Bridging the gaps from generation to generation in our congregations is a challenge we constantly face, and just when we think we get a handle on it all, a new generation shows us we need to bridge again.

First, we will examine the interplay of the three core elements of generational theory as defined by William Strauss and Neil Howe: generational types, life stages, and historical cycles. We will hold for each other the question of where we are generationally as a denomination that is being called to respond to the cycle we are in now.

Then we will explore our own generational perspectives on ministry and congregational life, and through breakout groups and case studies explore changing generational dynamics affect our pastoral care, religious education, leadership, and stewardship.

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I rarely just post other people’s articles here – there’s plenty of that elsewhere. But in our continuing conversation about generational dynamics, and particularly the recent talks we’ve been having about the forgotten GenXers, I want to highlight this article from Salon, entitled “Generation X gets really old: How Do Slackers Have a Midlife Crisis?”

Sara Scribner’s entire article is a must-read, especially as we consider what Xers bring into our congregations in terms of how they view life and what they’re experiencing. Consider the following:

The economic reality for most Xers is much harsher. According to this year’s Pew study, Xers lost 45 percent of their wealth during the Great Recession. More than a few experts suggest that Xers – finally buying their starter homes in their 30s — unwittingly helped inflate the real estate bubble. They certainly bore the brunt of the collapse.

So just around the time that we were on schedule to settle down, our midlife economic peak became the worst market failure since 1929. “Our entire life has been punctuated by economic disasters from the time we were born,” says Gregory Thomas. “At every major milestone there’s been an economic collapse. There is no rest for Generation X. There’s no time to sit back and think ‘Am I happy or not?’”

For many of us, who waited to prepare things just so before we started a family, the idea of waking up to family-and-career complacency and wondering how we lost track of our youthful dreams sounds like the luxury of a more secure generation.  David Byrne’s suburban lament “How did I get here?” has become the more practical “How can I pay my rent?” John Lennon’s love-struck refrain “It’s just like starting over” is, for many of us, not a romantic lark. It’s real life. And it’s a lot less fun.

“If anything,” says Wendy Fonarow, a social anthropologist and the author of the indie-rock chronicle ”Empire of Dirt,” “our generation is characterized by not hitting a wall of midlife crisis but having crises throughout.”

Yes… life HAS been a struggle. This article identifies these issues quite clearly. Sadly, of course, there’s still some negative commentary in the piece – by no less than generational expert Neil Howe himself:

 It’s about time, [Howe] says, for Xers to acknowledge limits and step up to the plate. “These Xers spending their lives with this sardonic view, never taking anything that’s happening in public at face value, but always to find the failing, that expresses a bigger problem with X — they are always outsiders,” he says. “These boomer CEOs say that they are maturing to the extent that they should be heading into leadership roles, but they simply don’t want to accept responsibility to the bigger community.“

What Howe misses here is that we WANT to step up. We WANT responsibility. We CARE DEEPLY about the bigger community. But we keep finding there’s no room from the Boomers above and we’re being pushed from the Millennials below. We are the Prince Charles of generations.

But…on the whole, this is a good article. No matter our generation, we should read it – and then consider how we minister to the GenXers in our congregations and encourage their roles as leaders (and make room for them too.)

And to GenX specifically, I say, Sara Scribner is right: “If we’re going to make the country a better place, more suited to our values, we need to do it ourselves.”


Pardon the interruption into what is obviously a really important conversation between Boomers and Millennials. Obvious, because in the last couple of weeks, there has been a flood of blog posts and articles about how Boomers need to rethink church to capture Millennials.

And yes, it’s important; every time a new generation of young adults comes up through the ranks, we wring our hands about their lack of interest and attendance. These ideas come around every 15 years or so, and with good reason. What keeps one generation interested doesn’t always attract another.

The difference this time is that the conversation is most clearly between Boomers (aged 53-70)* and their Millennial children (aged 9-30) but not involving the aging Silent generation (aged 71-88) or Generation X (aged 31-52).

And that’s a problem.

Now we don’t want to come off as complaining, but GenX is tired of being forgotten. We are tired of being disenfranchised. We are tired of being maligned. We are tired of being overshadowed.

It doesn’t help that there are so few of us – only 44 million Xers were born, compared to 78 million Boomers and 88 million Millennials.

It doesn’t help that no one could ever actually come up with a name for us – though eventually we wore the un-name “X” with pride.

It doesn’t help that the movies that defined us – The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, War Games, etc. painted us as inscrutable slackers and apathetic rule breakers.

It doesn’t help that we are a doing, not a talking generation, more likely to ‘just do it’ than discuss it.

It doesn’t help that many of us grew up as latchkey kids and learned early to fend for ourselves.

But we are adults now; in the public sphere, we invented Google and Amazon, we have made great improvements to electric cars and wind power, and we have excelled in politics, with one of our number currently serving as President of the United States. In our congregations, we’re ministers and religious educators and music professionals and lay leaders. We’re moving into positions of leadership – or trying to, anyway. We’re waiting for Boomers to let go and move into the equally important stewardship roles. But we’re worried; what if the Boomers only move on when Millennials are old enough to take over? What if we miss our chance?

Time_Magazine_Cover_Generation_XYou haven’t heard us complain. We don’t do that.

We watch, and much of the time we put our heads down and just do our own thing. We get things done – sure. We’re hard workers. We’re scrappy, innovative, inventive. A recent paper by Douglas Keene and Rita Handrich (written from a legal perspective) suggests that as we have aged and proven ourselves, attitudes have changed. But unlike Boomers and Millennials, we actually did have to work pretty hard to prove ourselves to not be grungy, cynical, apathetic losers but rather optimistic, savvy, ambitious, independent adults.

