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He Who Preaches to One Generation is Lost

As many of you know, I have a deep and abiding love for old movies. Countless happy hours have been spent watching the work of actors who have long ago passed on to their reward. Maybe it is a longing for a bygone era, or just a love of the old days. Anyway, I really enjoy watching movies which portray the way things were in the past. Truth be told, there are times when I feel that in an earlier life, I may have been a tuba player in the Newark Fire Department Band of the 1920's. 

So it was the other day when I was passing time watching yet another pre-World War II movie on the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) network. The movie in question was called One Foot in Heaven. It was a 1941 release which discussed the life of a Methodist minister as he lived his life of service in the early part of the 20th Century. Not only was the message good, but there was a well-done scene involving a fire in a church parsonage just before World War I. However, one of the major lessons I learned from this movie came from a sermon during the first 30 minutes.

It seems that the pastor, played by Frederick March, had been critical of a number of things which were being put forward by his children and the younger members of his flock. It involved that new-fangled invention, the silent movie. He railed against them in general, even though he had never attended a single performance. However, after his son talked him into going to a performance, he came away impressed with the message of morality taught by the movie.

As he was leaving the theater, he bumped into his wife and a number of his church members who seem somewhat shocked to see that he had actually been in the theater. When asked for his thoughts on the movie, he states that he learned an important lesson. He told his wife that he had been mistaken about his personal practice of not listening to the ideas and opinions of the younger generation. 

In the next scene he goes on to preach a really neat message in his next sermon, which was entitled, "He Who Ignores the Younger Generation is Dead." Now maybe that title was a bit extreme, but I personally think that the message has merit. The balance of the movie is spent showing how he embraces the idea of broadening the role of youth in his ministry.

As he moves from congregation to congregation he works to spread the value of his youth-oriented approach to the ministry. As you might imagine, he ruffles the feathers of a lot of senior members in each succeeding flock. He also manages to get his butt chewed-out by his bosses from time to time. But his impact upon the faithful is great. This is, of course, the message of this movie. The young should be included in every aspect of an organization's life. 

Let me make this a bit more personal. Many of you know that one of my personal goals has been to designate the decade of my 60's as a time of sharing. What good have my decades-long efforts to gain knowledge been if all that the knowledge does is sit quietly residing within the confines of my brain? Over the years a great many people have been generous with me. Whether it was in the Air Force fire service, Adelphia, Rahway, Newark, the International Society of Fire Service Instructors or the NFPA, there have always been those who took the time the guide me in the direction of knowledge and share their experiences with me. 

Let me suggest to you that there is a real message here for all of us. Many times I have spoken about how the younger members of fire departments around the country are running off the older members are grabbing the power for themselves. I have made reference to this many times. The younger generation seized the mantle of power and then works to run off the organization's veteran members. I have seen this happen in a range of organizations both within and without the fire service.

As a veteran member I take umbrage at this. However, rather than speaking against it, maybe I should be asking a simple question. Why is this happening? A follow up question might be, "what can be done to prevent this loss of institutional knowledge?

Perhaps the thing which bothers me most is the lack of respect which many of these younger folks have for the wealth of knowledge and experience which the senior members bring to the table in any interaction. It took us a lot of years to gain that knowledge. It should be worth something. I was taught to respect my elders. That seems to be a concept which has lost its way in the 21st Century. 

However, I am now coming to believe that this attitude can, in and of itself, can be a real problem. Perhaps rather than telling every young person how much we know, us old-timers need to step back and ask themselves another simple question. What do these younger members really need to know? There is only one way to handle that question. The various generations of your fire department need to come together in a manner which allows an assessment of the needs of all. 

Sadly many of us veteran members can be (and have been) the problem. Many times I have seen the seniors members fail to share their knowledge or the friendship with the new folks. Their attitude was that they had to work hard to learn their jobs, why should they make it easy on these young whipper-snappers? Frankly, a number of them treated the new people like crap. 

This is a bad move my friends. Getting off on the wrong foot with new members is a disease whose prevention is easy and whose cure is costly. It also takes a lot of time and effort to accomplish. It affects the organizational balance and attitude and can create warring camps among the members. 

Let me suggest that a great part of the problem has been and continues to be that there are many among us just don't take the time to meet, greet, and understand the new members as they join our fire departments. We simply expect them to be like everyone else we have known during our time in the department and expect them to perform according to our accepted patterns of interaction.

