Peter's Blog

Builders, Boomers, Xers and Yers

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Image from conference

This afternoon and evening was spent in Peebles where David Burt and I represented Hamilton Presbytery at a Presbytery Conference hosted by the Ministries Council of the Church of Scotland gathering folks from across the country to think about the future of ministry within the Church of Scotland beyond the year 2020. It was an eye-opening day picking up on a number of things I have read elsewhere but bringing them together in part to help understand what is going on in the Kirk, and particularly within ministry at the moment.

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you will be aware that the numbers of people entering ministry has dropped considerably over the last decades, but this is particularly the case amongst the latter generations that are usually labelled the Gen X (approx. 30-48 years old) and Gen Y (under 30s) where there has been a collapse in people entering the ministry.

I took a snap of one of the charts we studied, shown above. This charts the number of ministers in the Church of Scotland according to their age. As you can clearly see for the over 50s upwards there is a relatively consistent number (around 40 ministers serving in each year group) showing some variation but it is pretty even. Go younger and at 48 years old you see the line collapse down and then sink throughout Gen X until you get to the Gen Y generation where there is an average of 1 minister per year serving. In the past this chart would have looked much more balanced with many, many more ministers doing what both David and I did and going pretty much straight into ministry. That is no longer the case and what it means is something that must cause us to stop, reflect and think about the shape of the church we envisage for the future. 

This has been the fourth meeting in the last couple of weeks that I have been at where issues connected with this have come to the fore. The first was the elder's conference I spoke at in Ayrshire when I addressed the future of the church. It included discussions of how we might use training materials for ministry in a meeting on Monday at the Iona Community offices in Glasgow. It continued on Tuesday evening with a presbytery conference led by Rev Neil Dougall in Motherwell on Tuesday night also thinking about the future of the church at a time when we may be living in a change of age akin to the tumultuous changes the printing press brought in the reformations of the 15th and 16th centuries and enlightenment that followed. And finally a day devoted to thinking about these issues in Peebles.

It is no wonder my wee brain is rattling with what this means for us, both locally and nationally. It does not take a rocket scientist to look at the chart above and think about our own congregations and recognise that we see a similar pattern on a Sunday morning too. What is going on? What does this mean about God's living witness in our communities? What does it mean for mission? Is someone or something at fault to explain this? Can we do anything to change this? If the church of today less and less fits the expectations and needs of Gen Xers and Yers then should it be reshaped, and who will do that reshaping?

Key Generations in Church Life

The thesis that Rev Graham Duffin explored with us was that the generational changes we have seen since the war help us to understand what we are seeing in church life and ministry, but also in wider society because these are issues that affect everything. Now, first off, it is worth saying that this is very complex, and so the pictures drawn of the different generations is very broad stroke stuff, however the general pattern holds even if there are individuals within each generation that buck the trend of their peers. I've read about this before when thinking about forms of 'emerging church', and there is definitely something in it to help explain some of the rapid changes we are seeing in traditional church life, but the chart above really galvanises me to think more about this in a less 'theoretical' way. Something needs to change.

The Builders (65-80)

This is the generation that lived through the Second World War. Called the builders because this was the generation that lived and worked through the trials of the depression and global war and built new lives through those tough experiences. They knew unemployment meant no food on the table, so work was prized and careers that lasted a lifetime were the norm, whatever the type of work. This generation knew to save, not to spend before you had the money in hand. They will make do or do without. They value respect deeply and show respect to people who are seen in positions of authority. For example, in speaking about me, it is not "Peter", it is "the minister"! The Builders are used to a more classroom style of leadership, with an authoritative leader and they follow the rules while considering the common good. They value reliability very highly.

Within church life, the builders have been for many years the 'do-ers', the folks that get on with things, following the lead of the minister, they are the reliable folks that turn up and get their hands dirty in making sure things get done, albeit generally with caution and am inherent conservativism. It is from a Builder that you will hear that it has 'always been done this way', and 'if it worked for us, then it should be good enough for others.'

