Hosni Mubarak is 82 years old and has been a driving political personality in Egypt since 1975 when he became Vice-President under Anwar Sadat. He assumed the Presidency in 1981 after Sadat’s assassination and is the longest serving Egyptian president in modern history. Today, however, our daily news reports are full of images of dissenting Egyptians in the streets, protesting Mubarak’s government and demanding his overthrow.
Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa in 1994 at the age of seventy-five and decided not to run again in 1999 at the age of eighty-one, although he was still immensely popular and surely would have won reelection. He withdrew from public life in 2004, but continues to be a extraordinarily popular father figure in South Africa. His 90th birthday was a national celebration, and his brief appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup games was marked by a “rapturous reception,” according to The Guardian.
Mubarak’s situation in Egypt is a classic example of why older church leaders might need to step down—as did Mandela—before they are thrown out. Older church leaders would do well to look at the reasons Mubarak should step down and why he will not be celebrated like Mandela.
1. Mubarak made a name for himself as a heroic Air Force pilot and officer during and after the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict—but nobody cares about that anymore! The glory of former deeds is short-lived when your current actions are out of sync with your people. Church leaders may have been great missionaries, former preachers, university professors, large contributors, community leaders, and so forth, but all of that is meaningless to church members who don’t remember, never knew, or weren’t around then. God will certainly remember your good works, but your ability to lead must be based on what you can currently do, not what you have done in the past.
2. For many years now, Mubarak has been intolerant towards his critics and his opposition! A feeling that one is above being criticized is a sure sign that it is time for you to step down. No leader is above criticism. If you feel in anyway exempt from or entitled to a free pass from criticism, then you are showing signs of staying in leadership too long.
3. Age itself can expose an inability to keep up with inevitable changes. Both Mubarak and the recently overthrown dictator in Tunesia Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ignored—or at least underestimated—the power of social media like Facebook and Twitter until it was too late for them to survive as leaders. Older church leaders should ask themselves if they are in touch with what their flock is watching, listening to, thinking about, even twittering about?? If you don’t know—or worse, don’t care—then you should consider stepping down before you are overthrown!
4. Age-related physical weakness affects your ability to lead others. We laugh about “senior moments.” We sit around the table talking about surgeries, arthritis pains, and friends who have recently died. I was with an older church leader just the other day who listed off ten of his family members that died in a ten-year period, and I thought to myself, why did that surprise him? He was 78 and his family members and close friends were all slightly older or slightly younger. This particular Christian was very much alive and very spry, but many church leaders get to a point where they are physically unable to be a leader. Mandela had reached that point after the abuse his body took under apartheid, but he stepped away before it inhibited his ability to lead—so he continues to have great influence!
5. Mubarak has dismissed his government in an attempt to appease his critics; he has also imposed curfew to control the protesters. Both these defensive and offensive orders have been ignored by the people! When no one is following you, you are no longer a leader—regardless of the title that you wear. When older church leaders can no longer effect change without resorting to their office as the sole reason for demanding obedience, they have remained a church leader too long. If you have ever said, “We are the elders and we will decide, not you!” then you should resign immediately. Power can be exercised long after leadership has evaporated, but church leaders are given the gift of leadership from God, not power!
6. The 86-year-old Saudi king came out strongly backing Mubarak. If only people your age are backing you, if only people in your generation agree with you, if only people in your family are following you, then it is time to step down.
Good News for Older Church Leaders
The good news is that many great leaders do recognize that it is better to step down than to be a top-level leader too long! More good news is that stepping down does not mean the same thing as becoming non-productive or losing one’s influence. In fact, one’s influence probably grows because you show such vintage wisdom!
What stepping down does mean is usually giving up power! And power is the opiate from which it is so difficult to withdraw! If we could only realize that losing power is inevitable–almost no Mubarak-type leaders avoid eventually being thrown out.
Churches don’t have demonstrations. We might sometimes see mild protests, but no riots in our churches against older church leaders who should but don’t step down. We just have mass frustration and mass exodus!
So do you want to be a Mubarak or a Mandela?