But we don’t complain out loud much.

Until now.

Until this recent rash of articles about Millennials and church, whose authors have acted as though GenX doesn’t even exist. (And don’t get me started on the Silent generation – sidelined by the GIs for not serving in World War II, the forgotten Korean War heroes, yet on the front lines of justice and civil rights – again, doing, not talking.)

GenXers are gathering in Facebook posts and email groups and Google chats, wondering how we became forgotten again. We’re worried that our Silent parents are being silenced again. We wonder if we’re really just supposed to take the Silents out for pie while the Boomers and Millennials rule the world.

Well no more.

The youngest members of our generation are in their early 30s – cresting from Young Adulthood into Adulthood, having families, starting careers, finding their feet. They need grounding. They need a strong foundation while the job market is still soft, while the economy still favors the 1%, while there is so much inequality and injustice. Older GenXers are tired of being assistants and vice-chairs; they’ve raised their kids and are ready to lead, ready to deepen spiritually, ready to try new things and innovate our governance, our social action, our stewardship, and our worship.

We are here.

There may not be many of us, but we are here. We have strength of will and an entrepreneurial spirit. We are perceptive and highly protective (sometimes too protective) of younger generations; we are equally protective of our parents, the Silents. We have leadership skills and spiritual insights and new ways to think about money and mission. We worship, we serve our communities, we build coalitions. We want to do when the spirit says do – putting our money where our mouth is, putting mission before mortgage, breathing into the depth and breadth of our faith.

We are here.

We want to be treated respectfully. We want to be valued for our abilities and knowledge. We want to be trusted.

We are here.




*I am using the generational divisions as defined by Strauss & Howe in their book Generations: The History of America’s Future from 1584 to 2069.

Multiracial Hands Making a CircleI’ve been reading with interest a couple of the recent Berry Street Lectures – Paul Razor’s from 2009, and Fred Muir’s from 2012. They both explore what the future of Unitarian Universalism can be – from finding ways to embrace multiculturalism to shedding the negative impacts individualism and a polity founded in the dominant European-American culture.

They both offer sage advice and good ideas; Razor’s examination of race and UU culture especially is insightful and challenging. He prods us our of our comfort zone, suggesting “we cannot become a multi-cultural faith – subconsciously or otherwise – continue to treat a particular mono-cultural lens as normative.” Muir wants to shake us out of the ill-advised individualism that keeps us from building beloved community, reminding us that “individualism will not serve the greater good.”

My problem with both of these lectures is simply this: we keep talking about what we need to do without recognizing what is already happening. They talk about the status quo – that environment that has been shaped and led by the Silent and Boomer generations – and ignore what’s bubbling up from GenX and the Millennials.

For the under-50 crowd, individualism is anathema to the great connection and community they already experience in their cohorts. They long for spiritual, heart-led experiences in worship, and are finding ways of creating it (or seeking it elsewhere). They love what UUism means and lives radical inclusivity. They aren’t trying to figure out how to be a multi-cultural, inclusive, radically beloved community of spiritual seekers – they ARE. The problem is that while GenX and the Millennials are heading for the 19th hole, Boomer and Silent Gen leaders are still hunting for the fairway.

Maybe I’m giving too much credit to the younger generations – or not enough to the older generations. But if we want to be the religion of NOW, of “the future”, we need to look at what our under 50s are doing and WANT to do…and not consciously or subconsciously perpetuate the mono-cultural lens that we’ve been looking through.

What makes me hopeful is the greatness of our current seminarians. They are young, energized, spiritual, passionate, and eager to live TODAY into the promise of who we are. They aren’t looking at who we CAN be in the future. They are living the best of UUism in their daily lives…and will bring it to their pulpits.

The future is now. Let’s not keep them from living it.


Moments after two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday, my Twitter and Facebook feeds were filled with prayers and information (and, sadly, misinformation).

But a few moments after that, my feed began to fill up with the comforting words and image of Fred Rogers – in particular, this one:


After the initial draw of comfort, I began to wonder why I was seeing Mr. Rogers so much…. and then it hit me.

You see, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood premiered on PBS stations in 1968 – the year I turned 4. My generation did, literally, grow up with Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Electric Company, and Zoom. These programs were created for MY generation; they weren’t leftovers like Captain Kangaroo or Romper Room (not to take anything away from those shows, but they weren’t created with my generation in mind). People who knew this new generation of kids was a little bit different and needed a little attention created these amazing shows for us.

Without realizing it, I think Fred Rogers in particular understood GenX; as I’ve previously written (and as Strauss & Howe point out), the Nomadic generations tend to be smaller, marginalized, mistrusted, overshadowed by the previous Idealist generations. It’s no wonder that films about us highlight our pragmatism in the face of unfairness (Pretty in Pink), our willingness to break rules in order to get ahead (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and our feelings of inadequacy (The Breakfast Club). We were a generation overshadowed by a huge cohort of noisy, eager Boomers… and we were growing up in a world that was crumbling around us without our really understanding (JFK/MLK/RFK/Malcolm X assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, LA riots, Chicago DNC, etc.). We needed someone to tell us it was all going to be okay. We needed someone to value us just the way we were, just for who we were.

And there was Fred Rogers. As good and loving a man in real life as he was on television. I think we instinctively knew he was genuine; sure, as we got into our teens, there was something rather old fashioned about him that we mocked a little. But the truth of Fred Rogers is that when no one else did, he valued us. He answered every letter, and showed genuine care in public appearances. He spoke directly to us through the camera with a love that was palpable. He taught us to care for one another in a way that wasn’t dismissive or flashy.

