I was in Bangkok, Thailand in 2020 just a few weeks before Covid-19 shut everything down. After I did my business in the shopping mall men’s room, I noticed the front of the stall. It was a picture of an ‘elder’. I guess I had used the right one! (see photo). Elders can come in any age, any gender, any ethnicity. They are definitely not only older white men from the United States like me. Of course in most cultures of the world, elders are generally thought of as equalling advanced age. I want to make a few points in this post about elders, and especially about the need for elders to learn to ‘let go’.
In this post, I am speaking of eldership not only referring to age, but rather to a level of maturity and character strength. In many parts of the Church and in organizations like I belong to, there can be elders who are quite young. When I was only 22 working with my mission in the NW part of the United States, I was brought on the ‘eldership’ by my leader. Though blessed to be trusted with being seen that way at such a young age, I look back wondering if I really had the ‘right stuff’. (I rewarded my leader a few months later by going off to India and not coming back). In the New Testament, young leaders like Timothy and Titus were called ‘elders’ though probably not being much more than early to late 20’s.
But no matter if an elder is 20 or 80, the need to learn to ‘let go’ is important. We learn throughout our lives to let go of many things: expectations, disappointments, sins that so easily beset us, the losses of people leaving or dying, and so much more. A life well-lived, and especially a long life, will see many losses and griefs. There is a need to gracefully learn to let go, to not hold on to resentments and regrets. Disappointment about our past can become a crippling force, something we crucially need to learn to let go of if we are to walk in a grace and freedom and joy.
The most difficult thing to let go of as an elder/leader, however, may be positional leadership. Our identity can become invested in our role, especially the longer we serve. This is especially true of a particular position, but it can also be true being in the role of an ‘elder’ also. More on this later. I have let go of many roles in my life, but also held on too long to others. Due to my over 40 years of being in a missionary calling, I have developed fortunately a mindset of always going into a job ready to work myself out of it. Then turning it over to a perhaps younger, different ethnicity perhaps, different gender. Or maybe just another white guy. Whoever is the one called to do it next. And that has always been in the long run the one better than me.
A couple of weeks ago I had my birthday and reached the milestone age of being able to retire under US social security rules. Retirement in the US can be the holy grail, though many don’t know what to do when they get there. Of course the longer people wait to retire, the more money they will get in social security benefits. Retirement from a job well done, or a job you have hated for a long time but needed to endure, can be a wonderful thing. There is a place to retire from a role, from a position, from a particular career. That will be my first point below.
- Letting go of a job or position, i.e. retirement, is ok and actually will be a blessing for you and those around you if it is the right timing. But we do not retire from calling or passion. We may leave what we are doing so that someone younger or different can take over, but we do not leave what we are called to impart to our world. I am not ready to stop doing what I’m doing, because I still have the health and the calling and the passion. I have, however, let go of certain positions in my life that I felt would hinder me from serving in a wider and deeper way
- The more we hold on to a position or role of an ‘elder’ in a functional sense, the more we can hold back others that may be called to take that role or position. Our hearts may not be to do that, but it can happen. If we hold on, we also deny ourselves the wider or deeper serving that may be possible for us at this season.
- Letting go or retiring is not abandoning or abdicating the people you are serving. It actually enables you to serve them more. I have had such a joy of letting go of roles, and then seeing how my influence actually expands. It is not based then in power or privilege, but in genuine serving without expectation of gain or reward. Of course there are times when my ego and identity strength gets in the way, and I feel sidelined or disrespected or not consulted. But then as I let go more deeply, I find even deeper joy to not be in the position but still able to serve.
- You can ‘retire’ from a role at a younger age, and then take on another role. I have done this all my life. Letting go of roles I have started and served in so someone else can take it. Making room for others has been one of the absolute joys of my life in leadership, whether in India where I have served over half my life, or in the United States.
- Without learning to let go of roles, there will be ‘unexamined’ places in us identity wise. Some leaders have never faced what is within insecurity wise. The fear can be deep. And it doesn’t go away if it is not faced.
- It can be difficult to encourage an elder to let go and leave a role if they don’t choose to. For those professions or groups that have mandatory age limits, there is sometimes much more clarity. But for those that don’t, what do you do with an elder who is planning to serve for life? Even if their presence on a board or leadership team may hold back someone else called to be there? Much easier is when all of us, no matter how young or old, always have a mind set that we are ready to step aside and serve as an elder not in a positional or job sense or on a council or team, but as a mentoring and perhaps behind the scenes influence. Letting go and serving others whether or not we are recognized in it.
- We need to have honest conversations with others of our leaders about our family involved in the church or mission or organization. If we are turning over roles to our sons and daughters, what could this indicate to other younger leaders? That is not to say that our family members may not be also called to a similar calling and passion, but we do need to be very careful of perpetuating our influence or eldership through our own family. This is when we are on dangerous ground of nepotism.
- There may also be difficult conversations about housing issues. Do elders stay in housing that perhaps other staff may need? Is there value in the elders as they get older moving into a different situation housing wise, but still involved? No easy answers on what ‘letting go’ means in this one either.
- A final area, and I’m sure there are many more the reader could have, deals with finances. Some elders as they get older, particularly in an organization like what I work with, may have to continue to live on financial support raised and not have adequate retirement money. So continuing in a role or position of leadership may seem like it is the only way to maintain a financial base, the only way to convince financial supporters that they should still give you money.
These are difficult areas often to talk about. There can be lots of hurt and vulnerability involved, especially for those that are older. But it is important to have these discussions in love and trust. I do not bring up these things to judge anyone, but to indicate the need to face them squarely in our churches and groups.
All of us, no matter the age, need to consider how we are to let go of roles and positions in the right timing. Retiring from a role or job, or even being an elder in a functional sense, is not wrong. But we will continue hopefully in our passion, calling and investment in those around us until our dying breath.