The Challenges of Leading Upward


JOEY CHEN     |     JUNE 6, 2018     |     7 MIN READ


“I don’t trust you anymore.”

That’s what I said to one of my church elders as I confronted him about a serious issue with his character. This difficult conversation, which came after many heated and frustrating talks with him, was hindered further by our age difference — I was the same age as this elder’s oldest son.

The Challenges of Being Young

When I was 30 years old, I became the lead English pastor of a Chinese church. I had previously been the youth pastor and assistant pastor, and so this was a big deal because it showed me that the older leadership was willing to work with younger leaders. I was excited to lead.

But I quickly learned that while the older elders may say they want to work with a younger pastor, their actions communicate a different message. They were not keen on a younger pastor challenging them or leading them in more difficult matters. The same elder who had been my biggest advocate was also the one I eventually had to confront.

Even now, I am the youngest member of our elder board, and one of the most challenging issues has been navigating generational and cultural differences.

Many younger Asian American pastors who minister in established churches struggle to relate with older pastors and elders, and it can be hard to balance your role and your age. But in every circumstance, we ought to lead humbly and let Scripture guide how we lead members of our church, especially older members in leadership roles.

Biblical Foundation

Thankfully (but not unexpectedly), Scripture addresses this challenge that younger pastors face. Timothy was sent by Paul to Ephesus to establish elders at the church there, and one of the issues that the 30-year-old Timothy faced was leading older men, as seen in 1 Timothy 4:12-15 and 5:1-2.

These passages give us the pillars of how younger leaders ought to relate to older leaders. John Stott helpfully categorizes what Paul says into “six ways in which he should commend his ministry and gain acceptance for it.”

  1. Timothy must watch his example

  2. Timothy must identify his authority

  3. Timothy must exercise his gift

  4. Timothy must show his progress

  5. Timothy must mind his consistency

  6. Timothy must adjust his relationships (1 Tim. 5:1-2)

Paul’s words to Timothy have become a personal manifesto for my leadership. These words continue to shape how I lead and my hope is that the Holy Spirit continues to sanctify me in these ways.

Lessons Learned

As I applied 1 Timothy 4 to my life, I learned two major lessons on how to lead older leaders.

Remember that they are not the enemy

There will be times when you disagree strongly with an older leader. It may be of great significance or it may be something completely insignificant. It may be ministry related or a personal issue.

In all circumstances, we must resist the temptation to look at the other person as an enemy. We know we are guilty of this when grace is nowhere to be found in our approach. We know we have made the person an enemy when we are concerned with justice and God’s word, but really we don’t care about the person.

This is a temptation for younger leaders when we are zealous for God but lack patience. Even when we need to correct someone, we need to remember we are still approaching a brother in Christ.

The goal is not to put people in their place but for restoration.

When Paul tells Timothy not to rebuke, he does not mean Timothy must give up his convictions from Scripture or stop caring about character and the truth. What Paul means is that Timothy’s attitude and approach must not be harsh. The goal is not to put people in their place but for restoration.

Timothy’s actions ought to be similar to how he would approach his earthly father. This means respecting the older person and learning to love them. There is a high value of having the concept of family shape our relationships with those in the church.

So when tensions are high or when there are strong disagreements, remember: They are not the enemy.

Bleed the Bible

Charles Spurgeon wrote illustratively about John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, “‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him.”

We ought to have Bibline blood. Timothy was to devote himself to public reading of Scripture, exhortation, and teaching, and we need to lean on the Word as well.

This is especially important when leading older men, because Scripture is the authority that is above all of us, no matter our age. We cannot claim to have the right answers because we are young and know the most popular things. Neither can older men claim to be right merely because they have experience. We have no authority except that which comes from God’s Word.

We have no authority except that which comes from God’s Word.

This is also important as we look to lead across cultural differences. We all have cultural blind spots that show up in our values and leadership. Whenever I hear someone start a sentence, “Well, in the Chinese congregation,” or “Americans do it this way,” I would pause and say, “While we recognize there are cultural ways of going about this, what does Scripture say about this?”

No one with a high view of Scripture wants culture to define how we lead in the church, but we have to be vigilant to guard ourselves from presuming that we have let Scripture direct our values. We are more influenced by our culture than we would like to admit.

For young pastors, leadership books with practical guidance can be helpful. But more importantly, we need to be a leaders who are formed by God’s word. May we lead with Bibline blood.

If I Had a Do-over

If I could do it all over again, I would not have said “I don’t trust you anymore.” Those words were weaponized to hurt. I used my concern for correcting a problem to rationalize my harshness. I allowed my frustrations to diminish the need to encourage and listen patiently.

If you are leading upward in your church, anchor yourself in Paul’s words and let your leadership flow from it. I’m thankful that God has kept that elder in the church even though we’ve had our ups and downs throughout the years. It is testimony to his patience with me, a reminder of my need to grow in leading upward, and a sign to the other leaders that we want to pursue Christ across our differences. Praise God that Christ builds His church, even with weak leaders of all ages.

Joey Chen has a passion for what God is doing in cities since they are a strategic place for gospel ministry and is currently lead pastor at Sunset Church in San Francisco. He is pursuing a D.Min. at Talbot School of Theology and earned his M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is blessed to be married to Jeannette, have two beautiful girls, and a silly labradoodle named Cashew.