How to Lead People Older Than You

How to Lead People Older Than You

Three tips for setting up a great relationship

As we prepare for the next semester of small groups, I’m meeting with all of our new leaders to set them up for success. I serve as a small-group pastor, and many leaders are my peers or in a life stage or two behind me, making them ideal candidates for discipleship throughout the semester.

There are several leaders, however, who are older than me, which can make me feel insecure. I have to remind myself that as their small-group director, I’m in a position to lead and care for them—even disciple them. This is where the insecurities creep in.

What if they don’t respect me? What if they don’t think I’m experienced enough to lead? What experience do I have that they don’t?! What if they refuse to listen to what I have to say? What if I don’t have the necessary experience to care for them?

Thoughts start running rampant if I’m not careful. To combat this, I remind myself of several truths:

  • I’m in a position to lead for a reason.
  • I have wisdom to offer.
  • They have experience from which I’d love to learn.
  • We’re all on the same team.

Once I’ve allowed these truths in, I’m reminded of another: You’ve done this before! Through trial, error, and godly feedback, I’ve discovered a few key practices for leading and caring for those who are older than me.

Admit What You Don’t Know

Prior to working on staff at a church, I worked for the Department of Defense and regularly briefed high-level officials. We were taught to “acknowledge what you know, what you don’t know, and what you think.” Taken from an adage of General Powell when he was Secretary of Defense, it’s a great rule of thumb to follow when working with people.

Essentially what this means is that you’re in a position to lead for a reason and have experience and knowledge to share, so do it! We gain others’ confidence when we offer our insights. You don’t know everything, however, so don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Better yet, say “If you have an idea, I’d love to hear it!” We earn respect by being honest, humble, and open to accepting others’ ideas.

As for the last piece of Powell’s adage, when appropriate, share with others what you think. Opinions are helpful, and when reached through prayer, time in the Word, and godly counsel, they can be important to share—especially with people we’re coaching. It’s equally important, however, to acknowledge the difference between fact and opinion. We must have the maturity to admit when our thoughts are simply an opinion.

To continue developing in this area of leadership, I have asked a select number of trusted small-group leaders to be my “report team.” I regularly ask them the following questions:

  • What am I doing well?
  • What could I be doing better?
  • What am I not doing that I should be?

Many of those whom I’ve asked to provide these checks and balances are wiser, more experienced leaders who appreciate that I respect their insights and opinions. It’s a win-win.

As a leader, I want to position myself to learn from those who have experience in the areas I don’t. Further, when I know a leader has expertise in a particular area, I’m going to pick his or her brain to gain any knowledge I can! The lead pastor at my church regularly shares that when he was a young leader, he was a voracious reader, learning from the experience of others to make up for any lack of experience he had simply by virtue of age. I want to learn from his example.

Ask Good Questions

Too often when in a position to lead, we’re caught in the trap of believing we must have all the answers. This trap can be heightened when leading those who are older because we don’t want to seem inexperienced or incapable of leading. Good leaders don’t need all of the answers—they just need to know where to find them.

There’s such freedom in realizing that each person we lead has life experience to share and wisdom from which we can learn. Not everyone will freely offer their opinions, but when we let our leaders know we value them and their experience, they’re much more willing and honored to share. We just need to put ourselves in a posture to learn, having the humility to believe that sometimes it’s the right questions—not the right answers—that make us great leaders.

My husband and I recently led a small group that attracted many people who were new to our church. We had a wide range of ages, which led to conversations that were robust and insightful. One young woman who was just out of college was uniquely gifted in asking questions. She paid close attention to whomever was speaking and picked up on nuances and subtleties many others missed. Then she would press for clarity in important areas. She was candid and curious and not afraid to dig a little deeper. She was also able to bridge age and experience gaps in conversation and ensure that everyone was included, simply by asking the right questions.

I occasionally had trouble figuring out how to include the oldest couple in our small group in our conversations, so I looked to her for help. She would remember comments from previous weeks and incorporate those shared experiences into direct questions to effectively loop them in. They went from being outside of the group to frequently sharing incredible wisdom and insights all because of her willingness to ask others to share their experience.

When Jesus was 12, he stayed behind at the temple after Passover. We read in Luke 2:40 that he was “filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.” When sitting at the feet of elders, we’re told he listened and asked questions while everyone else was amazed at his understanding of what was taught (Luke 2:46–47).

If Jesus, filled with wisdom and supernatural understanding, can learn from his elders, we can too. It’s wonderful to read that it wasn’t his single-handed understanding of the law, but his questions that amazed everyone. Let’s follow his example and remember to ask and listen.

Walk in Confidence

In 1 Timothy 4, Paul instructs Timothy, a young leader, on leading elders in the church. Paul tells him to command and teach the law while living a life that sets an example for others. He further instructs Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift you have which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you” (vs. 14). Remember that you were prayerfully selected for a position of leadership and the care of others. Don’t neglect the gift you have been given. It’s important that our leadership is marked by humility, but it’s equally important to have confidence in our appointed role.

In college I served as the Middle School Intern at my childhood church. In this position I co-led our middle-school ministry, discipling several of our middle-school students through a crazy period of transition in their lives. They looked to me for life experience and reassurance that things would get easier. The foundation of the guidance I provided them, though peppered with stories from my own life, was grounded in biblical truth.

When I started in my current position, I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to lead and care for our small-group leaders because I didn’t have an extra ten years of experience on them from which I could draw. What I failed to recognize was that sharing God’s truth transcends barriers of age and life experience. I pray before each meeting that the Holy Spirit will give me the ears to truly hear what is being communicated, the correct words to reach the other person’s heart, and the obedience to follow his promptings. When the Holy Spirit is leading our meetings, they always go better!

When looking at the instructions Paul gives Timothy, it would be shortsighted to ignore those on conduct. All leaders, but especially young leaders, must remember to behave in a way that makes others want to follow them. We all make mistakes—leaders included—but how you react to the hard times can be an example or a distraction to those paying attention.

Further, respect is not automatically granted, so we must behave in a way that earns it. I work regularly with an older couple who once made a comment that they feel disrespected when people are late to meetings. You had better believe I have several Google alerts set before each of my meetings with them to ensure I’m on time. They’ve told me a way they feel respected, so the least I can do is act in a way that honors them.

Leading and caring for people is an honor, especially when those who are a few steps ahead in life allow us to serve them. If we walk in humble confidence, remembering we have a unique perspective to offer, asking questions, and admitting when we’re in over our heads, we’ll be able to serve our small-group leaders well—no matter the age difference.

—Laura Holland is Small Group Pastor at National Community Church in Washington, D.C.

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