I’ve seen a disconnect between generations in our congregations when it comes to leadership.  Baby Boomers, who populate the majority of our leadership positions, ask me how they can recruit more younger people for their volunteer positions.  Younger Generation Xers and Millennials have a lot of energy and ideas, but often feel marginalized or even invisible because the existing leadership aren’t ready to really perceive them as leaders or even to take their ideas seriously.

This experience is not unusual, and not limited to young adults.  People whose culture or economic status are not in alignment with the congregational norms also experience this kind of marginalization.

I recently attended a workshop with other UUA field staff members:  The Vision and Practice of 21st Century Faith Formation.    (We are learning to adapt and use technology to curate and share programming and to create learning communities.)  Supporting our younger adults as they try to participate in congregational leadership is a concern that we all share.  As we were ideating (similar to brainstorming), Ian Evison mentioned the book Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results written for young adults’ work lives.  We had an aha moment…that is what they are also experiencing in our congregations!  We create firewalls but don’t offer passwords…thus the need for potential leaders to “hack” their way into leadership.

You may not think of our congregations as having “stupid rules” but we often do have some institutional systemic issues that resist anything innovative.  Most institutions gravitate toward hierarchical, command-and-control structures that serve to perpetuate the institution.  The younger generations are more interested in serving something greater than the congregation itself:

It’s not that our young adults don’t want to serve, rather they want to serve in a way that they find meaningful and that makes a difference in the world.  If we can shift our congregations from command-and-control institutions to institutions with a clear mission of serving needs beyond the church walls, we can be more permission-giving and create openings in our faith communities that engage the gifts and passions of those under 40 so they don’t need to hack their way in.

About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke

Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA.

I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.

  • Mark Bernstein

    Great post, Renee. We need to be willing to transfer more power to young adults in our congregation. That means being willing to let go.

  • Amelia Carr

    Yeah, great post, thanks Renee. But I think it will take more than just a willingness to let go of personal authority. It will require “letting go” of those “stupid rules” (that are usually funny remnants of hard-fought battles and one-time common sense procedures). Speaking from personal experience, easier said than done! Renee, is the Hacking Work book worth reading, do you think? Or is too corporate work specific?

    • I’m about 3/4 through the Hacking work book… I’ll blog on it when I’m finished. 🙂

  • Peggy Clarke

    This is great, Jude.

    I think you’re spot-on about Baby Boomer/congregational culture and the limits it places on younger members who want to make an impact. But, I think there are some additional challenges. There are about half as many Gen Xers as Baby Boomers and we are 1 in 3 if we include everyone over the age of 49. This means that for every position a baby boomer wants to let go of, each Gen Xers will have to cover three to get it all done. Gen Xers also have very different approaches to time and committee work and have different expectations about what they will get out of it. I think we need to be willing to name the generational differences and reconsider our approaches to how we “do church” to create a new, more inclusive culture.

  • Rachel Stevenson

    This Post is Spot On! Yes! I am so glad this was written my whole congregation needs to read this ! Yes!

  • benette sherman

    every UU leader should attend Vision and Practice in 21st century. Much rich stuff.