The Boomers (48-65)

The Baby Boomers are the generation that grew up after the Second World War, a huge generation following the losses of so many young people during the war: those busy Builders answering the call of their leaders to repopulate! The Boomers knew tremendous growth in prosperity and optimism. This was the generation of the entrepreneur, of folks like Richard Branson, the 'can do' generation that knew it would be more successful that its parents, and with great expectations placed upon it by the previous generation to succeed. Careers began very well, with the boomers generally being better educated than any previous generation and with many career options available. The Boomers are very work oriented, often workaholics who have their work/life balance skewed strongly to their workplaces rather than their families or other activities.

This generation also saw changes in diversity in forms of family life with a divorce rate rapidly increasing (the link to workaholism must be a part of this) and in the workplace with women increasingly wanting their own careers, not just jobs as had been the case with the Builder generation.

The Boomers have often seen career changes and uncertainty through their careers, particularly with the huge upheavals in manufacturing and heavy industry over the years, but their general optimism kept them going through it all. Graham Duffin played a archetypical Boomer song to us: "We are the champions!" by Queen.

In church life, the Boomers love to create visions for the future, they are open to team working, they are success driven, and love to create agendas, make lists and have everything planned to the last detail. Boomers want to know everything that is going on, and to have a say in it, even if they are not going to be actually doing the work.

If you look back at the chart at the top of the page you will see that the vast majority of serving ministers are Boomers. Furthermore, the average age of people entering ministry is currently 48, just at the tail end of the Boomer generation, which only boosts the numbers of folks leading the church from this generation. The daunting fact is that this generation is now heading towards retirement and by 2030 if the current pattern holds for the following generations then the number of ministers in the Kirk will have fallen to 400. This year there are fewer than 150 ministers under the age of 45, and only 55 under the age of 40.

The huge question then is what forms of ministry or church life will attract people from Generation X and Y, because it seems clear that the model of ministry and church that the Builders and Boomers have relished over the last 50 years is not as attractive to younger folks.

Which brings us to Gen X.

The Gen Xers (30-45)

Ah, Generation X, my own generation. The lost generation, as it is also known. Interestingly, businesses and other organisations are also reporting that they are struggling to recruit Gen Xers into key leadership roles, so this reticence to take up the roles that the Boomers relished is not just limited to taking up leadership roles in the Kirk.

Perhaps in reaction to the overwhelming success of the Boomers (though not without cost for future generations) the Xers refuse to be pigeonholed in the same way that previous generations could be - hence the title Gen X. Xers grew up with far more uncertainty. One of my own abiding memories of childhood was the ever present threat of nuclear armageddon. Many, many Xers also grew up in families that had broken up, they saw their parents move from one job to another, a survival and individualistic mentality that no longer relied on institutions is part of the Xers mindset. Xers want to think for themselves, to work it out themselves, with perhaps a cycnical outlook that the good old days are long gone. The Xers do not want to be workaholics like their parents, they want to work smarter, not harder. They demand a much better life/work balance.

Gen Xers may sound negative to a Boomer (who really struggles to understand where the Xers are coming from), but the Xer would say she is just being a realist. They assume they will be moving from career to career many times, and without a long-time commitment to their workplace or other institutions, they instead value much more highly their relationships and friendships. This applies to the workplace too, a Xer will value a good manager very highly (rather than the company itself), but a poor manager will result in problems. An Xer will not put up with poor management and will rapidly be looking to move on. They want to be in control of their lives and to have choices available to them.

A particular area of contrast between Xers and Boomers is over how they measure success. A Boomer measures success in terms of their input - how hard they work, how many hours they put in. The Xer places the value on the output of their work - the results. The contrast causes problems when Xers get frustrated at rules that make no sense to the results: having to do particular hours, dress in a particular way, and so on. An Xer will be fuming inside saying to themselves, 'if I get the work done, then what does it matter?'

