Make room for young leaders

Consider a call to some older leaders not to get off the bus, but to aggressively make room for younger leaders at the front.

What some aging Christians want from the younger generation is an invitation to lean on the local church, not to withdraw or retire. But others of the older generation may need a different challenge – a summons to cast aside suspicion of those young enough to be their offspring, a charge to shed a vision disparaging of the actual specimen of the next generation. Consider a call to some older leaders not to get off the bus, but to aggressively make room for younger leaders at the front.

Do not despise young people.

It was a two-part charge the aging apostle gave to his younger generation protege in 1 Timothy 4:12: “Let no one despise you because of your youth, but set the believers an example in words , in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Part of it goes to the younger generation: by displaying a model Christian posture in word and deed, don’t give the older generation any valid reason to despise your youth.

But the second part is for the aging generation that overhears the directive, like the church at Ephesus reading Paul’s letter over Timothy’s shoulder: in giving off a model Christian disposition toward brothers and sisters in Christ, grant the younger generation the benefit of the doubt. Don’t expect the worst from other believers, no matter how old they are. Let the gospel work on your subtle age biases.

Create space for new leadership.

In this generation, Larry Osborne has been a pastor and author helping the massive leadership transition from baby boomers to their millennial offspring. Whether in business, government or church, many have felt the strains as what was America’s greatest generation gave way to its larger offspring.

Osborne makes the observation that on the high school and college campuses, it seems “freshmen are always getting smaller”. As we age, the crop of incoming students each year seems less impressive than the previous class. If that’s true for only four years on campus, what about the long arc of adult life? In the church, says Osborne:

“Old people never graduate (at least not until they literally become old people and start dying). They monopolize the leadership table, excluding the next generation. This is one of the main reasons why most churches stop growing and lose their gospel touch (and cultural relevance) around the twentieth year.

Let the young eagles fly.

The Christian view of leadership is not a model of tenure in which the longest-serving person holds the seats of privilege and prominence for as long as he chooses. Rather, the strength is the other way: working proactively and assertively to nurture young leaders to fill our shoes and do our jobs better than us. This goes to the essence of the Great Commission to make disciples (Matthew 28:19) and applies it to church leadership. But such a vision of leadership is expensive. There is a price to pay, says Osborne:

“Leadership is a zero-sum game. One person’s emerging influence is always another person’s waning influence. This is why it is difficult to make room for young eagles, especially for those who already have a seat at the table.

Such a dream of deference and humility to raise new leaders may seem far-fetched in government and business, but shouldn’t it have its best chance in the church, where we follow one who came not to be served? but to serve (Mark 10:45)? Don’t we believe that true greatness lies in service, not in dominating and exercising authority (Mark 10:42)? We aim “in humility [to] count the most important others” and “seek not only to [our] own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).

But aren’t we then compromising wisdom in church leadership by replacing some qualified members of the older generation with those of the younger generation?

Let the young people speak.

On Sunday morning August 29, 1982, while the first of the millennials was still in diapers, a thirty-six-year-old baby boomer picked up Job 32:7-11 and preached on the young man Elihu. The sermon was titled “Let the Youth Speak”. That night the church was going to ordain twenty-seven-year-old Tom Steller, and John Piper wanted to prepare his congregation of gray heads to lay hands on such a youngster. The key verses were Job 32:8-9: “It is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand. It is not the old who are wise, nor the old who understand what is right. Piper says:

“The lesson Elihu is teaching us here is that it is not age that brings wisdom but the Spirit of God. There is no necessary correlation between gray hair and good theology. There is no necessary connection between a shriveled face and a wise heart. . . . “

Of course, therefore, there is no necessary connection between youth and wisdom either. What Elihu has done is remove age as the dominant consideration in deciding who is wise and understanding. He teaches us that there can be madness in the old and madness in the young; wisdom in the young and wisdom in the old. When we search for a source of wisdom, we don’t end our search with the question, “How old is he?” We end with the question, “Who has the Spirit of wisdom and understanding?”

Extract of Workers for your joy by David Mathis, ©2022. Used with permission from Crossroadsa publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

Dora W. Clawson