How Old Do You Need to Be to Lead?

Since I recently turned 50, I find myself thinking about age and leadership. I first started leading a congregation, when I was 26, as interim pastor of a primarily Spanish-speaking congregation. We had some bumpy times along the way, but somehow I found my way through the next year, preaching in Spanish and English, conducting my first funeral and my first baptism. Ten years later, I saw a woman from that congregation at a denominational convention. She came running over to me, calling, “Mi pastora.” Despite my inexperience and my language struggles, I was able to occupy the role of pastor sufficiently that she still saw me that way.

When I was called to be the pastor of a New England congregation at 31, people asked me, “What should we call you?” They had a woman pastor before who was definitely “Mrs. Thompson.” I couldn’t imagine these people of 60 and 70 calling me, “Mrs. Marcuson,” so I simply said, “Margaret.” The children called me “Pastor Margaret.” Over the years since our society has gotten progressively more informal, so titles are less of an issue than they used to be.

Clergy in mainline denominations are becoming progressively older, and there aren’t many 26-year-old newly-minted mainline pastors any more. And I have to admit I have crotchety moments when I think, what 26-year-old could lead a church, anyway, even though I did it myself. Yet all leaders of all ages stumble from time to time as they lead. No matter what our age, a key to leadership is learning from our mistakes, whether we are 25 or 50 or 75. I hope I’m still learning.

2 replies on “How Old Do You Need to Be to Lead?

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Yes, as you point out, the maturity question is more important than age–in leadership and in life. As a pastor I always found it a gift to visit the elderly who had learned from their experiences. They had true wisdom to offer me and others.

  • IGalindo

    Happy birthday, Margaret!

    Another question to ask is, “How mature does a leader need to be?” Maturity is a relative term, of course. There can be mature 26-year-olds just as surely as there are emotionally adolescent 50-year-olds. I just mentioned in a recent blog entry that I often tell congregational search committees that they should discern the “maturity” of prospective candidates and give that more weight than “experience.” As you hint, some people have lots of experience, but they’ve never learned from it. Likely it’s because regardless of the “experiences” they’ve had, they really have had only the same experience over and over again, with little insight to show for it. I sometimes tell persons that yes, “experience is the best teacher,” but that they don’t tell us the second part of that axiom: “afterward, throw away the experience and keep the lesson learned.” People who cannot do that stay stuck on the experience and don’t learn anything.

    As to the question of what to call me, I find it very helpful when entering a new system to insist that people call me “El Jefe Grande.” 😉


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