And so now, in times of trouble and strife, my generation turns to Mr. Rogers.  He still makes us feel valued, safe, ready to take on the world: “You make each day a special day. You know how, by just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And people can like you exactly as you are.”

Each day (after 1972) he’d end the program with a song I still remember all the words to:

It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.
It’s such a happy feeling: You’re growing inside.
And when you wake up ready to say,
“I think I’ll make a snappy new day.”
It’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling,
The feeling you know that I’ll be back,
When the day is new, and I’ll have more ideas for you.
And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about.
I will too.

Thank you, Mr. Rogers.

Among the more striking characteristics of generational theory is the particular personalities of the four generational types; as Strauss &Howe explain, the cycle of historical events, parenting styles, and cultural shifts lead to a cycle of general generational traits. Of course, each person is different, and each specific generation is different, but there are patterns that emerge fairly clearly when we look at large cohorts over time.

In my work in generational theory, I’ve concentrated primarily on the currently living generations – how people who are living relate to each other, particularly in UU congregational settings. But in reading the first couple of chapters of Gary Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progresive Religion 1805-1900, I began to see what Strauss & Howe are really talking about.

Dorrien’s first few chapters concern primarily the founding of Unitarianism and the Transcendentalist movement – key of course to our denomination, but also key to American liberal religion in general. Among the players in these early years are 

  • William Ellery Channing – born 1780 – Compromise Generation (Adaptive)
  • Andrews Norton – born 1786 – Compromise Generation (Adaptive)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson – born 1803 – Transcendental Generation (Idealist)
  • Theodore Parker – born 1810 – Transcendental Generation (Idealist)

Now what we know about Adaptives is they are very invested in process, considering all sides of an issue, and bringing people together.  Idealists tend to be invested in vision, big ideas, and persuasion.

Thus, when Emerson and Parker catch fire with their transcendentalist thought, they are willing (Parker moreso) to throw firebombs; Parker was so horrified at the rancor at a meeting of the Berry Street Conference that he remarked “I intend in the coming year to let out all the force of Transcendentalism that is in me. Come what will come; I will let off the Truth fast as it comes.”

Emerson seemed a little less eager to rush into controversy; however, his Divinity School Address was a bold statement against the Unitarians, and he should have expected the firestorm that ensued. Norton fanned that flame; while he was an Adaptive, Norton saw Emerson’s – and the other Transcendentalists’ – passion as an affront to what he saw as the open arms of Unitarianism. Consensus challenged led Norton to fight for what was most important, coming together.

Channing, on the other hand, didn’t engage the fight as much as he worked tirelessly to find common ground, to bring everyone together. As Dorrien notes, this factional fight was what Channing spent the latter part of his career mediating. As a result, he was claimed by both sides – another charge often leveled against Adaptives, who just want everyone to get along.

I think about the parallels today – Harry Reid, the Adaptive, against John Boehner, the Idealist. Harry, accused of playing both sides – and John, so stuck in his resolve he won’t budge. And in our congregations, we see it: the over 70s who won’t leave leadership for fear of what will happen to the congregation they so lovingly nutured, and the Boomers who usher in big sweeping changes with great vision and excitement.

What will be interesting in the subsequent reading of our Unitarian and Universalist history – as well as the next decades of our congregations – is how the next generation of Nomads, those pragmatic, just do it types, affect and shift who we are and can become.


Just about everyone has a theory about leadership style – they’re tied to personality types, astrological types, temperaments, right- or left-brain types, gender, and more. So it seems kind of redundant to offer more theories about leadership, and yet there seems to be something to the broad strokes of generational types that helps us understand, at least a little bit, the kinds of leaders we have in our congregations.

Using, of course, the current model we’ve been focusing on (and again, reminding you all that these are generalizations and your mileage may vary), let’s look at how – in 2011 – the generations are leading in your congregations. Also note – I’m not addressing – today, anyway – how to manage these different types of leaders, simply offering the leadership “biography” that I hope will help explain what might be happening at the board meeting.

Silent Leadership

Actually, that’s a misnomer in this case. While “silent” is appropriate in light of other aspects of the generation, these people are not quiet in their leadership positions. In fact, this group has rather enjoyed the lengthy board meetings, the long discussions, the chance to hear from all comers, to take all opinions into account. It’s why they are so good at movements involving equality – civil rights, women’s lib, the disabled, etc. We are at our best as witnesses to justice when we follow the lessons of this amazing generation.

At their best, Silents are inclusive, detail oriented, careful, empathetic, and precedent honoring. They’re the best listeners. They see the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, and work hard to make sure all the parts are working in harmony.

But when it comes to hashing out the specifics of a policy, it can seem to other generations too much talk, too little action.  As Carl Eeman writes,

Excessive attention to detail and a lengthy process can give church members and fellow leaders the impression that these leaqders are cautious to the point of timidity. Members of a governing group [from this generation] can be perceived as using process and procedure to avoid coming to decision that may be unpopular in the eyes of some.

Further, Silents are vulnerable to endlessly revisiting points that others thought were decided – beating a dead horse, as it were.  And once a decision’s been made, Silents are loathe to revisit it – being much more rigid suddenly than expected.

And, unfortunately, in 2011, this generation is seen as “old”… and whether we mean to or not, younger generations still fall into the trap of sometimes dismissing the wisdom of our elders. Silents are leaving leadership roles for many reasons – many are snowbirds, only around for 6 months of the year. Others are just tired. And some feel as though they are no longer useful.

Boomer Leadership

The preponderance of your church leaders were probably born between 1943 and 1959. It’s no wonder, as there are so many of them, but also because they’re in the stage of life where they’ve assumed and maintain strong leadership roles. 

