Where Are Your Emerging Leaders?

No doubt about it, Paul set a great model with his enthusiastic investment in young Timothy. This was mentoring par excellence. But are we creating space for today’s young adults? Are today’s Timothys and Tinas being given a chance to learn the leadership ropes and participate meaningfully in congregational life as lay leaders?

The “unemployed” young leaders in churches:

Are we really engaging our young adults in the leadership of our churches?

  • Well, no, is about the best response given what is happening in many congregations. The surprising truth is that the insights, the experience and enthusiasm of youth do not carry too much weight in the leadership of many churches.
  • The young adults are simply not there. Now, this is not true for all churches in all places, of course, but it is true for too many.
  • Right across the churches there are gifted young adults, especially in their twenties, who are making a solid contribution to their work place, often highly educated, some holding down very responsible positions both in the trades and the professions.
  • It is not too hard to find such skilled young people coping with tough situations and decisions in the office, in industry, in schools and hospitals (and usually being well paid into the bargain) but who are not being encouraged to give a lead in their own church.
  • The simple truth is that they are needed now. They are not just the voice of tomorrow; they are the voice of today. Those who are older do not realise just how much difference ten years (or even less) makes in the way problems are identified, solutions sought and thought processes operate.
  • Without meaning to engage in wild generalisations, the more the years are accumulated, the “older” people think and act. A 40-year-old who thinks they are still thinking “young” is heavily into self-delusion. They are observing as a 40-year-old and not as a 25-year-old. Add extra years to this and the distance increases exponentially.

The need for balance:

Congregational leaders who hold onto positions of leadership on the grounds of “spiritual maturity” or life long experience may be inadvertently getting in the way. This is not a side swipe at older leaders. It is staking a claim for balance….

  • The years do teach priceless wisdom but there is an inherent danger in the thinking of older leaders (let’s say 35 and up) that they know intuitively what the next generation is thinking. And they are probably wrong most of the time.
  • You can be pretty sure that the stewardship and care of our planet as people of faith will be on their list of younger hearts and minds. But is the older generation similarly exercised with the same concern and passion? That’s open to wonderment.
  • There are conversations, debates in some corners, about what is usually described as “end times.” All sorts of scenarios are promoted. Are these going to grip our younger brigade? It’s doubtful. What we’re doing today for Jesus is what counts.
  • In short, our younger brigade is not turned on by doctrinal preoccupations. These are not seen to promote the Kingdom, have led to costly, often bitter, fragmentation within fellowships and are evidence of a deep, relational impoverishment. Your twenties generation is not switched on by any of this.
  • A courageous honesty would acknowledge that many churches are in terminal decline. There are no younger leaders waiting in the wings ready to provide fresh direction.
  • The vital connection with the following generation has not been made. There has been no room for them to exercise significant ministry or participate in the exercise of leadership.

Why the reluctance to engage the younger generation?

  1. Too many congregational leaders of long standing do not see the need to let go the reins:

It is a rare gift to know when to move to one side and redefine one’s future ministry – and create the opportunity for fresh energy, vision and focus….

  • There is no sensing on the part of some older leaders that their continuing presence may be restricting the church in its ministry.
  • The fact is that most leaders of long standing come to approach possibilities and challenges in increasingly fixed ways. The capacity to flex and respond with creativity and daring decreases.
  • Also, surprisingly, reactions seem to have more to do with logic and common sense than that which is daring, different and demonstrative of real faith.
  • Tough as it may sound, leaders who have been around for the long haul and who believe deeply in the exercise of genuine faith are unintentionally driven by the need to play safe and operate within the proverbial comfort zones even though this may be strongly denied.
  1. There is a lack of trust in younger leaders to make sound decisions:

The big issue is: what are the “sound decisions”? Probably ones which are different from those which the older generation of leaders might expect….

  • And have all the decisions of the past been the correct ones anyway? Every leadership team has chalked up its own peculiar collection of mistakes and darted up blind alleys with the best of intentions.
  • Essentially there is a need for younger leaders to help us take new paths and trek into new territory for God and not only in matters of youth ministry but in the overall life of the congregation.
  • Sadly, when this does happen, the older guard are often much too quick to weigh in with their doomsday predictions and unwarranted criticism.
  • The retired leader who is willing to back the new guard even when their initiatives seem to be very different is a precious commodity indeed.
  1. There is a fear that younger leaders may want to make changes which will ultimately alter the direction of the church.

And this is exactly what is needed for some churches to avoid terminal illness!

