This will be the last in my three-part series about passing the torch to the next generation of leaders. I have been tremendously encouraged by the feedback I’ve received from the two previous articles and have come to realize we find ourselves in a spot where we have to be intentional about the future of our brotherhood. Each church leader, each regional family, and each continental group needs to ask ourselves: Do we have a plan? I’d like to humbly suggest some things that might just help all of us be more intentional.
Look Into the Future
I get it. There’s so much to do! I lead a church here in Seattle of nearly 600 members. We have a young staff, some very effective programs, a pretty good-sized budget, and layers of influence. My weeks, just like yours, are very busy. It’s far too easy to put your head down and fail to look up. Before I was in the ministry, I was a young man trying to be an architect, which meant I spent a lot of time (sometimes all day) staring at very small, detailed blueprints. If I wasn’t looking closely at those, I was trying to learn this new thing called CAD on the computer. After a couple of years of this, I realized I was having problems with my eyes, it was hard to focus. I immediately went to the eye doctor, and after taking a couple of tests and learning what I did all day, he said, “you are becoming myopic, which is a fancy word for near-sighted.” I was staring so intently at the small details right in front of me, I was losing focus on things farther away.
The solution? He advised me to stop every 15 minutes during the day and focus on something way down the hall from my office! In other words, take the time to focus farther away. Honestly, it was a valuable lesson then, and has been something I’ve come back to now. For us called with building God’s church: regularly take the time to look up from the details of today and focus on something much farther away. Are you having discussions in your church about things like: Where are we headed? How are we investing now for the future? What do we want to see in 5/10 years? Everyone has to engage these questions somehow, or we will build our ministries in a very short-sighted way.
Have a Financial Plan
This one gets tricky. Not everything we invest in costs us money, but without setting aside some money and resources, we will have a very hard time raising up the next generation of leaders. I’m not saying it’s easy, and has to be done with care, especially since so many of our full-time leaders are diligently thinking about their own livelihood and have good ambitions to retire in a healthy way someday. I could be wrong, but I think most church Board of Directors would welcome a conversation about creatively setting aside some money for the next generation, while still helping their current senior staff feel taken care of and achieve their goals. I’m not sure I would work for a church whose BOD cared passionately about one but not the other. Having said that, here are some courageous questions we should be asking:
- Are our senior staff members engaged in good financial planning? Do they have a clear way to replace themselves and their salaries someday? Are they currently putting things away for retirement? These are things their local church needs to be sensitively talking with them about. On the administrative side, let’s be sure to understand this is a sensitive topic for ministry staff. On the ministry staff side, let’s please not get into the ugly habit of hanging onto our jobs at all costs – especially if we have failed to maintain an inspiring vision. Let’s work together humbly and carefully.
- Would the congregation, if asked, be willing to give more for some young people? Have you asked? I know a lot of churches in need of young people, but I also know too many ministers who haven’t asked people to give more. It’s easy to get afraid and assume there are too many “asks” already. There may be, but you also may find a lot of people inspired to dig even deeper if they see a clear plan for the future. Ask.
- Are we who set the budgets including enough for young people in regard to training, internships, travel to conferences, etc.? Let’s be sure we’re prioritizing the next generation in our budget.
Create a Culture that Empowers and Gives Away Influence
One of the many things I love about the ministry strategy we embrace here in Seattle is that we try our best to help people feel like they own the church. Decisions have to be made, but where possible we try to collaborate (yes, it takes more time) together with each demographic beforehand. None of us here love meetings (gotta have them every now and then though!), but we do love surveys, polls, and vibrant discussions. It keeps us on our toes and helps us intentionally think about what the church looks like through each group’s eyes.
Amazon is one of the fastest growing companies in the world right now and is headquartered here in Seattle. Their founder, Jeff Bezos, recently told all employees and shareholders that Amazon is a “Day One” company, meaning each day is to be treated like a start up! He invites ideas from everywhere and is always looking for ways to avoid becoming stagnant. Is it any wonder why the next generation is flocking to companies like this? Truth is, good, decisive leadership in a church is biblical, and if we aim to please everyone, we will violate the scriptures at some point. On the other hand, in areas where influence and decisions can be “given away,” are we letting go and trusting others to step up. This stuff doesn’t necessarily matter to everyone, but BOY it matters to the younger generation. As it relates to creativity and vision, let’s be sure the church they worship in doesn’t lag too far behind the companies they work at.
Provide Ample Training
Recently I asked Lynne Green how old she and Scott were when they planted the Hong Kong church. She reminded me they were 27! I know they happened to be two of the most talented people we know, and I know it’s been done plenty of times, but that’s still pretty young to plant a church oversees. I began to think…. why don’t we see more of that? I’m not just talking about letting young people lead mission team plantings, but actually letting young people step out and lead even though they’re young. One of the reasons? Sometimes we’re not as intentional about training as we used to be. Lynne said they were given multiple venues for training the year before they left, with an eye toward them leading a church. We have to get creative about identifying the young people who can lead churches and feel good about putting them through some rigorous training, even letting them cut their teeth in our established churches. Also, let’s be careful not to needlessly “raise” the age of young people. I hate to break it to you, but 40 is not the new 27!
Develop and Maintain a Strong Biblical Ethic
Timothy was a young guy trying to do ministry in Ephesus without the presence of his trainer, Paul. But Paul sent him some instructions about persevering, and gave him some solid reminders:
“Command and teach these things. 12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:11-13).
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead,a and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
Paul was very clear with Timothy: stay completely devoted to God and his word, no matter what’s going on around you! We have to dispel the modern myth that says young people don’t want clear, strong, biblical teaching. It’s just not true. Yes, they are demanding we talk about it in a way they understand, and they sure do have a lot more layers of nuance than I remember having at that age but make no mistake – most of them are drawn to the boundaries God lays out.
A few years ago, another brother in Seattle and I were curious as to how a local church here in Seattle was attracting and retaining hundreds of millennials. I got online and watched a lot of sermons by the main preacher. I’m not sure what I expected (dumbed-down sermons and light entertainment maybe?), but what I heard was clear, strong directives to use the scriptures as a guide, not the world around you! At the time, it seemed more hard-line than a lot of the stuff in our own church! The lesson? Talk about the Bible in language that speaks to young people and be sure to discuss the thing that matter to THEM (women’s roles versus the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example), but do not water down God’s truth for them. They simply aren’t demanding that. Let’s get creative but maintain a strong commitment to biblical truth in our churches.
Find Ways to Hear Their Voice
This last suggestion might be the most important: create and develop ways to find out what they are thinking about the church we are building. It’s not easy, and it won’t be accomplished just by telling them from the pulpit that you’re interested in what they think. They have to be convinced of your genuine interest and then pulled in. One thing we’ve recently started in Seattle is a “Next Generation Council.” It is an idea presented to me by a young professional brother in his 20’s, and it is based on a leadership program started at his job. Create a place where the young people (under 33) can talk about the culture in their church in a way that then interacts with church leadership. The goal here is to create a committee of invested, spiritual individuals (led by one of their own) and give them talking points that will help inform us of the culture we’re building in the church. My experience here so far is that they will be very responsible with this, and it will help me understand what they value as I help the church with current programs and future visions.
I hope these thoughts have blessed you in some way. They are just my ideas. I respect the work everyone is doing, and I trust we’re all thinking in some way about how to empower the next generation to step up and lead us into the future. The churches we are building are worth it, the people behind us care about it, and God’s mission demands it.