This also means that an Xer needs constant feedback from others in order to judge whether what they are doing is meeting expectations, and are not afraid of constructive criticism to help them know, as long as it is constructive.

In church life, an Xer expects to serve in the church in a way that matches their particular gifting (a Boomer would hope for this, but would get on with things if it wasn't the case and would strive to change Kirk Sessions' views more along this line), and won't put up with unrealistic expectations. Xers expect support systems to be in place to enable the work and to give feedback, and strongly emphasise the importance of relationships, just spending time with others. Boomers will meet for a coffee but usually with an agenda or some purpose to the meeting, whereas an Xer is much more likely to want to meet simply to enjoy the friendship. Xers also strongly support team working, but not in the same way that Boomers do: Boomers seek long-term teams, whereas Xers seek working teams for a specific task and then disband - getting the job done.

Gen Xers find short term opportunities much more appealing than the life-long commitments that Builders and Boomers value. This has huge implications for church life, and the role of elders, for instance, within the church.

One of the questions that was asked at the conference was particularly aimed at the Boomers who are generally making the decisions and in positions of leadership within the church (and, as I say above, who really struggle to understand the Xers). What can Boomers do to allow space for the Xers to practise ministry or leadership within the Kirk in their own mould, rather than in the mould that has been set by the workaholic Boomers.

And also how do congregations which are generally weighted heavily towards Builder and Boomer generations going to engage in these discussions and create space for change even while recognising church life as being something in which they can find a continuing place and role.

Finally, a brief word about Gen Y.

The Gen Yers (under 30)

Sometimes known as the Millenials or 'Gen Why?' Still the children predominantly of Boomers, the Yers have had the benefit of tremendous support from their parents and really have never known what it means to go without, or to face tough times. They have been involved in family decision making from an early age and usually have positive friendly relationships with their parents even if their parents have gone their own ways.

They have been nurtured and encouraged and told they are special, have the same rights as adults, deserve the best and should question everything. Perhaps pampered in the eyes of Builders, the Yers strongly value their ability to decide their own futures. Work has to be meaningful or the Yer will question what is the point of doing it. They have little concept of working a lowly job from the bottom up to the top. They haven't had to struggle and scrape things together earlier in their lives, so why do so in working life?

A good cause can be a tremendous motivator for Yers, either in the workplace or in other organisations they may get involved with. A Yer would think nothing of dropping their career and taking a year out to serve a particular cause (with mum and dad paying for it!).

This generation is constantly connected, whether it is through myriad tv channels, smartphones, internet, facebook, and so on. With so many choices in life, they have grown up in a world with constant variety and so dull, repetitive tasks or experiences are anathema to Yers. This always connected generation will have their phone in hand almost all the time, checking for facebook updates, text messages, or other interactions which will drive your average Boomer absolutely nuts (put that phone away!!). But the Yer can multitask in a way a Boomer cannot comprehend.

Interestingly enough, however, there is more that binds Boomers to Gen Yers than to Gen Xers. No wonder the Xers are the lost generation!

So What?

What does all this mean? It is a broad strokes picture that perhaps helps us understand some of the pressures that the church faces at the moment and that can lead us into a sense of paralysing worry. Please note, I am referring to the challenges that the institution of the Kirk faces, not the challenges that faith itself faces as I think that Jesus speaks to each generation in his own way.

What do we do? Do we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that this is not really an issue, or do we start a conversation that may lead us towards a church and forms of ministry that are very different to what we have known in previous generations? Should we change? If we think we should, then how?

I'm fascinated to hear what others think. There are no simple or easy answers, but it certainly feels like the discussion is one we need to be having, and particularly one that Xers and Yers should be having so that they are able to shape the Kirk for the future.

[This post took a long time to finish, though it was begun on Wednesday night, I ran out of time to finish until Saturday morning...]