The Inconvenient Elder

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The creation of wealth often spurs an unexpected reaction in the next generation. During the 12th and early 13th centuries there was something of an explosion of both wealth and the formation of informal orders within the Catholic Church. One of the reasons for the founding of these monastic communities was that a generation of young people were turning away from the excesses of their wealthy parents.

The son of one of those nouveau riche, Francis of Assisi, was raised as a spoiled and privileged young man. Imprisoned for a year for being on the losing side of a war with a rival city, his friends noticed a change. He found a little abandoned church, and he spent whole days there praying. He renounced his inheritance and all claims on his family. Starting with two young friends the group grew to 12 and then spread rapidly across Europe and North America. To be part of the group, a man had to sell all his goods, give the money to the poor and sever all family ties.

The order quickly numbered in the thousands but gradually changed over time from an independent loose confederation of “brothers” living in absolute poverty to an official order of the Church with written regulations under the jurisdiction of a Cardinal designated as the “protector” of the order. This was the beginning of the end for Francis, who was at heart an entrepreneur. It marked the change from a few brothers who owned nothing to a disciplined community accumulating wealth and influence. It was then that Francis became what Joan Acocella coins “the inconvenient elder” in an article in The New Yorker:

“When he ceded control of the group Francis hoped that he could still lead the men by example but his influence quickly waned This enraged him.‘Who are these who have ripped my order and my brothers out of my hands?’ he shouted. Once when he saw a new building that he thought the community had erected for itself in disregard of the rule of poverty he climbed up to the roof and began prying off the tiles and throwing them to the ground. Breaking with his earlier gentle practice he cursed people who opposed his ideas.

Francis is indeed a good example of what in the annals of history might be called the ‘inconvenient elder’: the person who starts the revolution and then once it succeeds becomes an inconvenience, even an embarrassment, to the next generation. (Think of Gandhi.) They honor him – they have to – but they wish he would go away so that they could work ‘within the system’ and relax a little.”

While the Church revered Francis and within two years of his death he was canonized, the transition to a bureaucratic organization was made complete. An elaborate basilica was built over his crypt with a palace to house visiting dignitaries. Acocella writes, “This was the Church’s tribute to the man who never possessed more than one tunic and who forbade his men to own even the roof over their heads. With the construction of the basilica, Franciscan poverty, the order’s foundational precept, became a pious fiction. It is hard to think of a single important Franciscan principle that was not violated.” One biographer called it Francis’s “second death.”

The sociologist Max Weber coined the term “routinization of charisma” to describe the natural tendency of revolutionary movements to be institutionalized and domesticated. The death of the founder is both celebrated and seen as a moment to establish an organization to carry on the work. Unfortunately, the unique work along with the principles are forgotten and replaced with a self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

The Apostle Paul said as much to the elders in Ephesus when he knew he was speaking to them for the last time: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God…I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!”

I have watched founders stay too long and place an organization in jeopardy. As well, I have seen founders leave without the foundational precepts so firmly established that these precepts do become a pious fiction. Anyone who has started an organization should think this through. How do you cede control without abdicating? How do you release your grip without abandoning the vision? How do you know the difference between true shepherds and wolves?

Perhaps this is just the way things are. No one can live with a permanent revolution. Organizations mature and the wise inconvenient elder knows how long to stay or when to step aside – or when to start another revolution.

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  • John Huffman
    Reply

    Very helpful Fred. I never knew this about the later part of Francis’s life until now.

  • Bob Bonner
    Reply

    Great Blog Fred! I have not read Williiam Bridges book on transition, but I will. I have read others. By the way, I hope you put off the inevitable as long as possible. You have done and are still doing an excellent job! Your modeling of grace and truth has already impacted my life and the life of our board members as well. Thank you to you and your crew for all you do. See ya next year!!

  • Peter Kubasek
    Reply

    great timing as always – love the reminder that ANY of us can be that inconvenient Elder

  • Judy aufman
    Reply

    Perfect timing for us as we pray for the Lords direction in our later years. Thanks Fred.

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