Boomers are compelling leaders – they formulate and articulate broad visions. They build concensus around those visions; but whereas the Silents make sure everyone is heard and on board and hash out a concensus, Boomers tend to present a vision and bring others along – this generation is big on the “buy in.”

At their best, Boomers lead the charge for big, new ideas for growth. As Eeman points out, they often embody the George Bernard Shaw quotation: “Some men see things that are and ask ‘why?’ Other men see things that never were and ask ‘why not?’

But at their worst, they are stubborn and absolutely certain they are right. They can be seen as the unfortunate counterweight to the Silents who come slowly to a decision; Boomers tend to already have made a decision and will fight long and hard for their point of view. Boomers in the heat of an argument will work very hard to build factions of support – more buy in – which can be hard for other generations to argue against. Of course, good Boomers know this and temper it with considered thought – the worst never do.

Boomers are also beginning to age out of leadership a little – they’re the newly or soon-to-be-newly retired, and they’re thinking this snowbird action is kinda cool. But many are in for the long haul – and, by the way, the preponderance of our ministers are still Boomers too. They are dominant … large and in charge.

GenX Leadership

This is the generation of the rising leaders. Some are already in places of leadership – the ministers and leaders in their 30s and 40s are Xers, and they’re shaking things up a bit.

Partly, they’re shaking things up in that instead of talking endlessly about ideas, or building coalitions around ideas, they’re implementing them. They don’t built task forces and committees –  this generation just doesn’t have that kind of time. Instead, they build short-term teams to tackle small (or sometimes large) projects. For example, after years of talking about how to approach our web presence and social media, it finally took a group of five Xers to tell the president and minister “we’re going to do it” and then…they did it. (Or, I should say, we did it, as I was the one gutsy enough to say we should go ahead.)

This generation also questions the status quo, which is likely full of processes and procedures and an (un)healthy dose of “we’ve always done it this way.” This both makes other generations nervous, and occasionally gets them into trouble. If ever there was a generation that believes “it is easier to ask forgiveness than seek permission” it is this one.

This generation is also a bit unsure about stepping into leadership. They feel like the Boomers are still in charge, and they don’t see themselves as being the great idealists their Boomer leaders are.  And yet, when they do take steps toward leadership, they find there’s a bit of relief from the burned-out Boomers and Silents, and of course, a lot to do.

At their best, GenX leaders execute great ideas with almost military precision – they are pragmatic and effectively use resources. (Note that some of the best military leaders – Washington, Patton, Eisenhower) were of the same Nomadic generational type.) At their worst, they charge ahead, full steam, sometimes to the determent of the relationships (feelings can get hurt when not everyone’s been properly consulted or has bought in).

Millennial Leadership

We’re just getting a sense of who this new generation will be as leaders – the oldest of them have not yet turned 30. But if they’re anything like previous Civic generations, they are the institution builders. They like to do things big, and do them together. As I’ve said before, this is the generational type who built the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highway system. They also built Levittowns and cookie-cutter schools, offices, and public buildings…sometimes believing to a fault that “if you build it, they will come.” Sometimes it is true – but sometimes we’re stuck with rather large assets that have become liabilities (from abandoned shopping malls to Robert Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral).

Already, we’re seeing rumbles from this rather large generation (to compare, there are 80 million Boomers, 44 million Xers, and 78 million Millennials). They don’t want to be sidelined, they want to be listened to. Just because their head is down texting doesn’t mean they’re ignoring the world. No, they’re connecting to their Facebook friends in California, and offering condolences to their online friends in Norway and planning their Unirondack reunion… and they’re looking at how we can build digital congregations and grow not just our individual congregations but our entire denomination.

So what does this mean in the boardroom?

What it means is NOT that one side is right and one is wrong – instead, it means is that it’s easier to understand why issues occur and how to maneuver around them when you have a sense of what’s driving a person’s particular leadership outlook. I’ll end this rather lengthy post with an anecdote, as an example of what happens when the generations collide:

A few years prior to the fateful event, a congregation had crafted a conflict resolution policy between members and friends of the congregation. It outlined how to handle conflict, who should be involved, and best practices. The author of the policy – a joyful but sometimes …forceful member of the congregation (a Boomer) – proposed that the policy be added to the personnel policy, that this particular procedure would work just as well for our growing staff and needed to be implemented without delay.

Unfortunately, there were many employment legalities that the policy did not cover, and the Personnel committee – almost entirely staffed by Silents – was sent to rewrite it. Meanwhile, the Treasurer, an Xer, carefully read the current personnel policy and found a grievance clause that would cover any conflict issues that arose.

Then Personnel came back with their amendments a couple of months and many meetings later, the existing grievance clause was shown, and an argument ensued.

The Silents said, “we have asked many people and sought several opinions, and looked at a number of different personnel policies, and really, it would keep peace, so what would it hurt to have this too?”
The Treasurer said “it’s redundant and incomplete” and the other Xers on the board wanted to just dump it, wondering why it was taking so long for something so unnecessary.

The Boomers – some of whom were in coalition with the policy author and others who were not, were battling between “he’s the expert, so we should have just listened to him in the first place” and “pass it so he’ll be mollified.”

The president – a Boomer – finally asked for the question to be called, seeing that this was not feeding the vision of a harmonious and effective board. For the first time in several years, a motion passed by only a slim margin (as opposed to the normally unanimous decisions this board makes). The Silents voted yea, the Xers voted nay, and the Boomers were split.

