Engaging young leaders: Advice for the church

When younger people are added to a leadership team, something changes. Last spring I coached a group of young leaders in a leadership retreat. It was exciting. In the course of one and a half days, they analyzed the benefits and challenges their ministry faced. They assessed which challenges needed addressing. They addressed each of them, made the decisions necessary, assigned responsibilities for carrying them out and discerned a vision for the next year of ministry. So much got done, and yet there was time for prayer, play and reflection. God’s presence was vibrant. I was reminded of the strengths and advantages of young leaders.
Idealism: Life generally gets more complex as we age. This affects our ideals. The values and visions that guide our thinking and actions become deeper and more nuanced, building the wisdom that shapes good leadership. Often, however, the basic simplicity of our founding values becomes hidden, shadowed by the opaque layers of life-shaped experience, especially in the presence of urgencies and anxieties. Young leaders are more in touch with their stated ideals. Their values are not as time-tested, and may even be “immature” in some ways, but their values, taught to them by their elders, are more clearly present. When they have a voice, young leaders can be the value holders in a leadership group.
Creativity: Many of my friends, especially as they approach 50, have become more open-minded as they learn to embrace their growing wisdom. That’s a refreshing thing to observe. However, open-mindedness is not the same as creativity. As we age, the work of creativity tends to take more effort. For youth, it can be an effort, but also energizing. This is valuable at 9:00 p.m. when a church council is struggling with a significant issue requiring a better solution.
Loyalty (lack of): Much has been written about the lack of loyalty in those who are presently under 45. It’s true, but it can be a good thing! Many of our churches have suffered because of our “loyalty” to ideas and practices that should have been tossed out years ago – procedures that were great at one time but have simply gone past their expiration date. Young leaders can help us get rid of whatever hinders.
Courageous conversations: Courage is needed for leadership and is not restricted to any one generation. However, different generations are courageous about different things. Young leaders broaden the courage bandwidth of a church council.
This is important because we need courage for the difficult conversations required of all church leadership. Much damage is done in our churches when these conversations are ignored or handled badly. One of the most useful tools for navigating through difficult conversations is the ability to base them on shared values. Young leaders tend to be in touch with these values. In addition, many of our current youth are trained in restorative practices and have been reared in a more collaborative culture.  
Fresh Perspective: There is a humbling thing that happens when we invite guests from elsewhere to attend our churches. We suddenly become hyper-aware of unhelpful patterns: unclear phrases, bad coffee, awkward welcoming practices and exclusive foyer behaviour. This is also what happens when a young elder, a grown child of the congregation, first enters the council room. We ask ourselves questions like: “Why are we doing this?” Especially when we’ve always done it this way, unquestioningly. Adding young leaders brings fresh perspective.

Called to the present
The church is called to the present. Therefore, leaders need to understand their times. That can be difficult. In a popular story, several blind men try to describe an elephant. One touches the twitching tail, another, the fleshy trunk, another, the solid leg and another, the bristly belly. Each man thinks he now knows the elephant, but really only understands a small part of the whole. Similarly, understanding our times takes as many perspectives as possible. Having younger people in leadership will help council better understand the people they are shepherding.
Here are some practical suggestions to incorporate young leaders from the age of 16 and up in the formal leadership structure of the church – in church council.
Multigenerational leadership: It has been observed by social scientists that there are about five generations in many churches. Each generation is distinctive, with unique priorities, interests and ways of life. So a multigenerational congregation is really a multicultural congregation. Multicultural congregations are best lead by leadership that is truly multicultural. A good workshop that helps congregations grapple positively with their multigenerational context is called “Cultural Intelligence Building” available through CRCNA’s Office of Race Relations.
Gifted leadership: In my experience facilitating “Discover Your Spiritual Gifts” workshops, I’ve observed that approximately one in 15 people have leadership as one of their top spiritual gifts. The actual ratio varies significantly, but it’s not a high percentage! A church council needs more spiritual gifts than just leadership, but when that gift finds its voice, it does much essential good – even if that voice is young.
I recommend that every church have a gift bank, a list of the spiritual gifts of all members. Then, when we ask a person to consider joining the leadership team (or any ministry), we are doing so because of the particular spiritual gifts the individual has, not only because he or she happens to belong to a particular age cohort.
Along with becoming a gift-based church (a biblical model of ministry discovered and promoted by Paul), the church becomes committed to training and developing the gifts. The two most successful methods of training, which work best hand in hand, are teaching and on-the-job experience. These reinforce each other when done together.
Values and beliefs: There are often some current questions that churches fear to deal with – understandably so. These issues of the faith can be divisive. So there is a growing tendency to talk and teach less about what we believe. This is not helping our churches and it is disengaging our youth who still believe, thankfully, that well-held values and beliefs are essential leadership tools.  
Even when the issues of the day are difficult to decide, it is better to admit “I don’t know about this one” than to avoid talking about them at all. Better to name a polarity on an issue than to pretend the issue doesn’t exist. Younger folks need to be trusted to handle polarities without labeling. Because of their upbringing in a more collaborative culture, they may possess more skills in this regard than their parents. I encourage churches to talk about the issues that affect faith and to persevere in appreciative teaching of the basics of what we believe.
A mentoring culture: When I was a very young youth elder, I was paired with an older youth elder who was an excellent mentor. It was a golden time of accelerated learning for me. There was no formal mentorship program in the church at that time – but that elder had a heart for a young man who desired to serve God. Developing a culture of mentoring requires more than a champion or two. A leadership commitment is required. It can be done and it will build fruitfulness – for the younger mentored leader, but also for the mentor.  

There are challenges involved in engaging young leaders in council. However, if there are young people in your church with suitable gifts, there are surely ways to overcome these challenges. The Synod of the CRCNA has found a way make it work – and its structure is certainly more formal than that of a local church council.  
When a younger person asks the question, “Why should I bother to join church council?” the answer had better be something other than “It’s your responsibility.” The language of obligation needs to be replaced with the language of opportunity. But opportunity without clarity is not compelling to any generation. Therefore the answer to the above question needs to be about a mission that is clear and compelling. And the questioner needs to be convinced that the current leadership is committed to it.
The suggestions above are not monumental or impossible. But I believe they are powerful if a congregation implements them diligently. Avoiding this essential part of leadership activity is costly for the gifted youth who are not engaged and for their congregations. The youth are a gift to the church – we all know that.  But they are also a gift to the leadership. Engaging young leaders builds the church today.

  • Jack Tacoma is a Ministry Specialist with CRC Home Missions. He coaches churches and leaders.

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