  • Indeed, there will be something terribly astray if there are not fresh suggestions and strategies introduced into the leadership.
  • Further, it is highly unlikely that there will be a straight change in leadership from one generation to another. Rather, there will be a healthy mix of generations where there can occur mutual learning and respect if not energetic debate. The church will be the better for it, of course.
  • The great danger is that newer leaders may lose their motivation if there is a stone walling by those who are older.
  • One of the major reasons why church meetings tend to attract older rather than younger members is simply that, on key issues, there can be a spirited defence of what has been rather than an openness to what could be.
  • Add to this meeting processes which seem to be stuffy and heavy handed and it will quickly become unattractive to younger adults.
  1. There is a fear that younger leaders will not maintain the long-term doctrinal emphases which have been so important to the flavour of the church.

This raises profound questions about the nature of the church, its ministry and its connections with the environment around it….

  • Every church has its own particular tradition and heritage – the forces which have shaped its understanding of ministry and particular expression of the Gospel. These are not to be scoffed at or lost sight of. They are key to the way in which the church worships and witnesses.
  • The task of the leadership regardless of generation is to grasp the essence of these influences and develop approaches which may capture the flavour but which do not amount to ends in themselves.
  • Too often there is a temptation to preserve the heritage of the church as if it is the Gospel. This is not captivating for new leaders who are much more attuned to relationships and their implications for the effective life and witness of the congregation.
  • For better or worse, they are long on meaningful connections and short on history. This explains why some of the doctrinal battles which have been so engaging in the past are a total mystery to a younger generation who cannot now see the point of them.
  • Further, a younger generation is less likely to settle for fixed interpretations of the Bible. While concerned for getting the essentials of the faith clear, they will be much more at peace than their elders with those parts of the Scripture which are open to varying insights.
  • They will not be particularly attracted to rigid understandings which rule out all other responses that do not “fit” a specific doctrinal stance. This is a plus simply because it nurtures an openness to fresh views of the work of the Kingdom.
  • Much the same can be observed about approaches to evangelism and the mission of the congregation generally. While an older generation might yearn at times for the halcyon days of the past, a new generation of leaders will happily wrestle with fresh opportunities and challenges.
  • The outcomes will almost certainly be very different as a result of working to a new set of assumptions about the role of the church.
  • This does not mean that the older generation has nothing to offer. Far from it. It does, however, call for a new teamwork between generations where there is mutual stimulation, co-operation and support.
  • Without this accommodation and encouragement of younger leaders, the congregation will begin to drift inexorably into a downward spiral where the focus remains on meeting the needs of one generation at the expense of the others.
  • Sooner or later, the younger attenders will move on to other churches where a significant contribution may be made. An ageing congregation will result with limited scope for long term ministry beyond the life span of the present attenders.

So, how does a church embrace and encourage its younger adults who may have potential gifts for leadership?

Here are some off the cuff ideas….

  • Start early. Be on the lookout for leadership gifts right from the start including the teenage years. This takes more than clinical observation. It requires getting alongside the youth of the church and identifying those who show a capacity for leadership.
  • Pray for your young people. Young adults need your prayers as they find their feet in leading others. This is a long trip and the need for prayerful support is crucial.
  • Create opportunities. Look for ways to develop and exercise leadership gifts. Through small groups, working parties and youth activities encourage your young leaders to accept responsibility. Affirm what is done well and be ready to coach when things go a bit astray (as they will from time to time).
  • Keep your ear open to the heart and soul of your young adults. One of the hardest tasks for many long-term leaders is to stop pontificating long enough to tune in to what is being said, felt and done by the generations which follow.
  • Stand in their shoes. As much as you can, begin to understand the world as they see and experience it. This will rapidly sensitise you to the reasons why they may or may not be entering fully into the life of the church.
  • Make room. Educate your church for the need to have several young adults in the leadership of the congregation. One is not enough. Young adults need the companionship and support of one or two of their own age at least.
  • Put them up front. Find ways for your young leaders to lead. Otherwise the exercise will only amount to sitting in on meetings. Give them special projects to run with and then insist that they present the outcomes and recommendations to the church. This will be excellent training for them and will be wonderfully empowering and encouraging for other young people.

Is there a use by date for leaders?

In all of this there is always the suspicion that those who have served the church well over many years are being “pensioned off,” that they have passed their use by date, that they are on some sanctified scrap heap somewhere. Wrong.

  • There will always be a deep need for the wisdom that comes with the years of being on the journey with Jesus, of benefiting from the prayers and insight of those who have enjoyed and endured the challenges of serving the people of God.
  • But space has to be made for others whose turn it is to bear the burden in the heat of the day. They bring fresh vigour and life to the congregation in ways which might well be unexpected but which will be energising and challenging just because they are different.
  • It should never be the choice between the old and the new. Instead, it should ideally be the creative mix of maturity and youthful zest. Every congregation needs the best of both worlds.

To fail to prepare the way for younger leaders is to move towards an unnecessary greying of the church where, ultimately, the youth will feel out of place and surplus to needs. The shape of the church of tomorrow is being determined now. How many Timothys and Tinas do you have at your church and are you opening leadership doors for them?

Rev John Simpson