Was it a perfect solution? Is it a perfect policy? We’ll never know. But at least we have a sense of why the different factions acted as they did… and the president was better able to assign further projects and consider other actions in ways that would get the results he was seeking.

Next time, we’ll talk a bit about religious education.



One of the areas congregations struggle with most is stewardship. If your church is anything like mine, it’s like pulling teeth to even find people to head the stewardship campaign, no less getting people to give in a way that’s meaningful. I can’t deny sometimes wishing that in our UU congregations, we had a culture of tithing – the magic 10% that seems to flow freely from the pockets of many evangelical Christians. But we don’t, and we struggle to get people to see the value of our congregations and put a dollar figure to it. Many will donate countless hours to committees, justice projects, and doing the physical work of the congregation, but that only goes so far when there are mortgages and light bills and salaries to pay.

Not surprisingly, generational theory can play a role in stewardship. I actually have some first-hand knowledge of this, having been in charge of my congregation’s stewardship campaign in 2010. Here’s what we did:

 One Pitch Does Not Fit All

Instead of one pitch about supporting our congregation for everyone to hear, we created four different pitches, each with their own flavor. Now we did have some common themes – namely, that true stewardship is a commitment of not just money, but also of our time and talents. We’re using the Time, Talent, and Treasure theme a lot when we talk to both potential members and current ones, asking for a yearly commitment to give of all three in some measure, knowing people have varying levels of each at different times.

But then, instead of one big stewardship event, we had a series of Generational Parties. We asked members of each generation to create an event that would (a) be something they’d like and (b) address the pitch with certain generational emphases. The general pitch is the same – here’s our budget, here’s what we’re looking for from you, here’s what “fair share” means – but the place, the style, and the emphasis were all different.

 The Silent Party

At first, the Silent on our stewardship committee didn’t much care for this idea. In true Adaptive form, he said, “but we should all be together – why are you separating us?” But we assured him it would work, so he and his wife hosted a dessert party, and they gave an effective pitch.

 Pitching to the Adaptives requires an emphasis on

  •  relationships and building new relationships throughout the year
  •  pastoral care, especially as they are the generation now most likely to need home visits, hospital care, rides to doctors, etc.
  •  care for the earth – carrying on the causes of compassion, freedom and equality
  •  leaving a legacy – making sure there’s a place with a strong tradition to continue this work
  • outlining budget goals and providing detailed rationale – not just “we want to grow” but “we need more RE classrooms”
  •  a stress on fair share and proportionate giving
  • a bold “ask” – asking for real and exact numbers

The Silents party was a success – new friendships were formed, and when it came to the post-event canvass (followup calls), our Adaptive committee member, who previously thought this was crazy, said, “my wife and I will call all the Silents.” His conversion rate was great – despite having more fixed incomes and more snowbirds, he was able to get in several cases an increase in pledges.

The Boomer Party

This was an all out shindig – great wines and local beers, great appetizers from a local gourmet foods market, and quite the crowd at the home of one of our more generous Boomer couples (they have served in leadership since their arrival 5 years ago).

 Pitching to the Boomers requires an emphasis on

  •  vision – going beyond the hard numbers to who we are and what we see ourselves as
  • enhancing the quality of programs, with a view toward making us “the best”
  • highlighting the spiritual benefits of a faith community – how having a strong congregation helps them become stronger and more effective
  • addressing concerns over retirement and the benefits of continuing to give
  • asking for opinions – what will best serve us as we head into retirement, take on different leadership roles, consider life in the empty nest (often you’ll get a whole new set of classes, programs, and small group ministries)

Now some of this did happen at our Boomer party, but interesting, our host had just lost his father and was himself dealing with learning he has a serious illness. The host spoke at length about all that our congregation – and indeed, our denomination – had done for him, and he spoke of his hope that we would continue to be that kind of place for others. Talk about vision! It worked beautifully, and again, we saw increases in pledges.

The GenX Party

We held a pot luck after church one Sunday, with a couple of parents downstairs with the kids so that the adults could talk. It was wonderful – one of our newer families is Indian, and the food they brought was an amazing addition to the rather basic American pot luck fare we are used to. I hosted this party, along with another member of our stewardship team – we settled on a Sunday potluck, knowing that most GenX families could stick around for an hour but probably couldn’t make time during the week due to the endless music lessons and scout meetings and soccer games.

Pitching to GenX requires an emphasis on

  • the practical side of the budget – how much it costs to send a child through RE, how much one month’s utility bills are, what we spend on supplies
  • focus on youth programs – what we have and what we want in the most encouraging and safest way possible
  • emphasis on fair share, knowing that this is the generation currently carrying the largest debt load; GenX doesn’t want to be seen as slackers or shirking their responsiblities
  • rising leadership – that this is the generation stepping into leadership roles, and part of leadership is a responsibility to give time, talent, and treasure
  • short-term projects rather than long-term commitments; we can’t fund the next ten years of RE, but we can build a playground

This party was a huge success – for several, it was the first time they’d been seen as leaders, and in fact one woman in her early 30s said “yes” to a leadership role, which she admitted she’d have shied away from, thinking she was too young. For others, they finally understood the pragmatic side of fair share and stewardship – could see it in real terms, and could see how they could help shape the here and now… several sheepishly raised their pledges by significant amounts, having finally learned what was expected of them. Interestingly, we also built an ad-hoc committee on digital media, and are in the process of not only updating the website but also getting more active in Facebook and Twitter.

The Millennial Party

This was a casual gathering at a local coffee shop. There weren’t too many people in attendance – we are, admittedly, not doing a great job attracting and keeping young adults – but those who are with us are very committed, and were happy to sit together for a little bit in a bustling hangout.

