Being around my friend Tracy is always an inspiration. It is a talking marathon. We jump from one thing to the next non-stop. And the memories flood. We got to talking about his granddad - the George Bailey of Hamilton, AL. The man who started with nothing and became the “richest man in town”. He served for 45-50 years as an elder - he was on numerous boards, served as a city councilman. I met him in 1966, I was 4. He’s who encouraged my dad to start jogging when jogging wasn't "cool" - and dad jogged nearly EVERY day for 50 years. Knew him and his life for 40 years. He was Uncle Lem to me. I moved to work with the church in Hamilton in 1988. Great church and great people. I’ve really grown to love middle Tennessee but Hamilton will probably always be home to me (I was born there and then preached there for 10 years). I learned many things from Uncle Lem but one was a hard, important and valuable leadership lesson. Lem had been an elder for 45 years when I moved to work with the church there. He’d seen it all but he was a gentle servant. He could have pushed his considerable influence around, even around the table of fellow shepherds. Instead he was often quite until asked his opinion or position.
I remember the Sunday evening when he stepped aside as an elder. I wish I had the script he must have prayed long and hard over. As best as I can remember it he said: “I’ve served as long as I need to, being an elder is not a lifetime appointment and we have some men who need to take the lead and who need to be given the opportunity to serve. And I need to resign before I lose my ability to make decisions.” The other elders all with one voice tried to get him to reconsider, especially assuring him he was still strong of mind.
That’s when he said something that has stuck with me: “I need to step aside while I still have my wits. If I don’t do it now, when I have to I may not be willing to.”
Now, I’ve known men who have served well late into life. Still in touch and connected, but that man is rare (We had a good brother here at SM that stepped aside last year who served with exceptional connection to a ripe old age and we have a shepherd now who is very engaged and alert in his 70’s. And I don’t know how old Herman King and CC Taggart and those brothers were - but what blessings). But I’ve known many more who needed to “promote” others and recognize their abilities and allow them to serve and guide as shepherds but who refuse to allow what someone allowed for them. It is amazing to see men who were tapped for leadership in their 40’s or 50’s but who now in their 70’s or beyond think a 40 or 50 year old is too young.
Forgetting specific ages: the fact is life changes, age, health, family situations sometimes change.
While unimaginable “Uncle” Lem was in his late 20’s when he was appointed and my granddad was 27. The church I grew up in appointed 7 men who were all in their early 30’s in 1972 (I think that was the year). Those men have now served nearly 40 years and have “seen it all” and lead exceptionally well. Elder does mean ancient - it is a relative term (and don’t throw that OT stuff about age 50 up to me, unless you want to sacrifice bulls and goats as well). I don’t know that the 20’s and 30’s thing is wise, but most of the greatest shepherds I’ve known have served long and faithfully. Long enough to grow and see and to have learned from some of their fellow servants.
My question is do you have an exit strategy? Do you have people who love you and you trust enough who will tell you when it’s time to move on? And, maybe most significant, do you have “younger” men who you are pouring your knowledge, wisdom and love for souls into who will serve beyond you.
God bless all faithful, loving dedicated, pure shepherds! Any healthy church is blessed by that group! I love them and am thankful for them.