Unfortunately, life is not like that. People change over time and successive generations tend to evolve differently. Tremendous amounts of research are and have been devoted to studying the differences (and the similarities) between and among the various generations.

As a Baby Boomer, I grew to adulthood in a certain time, in a certain place, and with a certain sets of values, mores, and expectations. As a military veteran, I learned how to take orders and obey rules. I carried this behavior over into my time in the fire service and the Army National Guard. Much like Popeye the Sailor Man, I am what I am.

The people who have followed along in Generations X, Y, Z, and the millennial generation look at things differently. Their values are different than mine. Their abilities and expectations are no where near the same as mine. It is for that reason that I need to pay attention to what the younger folks are saying. How can I offer advice to the fire service if I have not listened to each of the generations which have followed along on my coattails? When you add the technology revolution to this, inter-personal problems would seem to have become mandatory, rather than optional.

This is a lesson which my pal Jack Peltier and I learned from my daughter Katie a number of years ago. We were at the Firehouse Expo in Baltimore. A number of us were spending some social time at a local watering hole. A number of us were discussing the problems which we were all encountering in the training of the new, younger members of our individual fire departments. Let me say that none of us was on the south side of the age of 50. 

Katie put up with us old timers for awhile. Then suddenly she chimed in with some very cogent comments. She said that it appeared to her that older folks did not seem to want to change. She also mentioned that she felt that older people listened to her just to be polite, or because they thought they had to, rather than to listen and hear what she was really saying.

Katie also went on to state that she was tired of older people thinking that she knew more than she really did, and beginning to teach her new topics at a level which was not appropriate to her actual knowledge base. That was one of her hot-button topics at our little session. I was kept busy jotting down the notes on a table napkin. As a matter of fact, I used that actual napkin from Shula's Steak house as the basis for this section of my commentary. This little scrap of paper has meant so much to me that I have kept it on my desk for nearly ten years. Katie and I still get a chuckle out of that session.

The point here is really simple. You ignore the younger people in your organization at your own peril. Let me give you a real-life example from another quadrant of my life. Many of my ideas have come from something which has occurred at the Colts Neck Reformed Church. I love my church. It is a living, vibrant group of committed Christians. It also has created an organizational model which provides active membership activities for all age groups. 

Our children begin singing in the Cherub's Choir when they are about three years old. Not too long after that, they begin to learn how to play the bells in the youngest of our five bell choirs. They are then given opportunities to be active in church all the way up through high school. In my ten years at the church, I have literally seen a generation of young people grow up and pass through the many stages of the worship experience. Additionally, our children travel to other congregations to share their musical talents. They are also provided with mission opportunities to travel and help others who are in need of some form of assistance. 

Activities exist for every age group right on up through the senior Bible study group. Recently , our consistory (leadership team of elders and deacons) identified a gap in the area of our young people who leave for college and then return to live in our area. This has been addressed through the creation of what we call a "Twenty Something's" group. My daughter and her husband have become active with this group. This is so important to us that we altered the responsibilities of one of our elders in order to provide active supervision in this critical area. The elder who was appointed is herself in her 20's. 

There is a lesson her for the fire service. We need to consciously embrace each group within our fire department. For all to soon, each of us will find ourselves among the last generation. During our annual Labor Day picnic here in Adelphia, at one point during the festivities, I looked around and made a startling discovery. I was the oldest guy at the party. I suddenly felt every moment of my 40 years of service to the fire company. However, I shook off that thought and plunged back into a discussion with a number of our Twenty-Something members. 

Long ago I learned a really critical lesson. Do not force yourself and your beliefs on others. Share with others when you can and hold back when the time is not right. However, be there when folks have a question or need some advice. Inject your experience when needed and do your job. At this stage of my life, I have learned to leave the active, physical aspects of firefighting to the younger folks. My job is to drive the pumper and be sure the firefighting troops have what they need to get the job done.

Let me tell you something really important to me. It is extremely helpful to have a relative in the fire department who comes from a different generation. Let me assure you that it makes you listen, because, quite frankly, how is a dad not going to listen to his own child? Well, I guess there may be some who do not, but I could not do that in good conscience. 

So my advice to you is simple. Welcome the new members into your organization. Train them, socialize with them, interact with them in the firefighting environment, and most importantly, listen to them. You ignore the next generation at your own peril.