Pitching to the Millennials requires an emphasis on

  • community – doing things together
  • improving the world we live in; big projects we can do together
  • the many ways to interact – Sunday services, small groups, special interest groups, group discussions
  • adult RE – many of this generation are unchurched and can use some of the same kinds of lessons we give our kids, about world religions, our principles, etc.
  • like GenX, the practical side of the budget – how much it costs to send a child through RE, how much one month’s utility bills are, what we spend on supplies
  • space to be heard – this generation knows they are small in number in our congregations, despite being large in number in the world

These gatherings were great for the adult Millennials who are just now finding their place in the world. They saw that their investment is a way to build community to do big things, not just a nice place to get personally fed. While many of our Millennials are naval families on limited budgets, they still saw ways to give a fair share, and understood the time and talent portion of stewardship.

So what did we learn?

We learned that by addressing the unique perspectives of these generations, not only how they see the church but also where they are in their lives, we could help them best give and feel a sense of ownership. They seemed to better understand their fare share and the benefits of giving. In real terms, we saw an increase not only in the number of pledge units, but also an increase in the pledge amount (a solid 10% increase!) for 2011.

Further, we got more time and talent commitments from the Xers and the Millennials – rather than feeling overshadowed by the Boomers who are in leadership now, they saw that it’s time to step up and take the congregation to its next stage.
And finally, we saw relationships being forged – many of those who gathered in these generational parties got to know their peers a little better, and for our newer GenX and Millennial families, they got to make some new friends.

Again, generational theory isn’t the be-all, end-all of anything… but it is a good tool for the toolbox.


Next time: Generations in the Board Room, or “oh, so that’s why we had that fight over the bylaw changes.”


PS: here’s a link to the stewardship brochure we use – Time, Talent, and Treasure


In our last installment, I gave you a brief overview of the generational types – Adaptives, Idealists, Nomads, and Civics. So far, so good… at least we have a general sense of who we’re talking about here. But who are these people when it comes to our congegations?  In today’s exciting episode, I want to talk a bit about what it seems the generations are looking for when they come in our doors.

Caveat: yes, these are broad generalizations  – as always, your mileage may vary.

Before we go any further, I do want to make sure I say this: along with the generational types, we are, of course, dealing with different ages. The current adaptives are in their elderhood, while the nomads are entering midlife. So of course, we’re having to think about the generational types where they are in their lives too. As generations age, some of their needs and perspectives changes. So consider this a pretty good guide for the next 5-10 years. 🙂

What the Silent Generation is Looking For

The Silents, as I’ve said, are our elders now. This adpative generation is distinctive for their work in the civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements. These were the upstarts who shook the status quo that the GI generation (civics) had so carefully built. This is a generation who has continued to seek fairness in human relations, and non-conformity in lifestyles and beliefs.

Is it any wonder that the Silents were the rising leaders in the new Unitarian Universalism? They were in their thirties and forties when the UUA was formed, and with a strongly humanist undercurrent, it linked perfectly with the call for justice. And so what Silents have been seeking all along is a religion that emphasizes respect and justice in human relations, collaboration, peaceful solutions, and forgiveness. It’s not a surprise at all that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was from the Silent generation – in my mind, he embodied all that is wonderful about the Silents.

On the downside, all of this adaptiveness and flexibility leads to such inclusiveness that it’s a wonder they stand for anything. The stereotype that Unitarian Universalism is the ‘anything goes’ religion is some of what we inherited from the Silents.

So what are they looking for when they come to church? Inclusivity, tolerance, a sense of forgiveness, sympathy, and fair play. They love joys and concerns. They love seeing many generations represented in services.  More than any other, they mourn when congregations have to go to two services, for they long for the togetherness. And as they settle into elderhood, they seem to be looking for a sense of their place in history. Remember… this is a generation overshadowed by the celebrated GIs and the noisy Boomers. My best advice? Take pains to honor your Adaptive elders as they move out of leadership, both from the pulpit and the boardroom. Don’t let their contributions be forgotten.

What the Boomers are Looking For

Ah, the Idealists. Big ideas, big voices, big numbers. This generation is very present – too present sometimes, if you ask other generations, but present nonetheless. Over the last 20 years, they’ve been large and in charge, seeing the vision of Unitarian Universalism and proclaiming its worth as a movement.

Of course, when you have a bunch of Idealists in the room, you have clashes. On the national stage, the clash has been the Culture Wars – one group of Boomers positively convinced that they are right and you are wrong, whether it be over abortion, marriage equality, or evolution. Some of the biggest internal fights in our congregations are between Boomers who have competing visions for the future.

Yet all this is good. Idealist generations are the Meaning Seekers – “what does it all mean” is a large and expansive question that leads our congregations to consider the connections between sacred texts, between our faith and our actions. The Boomers are willing to look at broad visions (see Rev. Peter Morales talking about being ‘a religion for our time’ – talk about broad vision!), and they use expansive, visionary language (not surprisingly, Ralph Waldo Emerson was an Idealist).

So what are they looking for? They love big ideas, and how it fits into our lives. They love personal experience and are likely big proponents of silent meditation in services. They are also in a place in their lives when they’re seeking a new paradigm – many are recent or soon-to-be empty nesters and retirees, and the things that have given them meaning in the past (children, careers) are going away. Give them a sense of purpose.

What GenX is Looking For

Xers are an odd bunch. (I can say this, as I am a leading-edge Xer.) Many were raised as much by television as their parents, as their Silent generation mothers were heading back into the workplace (in defiance of the cookie cutter June Cleaver image their elders proclaimed). Generation X is a small generation, too – only about 40 million, sandwiched between 80 million Boomers and 78 million Milennials. (Why? 1960: Birth Control pill. 1973: Roe v. Wade. Sexual revolution. Women’s lib. It’s all good stuff, but it means childbearing is a choice, and many women of childbearing age in the 60s and 70s choose not to have kids.)

