process by releasing young leaders too soon and retiring old leaders too early. The end result is a deterioration of the quality of leadership as a whole, and an increase in leadership failures and casualties.
Turning the Hearts And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. -Mal 4:6
Though young leaders crave autonomy and achievement, neither actually satisfy and when the going gets tough as neither can see you through to the other side. Like so many things in life, what we want is not necessarily what we need, or even what we truly want (Jer 17:9). I am one of the most independent personalities in existence and I'm not relational by nature (INTJ Meyers Briggs type and a 5 on the Enneagram), but even I—in my heart of hearts—desire a true father in the Lord. This desire is normal and God-given even in societies with healthy relationships, but the reality is our society is quite toxic in this regard. As a result, our midlife and young adult leaders are wandering and fatherless respectively. The cure is not autonomy or achievement—the cure is spiritual fatherhood. This requires elder leaders to come out of retirement and fulfill their calling in what is arguably the most critical season of their lives. This will also require young leaders to allow them to come out of retirement and back into the prominent role of mentorship in their lives. The good news is that if we honor elders and mentor leaders in the biblical way, everyone benefits. Young leaders gain the security, identity, wisdom, and experience which comes through fathers and remain in a healthy non-peer relationship which keeps them accountable and in a state of servanthood and humility. The other side of this double-edged sword is that old leaders remain full of vision and purpose (Pro 29:18), which it turn keeps them vigorous and fruitful to the end (Psa 92:14). So young leaders should learn to serve and submit with faithfulness, patience, and perseverance, and elder leaders should not bless their sons with the birthright until they have poured themselves out as a drink offering and are on their deathbed. For in this hour, the church and the world desperately need fathers, not more orphans.