This is a very honest take on something I have been thinking about for a while now. I pastor a church of people who are mostly older than me. Here is my attempt to wrestle with my own fleshly response to being called “young” and Paul’s instructions to Timothy on the same topic.
“Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you because of your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” 1Timothy 4:11-12
“Don’t worry, we will train you up!” she said with an affectionate look, and a pat on the shoulder. Totally oblivious to the condescension I felt as the shoulder pat felt more like a pat on the head. I smiled, choosing to trust her heart’s desire to see me excel and grow in ministry, rather than judging her for the insult she just leveled to my pride. My defensive flesh jumped into action. Here I was: a 35 year old college graduate, married for 12 years, a father of 4, owner of two homes and a business, and yet feeling like a grade school kid being given a cookie and a glass of lemonade. I had been in ministry for over 10 years in two different churches of more than 500 members. I have managed two, multi million dollar businesses. I am old enough to be president of the United States and older than the median age of people in the world. At that moment though, it seemed I was a twelve your old pimple-faced kid in her eyes. Nothing else really feels like that does it? I wish I had a dime for every time it has been brought up to me how “young” I am. It is a very well intended and albeit loving reminder that no matter your accomplishments or position in life, when you are a pastor to older people, they will most likely see you as they see their children before they see you as a peer, or someone they respect and look up to like a pastor.
I feel for Timothy. I don’t know how he was experiencing this issue, but for Paul to address it, it must have been something he was struggling with. How do you deal with people who (very affectionatly) pat you on the head? How do you address the very loving and well meaning people who feel that it is their job to mother you. How do you respond to people whose gauge for respect is simply a matter of how many years one has been on this planet? How do you pastor people who think they are your parents?
Well, the first thing, I think I see Paul saying to Timothy is not to let people pull the age card. He says, “Let no one despise you for your youth.” So, it seems like Paul is acknowledging that sometimes people have a prejudice against the younger generation that will cause them to not receive, or respect a leader simply because they are older. Ok, so I think that is clear. Thank you, “Captain Obvious!” I think that is clear for me. I feel it almost weekly. Tell me how I set them straight, Paul? How do I shut them up? Give me some zingers, Paul, address their pride and self-righteousness and help me vindicate my authority! In my flesh that’s exactly what I want to hear. Well, maybe I am showing my youthful passions a little much. Because Paul’s instructions don’t actually address the older people, they address Timothy, they address ME! “Set an example,” He says. The way to combat condescension and “agism” is by setting an example. “In speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
Wow! So the answer to dealing with the “pat on the head” feeling, is to resist the urge to throw a temper tantrum (and prove them right)?!?! Dang! He doesn’t tell me to fight back, rather, I should humbly receive their words, and to seek to set an example for them to follow. So, what does that look like Paul? Flesh that out a bit for me, bro.
Look a little bit further down at 5:1-2. “Do not rebuke an older man, but encourage him as you would a father, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.” Ok, so I want to set an example by encouraging and affirming that those who are older do deserve a certain amount of respect, the same way I would respect my father and mother. I should not rebuke my father when he is wrong. What he doesn’t say here is that I should say nothing to my father. He says I need to encourage them as I would my father. That means to respectfully, and carefully, (in a positive way) encourage them to do what is right. Celebrate their strengths and encourage them in their weaknesses.
Now, the logic that follows might be that since we treat older people as fathers and mothers that we get to treat younger people as children right? I think this honestly is where the setting of the example comes into play. With younger people, we are to treat them as brothers and sisters. The example is this: We elevate, and respect all of those around us, no matter their age.
I have seen on many occasions how people will respond according to how you treat them. Have you ever seen a grown up still being babied by his parents? All the while, his mother saying to herself, “Someday he will grow up, and when he does I will treat him like a grown up.” Meanwhile, the reason he never grows up is because he is still being treated as a child. I have found it to be true in many occasions in church settings, work environments, and the like: if you treat people the way you expect them to behave and respond to life, they will often rise to the challenge, but if you treat them how they are, they will almost always meet your low expectations and may never move beyond them.
So as not to paint a one sided picture, there have been a number of moments when an older person has treated me like a brother. One was when the oldest member of our church at the time said to me that I may be young in years, but I talk like someone who has been around a lot longer. When he said that, it made me want to become the pastor he was talking about. He was building me up in my faith that I could pastor someone older than me. He encouraged the heck out of me, and didn’t even realize it. Him making that small statement, made me want to be a better pastor, and to grow in wisdom. There are several folks in the church I pastor who do that with me, even though they are older than me, they treat me as a peer, I am so grateful for them. What is interesting is that I am more likely to treat those people as parents, because of their wisdom and humility.
I think that is the key in understanding Paul’s exhortation to Timothy. Yes, treat older men and women as parents, not only because it is Biblical to honor age, but because you want them to be and to do all that God desires for them in their season. You want them to rise to the challenge of discipling and mentoring of others. Also, treat younger people as your equals, encouraging them to rise to the challenge of leading and feeding others behind them. By doing that, you will be setting an example for all to follow, and not allowing people to despise you because of your youth.
Now, I will say that even the best leadership and Christ-like qualities in young pastor may not turn the hearts of everyone. Some “mature” Christians have no intentions of following a young pastor because their hearts are hard. However, Paul does not promise that this will work that way, he just commands us to do it. It is about obedience, not outcome.
So, to all you out there who see me as your child, I love you “Mom” and “Dad”. I want to encourage you as a son encourages his parents. Keep looking around for younger people to mentor and shape including me. Pour your wisdom into us, and nurture our growth. Don’t neglect your own growth, keep it up! To those out there who are younger, brothers and sisters, rise up and become men and women of God, no matter how young you are. To pastors out there like me who have been tasked with shepherding an older flock, do your best to by God’s Grace elevate the status of all those in your care, and pray that I will learn to do the same! They will train us up!