Xers are also the first widely un-churched generation. Silent parents, keen on inclusiveness and making sure everyone gets along, couldn’t bear forcing their children to do things they were forced to do, so church often didn’t make the cut. Some might say that Xers lost their moral compass as a result; I’d argue that our moral compass is more ‘street smarts’ than organized lessons. And the approach to spirituality is similar. Where Boomers ask “what does it all mean” and want a big, visionary answer, Xers ask the same question but want to know the practical steps for getting there and how it will apply personally. There are a lot of books written by Boomers that talk about ‘finding your vision’… Xers want to know how. 

So what are they looking for? Practical solutions to the big questions. Talk about big ideas, but then make it personal. They also want variety. More so than other nomadic generations, this group is conditioned for more variety in their services – a wide range of music, changes in focus, multiple readings and people involved, multimedia. They also crave some basics – many Xers did not learn the parables and Old Testament stories – and they certainly don’t know how they apply to a liberal religion (as they’ve been bombarded with fundamentalist televangelists).  Even if they grew up in a UU congregation, they may still have gaps caused by an emphasis on the Big Picture of world religions to the exclusion of Jewish and Christian teachings. This is also a generation that is still trying to find its voice, so give them opportunities to speak and shine.

One more thing about Xers in church: this is the dominant parenting generation right now, so children are important. This is the generation of “helicopter parents” – Xer parents have a heightened investment in their children’s successes and safety. Multigenerational worship is big with this crowd, as is a strong, sometimes dominant, RE program.

What the Milennials are Looking For

This generation is our current youth movement. They’re in their teens and 20s, finding their footing, exploring a world that is very different from the one their Boomer parents envisioned for them. But whereas their parents were the poster children for the Me Generation, Milennials are the We Generation. They will do things big, and grandly, and together. Consider that previous civic generations built the trans-continental railroad and the interstate highway system. What will they build next? Nationwide green technologies? Digital connectivity for all? If the Boomers can dream it… and the Xers can design it… the Milennials can build it.

And yet, with all of the personal electronic gagetry out there, it’s hard to imagine this group doing anything together. But consider this: a Boomer (and UU! Tim Behrens-Lee) invented the World Wide Web – which was visionary, a couple of Xers invented Google and Amazon – which added practicality, and Milennials invented Facebook and Twitter – ways to connect big groups of people to each other. I’m encouraged by the stories of Milennials going on “Facebook tours’ where they travel around the country meeting the friends they’ve made online, and then creating big projects to work on together.

Milennials are full of promise and potential – and like their older Xer siblings, they are widely unchurched – and immersed in the Culture Wars, which they never didn’t know (the Moral Majority was founded in 1979). For many, their impression of religion is that of major clash, not of “we are one”. But they hear messages of right relations, justice, and pragmatic action, and they are ready to make it happen. This is a generation of joiners, after all, and if the Boomers can continue to hold the vision of a “religion for our time” and the Xers can devise projects and programs to get there, the Milennials will sign on and make it happen.

So what are Milennials looking for? Right now, I would say some guidance, direction, and encouragement. They want connection, and a reason for connection (compassion, justice, service, growth). The youth in our movement are longing for a place at the table, a voice, and a recognition that they have gifts the rest of us don’t. We should encourage them to go on trips to Central America to do justice work, to form denomination-wide youth ministries, to be on the visioning teams and growth task forces in our districts, clusters, and congregations. And yes, we can include them in our worship teams too – we instituted a “junior worship associate” program, which has helped teach our youth about worship but also put them front and center in our services.

Can One Congregation Fill Everyone’s Needs?

Absoutely. Just not all at one time.

Sure, it means sometimes we have to step out of our comfort zones, and accept that not everything we like is what everyone else will like. We have to learn more about multigenerational worship. We have to learn to balance the global and the personal, the visionary and the pragmantic.

It also means we have to come up with a better way to deal with “word allergies” – while some still come to us scarred from the churches of their youth, many more have no experience at all and need to learn about things we otherwise think we are “done” with.

We need too to honor all comers, all perspectives, all ages. Being out of leadership or not ready for leadership does not mean being out of the picture.

But a good praagmatic approach (I am such an Xer!), that is balanced and well-rounded, can fulfill everyone’s needs and create a warm, functional, multigenerational congregation.

Next up…

Generations and stewardship. Won’t that be fun!




You may be looking around your congregation wondering “who are these people, and why can’t I lead them?” Every generation has its own style, flair, needs, and triggers. Churches, more than most other places, are significantly multigenerational, which means we’re often trying to serve as many as five different generations with one set of programs, events, and worship services.

Now over the next few months, I’ll be putting together a presentation for the St. Lawrence District’s leadership conference, Leading From the Edge: Congregations at the Speed of Change, being held October 1 at May Memorial in Syracuse.  I could wait, and post after I do the session… but in a Twitter conversation today about the need for interractive digital religion, I realized that generational theory plays a huge role in how we approach this new communication… and thought I’d start a series here on gen theory in our congregations.


My main source is the work of Strauss and Howe, whose theories on American generations make the most sense to me.

Well, that’s not entirely correct. They aren’t my main source, Carl Eeman is my MAIN source; his book Generations of Faith led me to the work of Strauss and Howe (S&H), whose work Carl based his book on. In Generations of Faith, Carl takes the ideas S&H outlined and applied them to congregations. He looked at how the generations approach ideas of God, what they seek in worship, how they lead, how they learn, and how they give. (Carl spoke at a workshop at General Assembly in 2010 in Minneapolis/St. Paul.)

