“He called me into his office the day before I was supposed to make partner,” my friend recently told me. He had been an accountant at this firm for his entire career since he graduated college 14 years earlier. That day his boss told him that the budget for the coming year didn’t have room to add a new partner – “but probably next year!”

A young lawyer told me the other day that making partner – once the holy grail of the legal profession – is not what it used to be. It takes longer, requires more billable hours and there are fewer spots available for equity partners than there used to be. A now-dated Forbes article cites an American Lawyer study that says, “about 78% of all partners at the top 200 law firms (ranked by revenue) were equity partners in 2000. By 2010, 62% of partners at these firms had the same status.” Imagine that percentage now!

I know a bunch of therapists [Insert, “yeah, you should” joke here.] who’ve slogged their souls and minds through graduate school only to be greeted with a massive requirement of hours – in addition to their massive debt – that they need to log before they can get certified. It involves “direct hours” and “indirect hours,” and paying hefty sums of money to get supervision from someone further down the professional path than they are.

Allison Harbin, who holds a PhD in art history, recently wrote a three-part blog series called “Why I Left Academia” in which she chronicles her troubling story of a professor stealing her dissertation content and rejecting her dissertation defense. Her story was greeted with a flood of responses from aspiring PhD candidates who had experienced the same thing. She then wrote a post about how countless experienced, established professors are afraid of the very students they teach and advise because they are their replacements and, “most likely, will over-turn and repudiate much of what [these professors] have spent their entire career building.” Not just ideas, she says, but “methodologies, epistemologies, and pedagogies.” Harbin looks at this dynamic and states, as her post is entitled, “A Field in Which the Old Devours the Young is a Field that is Dying.”

Professional or Powerful?

I realize why we have certain professional requirements. We need them. After all, who doesn’t want an accurate accountant, trustworthy therapist, legitimate lawyer or proven professor? It makes sense that we have lengthy, thorough vetting processes in these and other professions.

But in an age of huge technological, economic and cultural shifts that have already fundamentally altered industries like media, transportation and housing, one can’t help but wonder if these stories about heightened disparity in various professions are not just about “professional requirements,” but about something else, namely, an attempt to cling to an old order of things – and the power, pay and prestige that come with it – rather than adapt to the challenges and possibilities of a newly emerging world.

The World and the Church

Lest you think I’m picking on the fields of accounting, law, psychotherapy and academia – these aren’t the only areas in which we witness this tension. We see it in the church too!

Whether we’re talking about education and ordination requirements for pastors, theological rigidity, funding new ministries and church expressions, or figuring out why millennials are leaving the church, one doesn’t have to look far to see dynamics of power, control, change-aversion and self-preservation at play in how older generations relate to younger generations.

I hesitate to say this…

because in most cases these motives are probably subconscious to the conscious, positive motives of wanting to pass on the good gospel gains from the work of previous generations that are preserved in a particular denomination or congregation.

because this isn’t true everywhere in the church. There are countless elders who listen well, who develop reciprocal relationships with younger generations, who do all they can to empower young people into the future.

because I’m also worried that in our youth-obsessed culture, this will come off as dismissive of elders. (To be clear, I actually think young people need elders now more than ever!)

But I’m really concerned.

What Are We Devouring?

Realities like church decline, seminary closures and the millennial exodus suggest that the institutional church is dying. So we can either continue with business as usual or we can get curious: If indeed this is a “field” that is dying, and if there is even a hint of truth in Harbin’s assertion that, “A Field in Which the Old Devours the Young is a Field that is Dying,” then perhaps the church needs to consider the possibility that we are giving in to the same generational power dynamics that are plaguing institutions everywhere in response to the rapidly shifting societal landscape.

Maybe Jesus’ critique to our religious leaders and systems today isn’t so much that we’re devouring widows’ houses, but that we’re devouring our young.

In order to stop this devouring so that we can forge a new way from death to life, we’re going to need to discover some new patterns of relating. We’re going to have to listen more, encourage more experimentation, give more money away and be willing to radically alter any processes in our system that reinforce the status quo.

And in order to figure out how to go about this, we’re going to have to allow younger followers of Jesus to “make partner” in our churches today. Unlike my friend’s accounting firm, we simply can’t afford to wait until next year.

Check out the Replacing Church Podcast


Also published on Medium.