What’s been interesting for me is that in applying some of these lessons to developing worship and more pointedly in last fall’s stewardship campaign, I can see where knowing a thing or two about gen theory has made a difference. For example, we found that we were able to address specific needs: the issues those just entering retirement (Boomers) are very different from those just entering the work force (Millenials) or those in the dominant parenting years (GenX). We were able to understand a safe congregations issue that was critical to the GenX  parents but a nuisance to the Silents and Boomers – and we were able to address the issue in a way that was satisfactory BECAUSE we understood the generational dynamic being played out. Issues still happen, but having a sense of why helps us manage expecations and “get’ where people are coming from.

Generational Types

S&H suggest that there are four basic generational types, which seem to cycle pretty regularly, in 22-25 year spans. Roughly defined (and note that these are huge generalizations), they are as follows (From Generations, p. 365 – the names in parentheses are later labels from their book The Fourth Turning):

  Positive Attributes Negative Attributes
Adaptives (Artist) Caring
Idealists (Prophet) Principled
Nomads Savvy
Civics (Hero) Rational

Now I bet you can look at this and tell who’s who in your congregation, just from the short generalization above.  A fuller outline of the types can be found here, but briefly…


Current expression: Silent (born 1925-1942)

These are the people of the Civil rights movement, the women’s movement, environmentalism. They were in their 20s and 30s when the UUA was formed, and helped shape who we are. In their senior years, they still fight fiercely for justice (i.e., our own Rev. Dick Gilbert), are caring, empathetic, supportive, and respected, but are losing their influence.

Current Adaptives: Alan Alda, Gary Hart, Phil Donahue, Gloria Steinem, Sandra Day O’Connor, Barbara Streisand, Alan Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Ralph Nader, Hugh Hefner, Jesse Jackson, Neil Armstrong, Warren Buffet, Barbara Jordan, William Shatner

Historic Adaptives: Daniel Moynihan, William F. Buckley, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert and Teddy Kennedy; Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, Booker T. Washington, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Audubon, Henry James, Dolly Madison


Current Expression: Boomers (born 1943-1960)

This very large generation is full of abstract, sequential thinkers – theoretical, intuitive, and confidently opinionated. They often live to work, but are noisy about their 3 Vs: Vision, Values, and Virtue. The culture wars were ignited under the Boomers. They have big ideas and great visions – and while they can be stubborn, they can also inspire.

Current Idealists: Al Gore, Rick Warren, Rush Limbaugh, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, Spike Lee, Newt Gingrich, Jimi Hendrix, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, Angela Davis, Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of world wide web – and a UU)

Historic Idealists: Jane Addams, Henry Ford, Douglas McArthur, Helen Keller, FDR; W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson, Pocahantas, Roger Williams


Current Expression: Generation X (born 1961-1982)

These are the latchkey kids and the original Sesame Street generation – a much smaller generation, thanks to birth control and family planning. They are scrappy and inventive, yet wary and skeptical. They are survival-oriented, and tend to be overbearing parents (‘helicopter parents’). Yet they are also inventive, risk-taking, and entrepreneurial. They are often terse, blunt, yet very perceptive. These pragmatists are the rising leaders in your congregations.

Current Nomads: Tom Beaudoin, Jerry Seinfeld, President Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Michael J. Fox, Michael Jordan, Whitney Houston, Rachel Maddow, Eddie Murphy, Jeff Bezos (founder of, Sergey Brin & Larry Page (founders of Google), Tina Fey, Tiger Woods, Brett Farve, Amy Grant

Historic Nomads: Ernest Hemmingway, George Patton, Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Parker, Adlai Stevenson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower; Levi Strauss, Louisa May Alcott, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Ulysses Grant, Mark Twain, George Washington, Daniel Boone, John Hancock, John Adams, Nathaniel Bacon, Increase Mather, Bluebeard the Pirate


Current expression: Millennials (born 1983-2004)

This generation should not be taken for granted. They may seem like they’ve got their noses in their smart phones, but they are interacting with others in big ways, getting ready to take great ideas and new technologies and do them big. Previous civic generations built the interstate highway system and the intercontinental railroad. What will this generation’s big thing be? Green technologies? Could be! This generation was taught the New 3 R’s: Rules, Respect, Responsibility. They think in terms of “we” and are concrete, hopeful, and upbeat thinkers. They are institution builders.

Current Civics: Taylor Swift, Lindsay Vonn, Michael Phelps, Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook), Matt Mullenweg (founder of WordPress), Kiera Knightley, Natalie Portman, Shawn White

Historic Civics: Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, JFK; Judy Garland, Katherine Hepburn, Walter Cronkite, Charles Lindburgh, Walt Disney; Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Nathan Hale, Alexander Hamilton, Eli Whitney, Abigail Adams, Cotton Mather, Elihu Yale

Note: you may have some much older members – those over the age of 85. These are members of the GI generation, also civics.

And FYI: the next generation – those born after 2004, are the new Adaptives. You want to know what the elders of your church were like as kids? Check the little ones out. They don’t officially have a generational name yet, but many are beginning to use the name “Homeland Generation” to describe them.

So what does it mean?

Well, this is what I’ll be looking at. Over the next few months, I’ll examine how these generations interact at coffee hour, in committees and board meetings. We’ll talk about the shifts in leadership and thus the shifts in vision and action. We’ll look at how communication changes with the generations and how to reach everyone. We’ll also talk about how to approach stewardship, social justice, and worship.