Leading with the next generation

Paul Johnson

Senior pastor, Woodridge Church

Point Magazine // September 2019

I was 20 years old in 1975 and preparing to head back to Bethel College (now University) for my senior year. I had spent the summer leading Bible studies, preaching and surveying the community for a church plant in Shawano, Wisconsin. One August Sunday, the district (now Converge Great Lakes) had a “real pastor” check out the church plant.

At a potluck, the pastor turned down an opportunity to lead the church. But he left the district and church team with a question to ponder.

“What about the kid? Why don’t you ask the kid to stay?”

Young leaders are worth the effort

They did ask me to stay. So, after marrying on Aug. 30 that year, my wife Darla (also 20 years old) and I not only started what we called playing house, but also playing church. I became a Christ-follower when I was 17 years old. Now, three years later, I was pastor of the Shawano church plant.

There was so much we didn’t know, but Darla and I had what many leaders have: spiritual commitment, spiritual gifts and bold faith. What we didn’t have was what all young leaders don’t have: wisdom from experience, practice that builds skills, spiritual covering and opportunity.

Although Darla and I were young, people like Elmer Johnson (the district executive minister) gave us an opportunity for ministry. He believed in our spiritual commitment and also in his ability to help us develop by providing spiritual covering — being there for us when we made mistakes or faced challenges. I have never forgotten that opportunity.

Overlooking young leaders

As Christ-followers, we believe when we put faith in Jesus, we receive all of the Holy Spirit. We all have spiritual gifts and ministry provided by God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4-6).

But young leaders have a distinct spiritual advantage. They often have a unique vision and intense faith. I believe they often see how God wants to transform the church and reach people for Christ. We lose a tremendous opportunity for spiritual impact when we don’t empower our young leaders.

Churches often don’t utilize young leaders for two reasons. First, they believe in a secular framework that says young leaders need to develop all of their skills through education and work experience before they serve.

The framework ignores the work of the Holy Spirit and the presence of spiritual gifts.

Second, young leaders in their teens and early 20s require extra spiritual covering and development. In other words, young leaders are always riskier and more work. But the extra work is well worth it.

Identifying young leaders

At Woodridge Church in Medina, Minnesota, we start developing young leaders early. We recruit 20-30 summer associates who run our preschool and grade school ministry over the summer.

For many students, this is their first paid job. They fill out job applications, take part in interviews and are intentionally discipled as part of their summer experience. Many of them (usually 16-18 years old) volunteer the rest of the year in these ministry areas.

I often serve with these associates at our summer Super Hero Camp for preschoolers or at VBS. It is exciting to see the ideas they have to improve our ministry. We pay $10-$12 per hour and give a $100 bonus if the student applies his or her earnings toward a missions trip.

We lose a tremendous opportunity for spiritual impact when we don’t empower young leaders.

Each year we offer 3-5 internships to college students during the school year. These last a semester and can be repeated up to four semesters. Some of these interns come out of our high school summer associates program. Others come from local universities. We pay them and include them in staff functions.

Promising interns can become staff associates, whose positions usually last for one or two years. We include staff associates in vision planning, budgeting, spiritual ministry and pastoral care.

Opportunity, training, coaching and covering

We give interns and associates opportunity, training, coaching and spiritual and leadership covering. “Opportunity” means we provide interns with ministry responsibilities, including leading, teaching and recruiting. We trust God in whom he provides. Sometimes we have had many more worship interns and associates than we could use. Our worship pastor, age 25, a former intern, has to scale back her direct leadership to give them all an opportunity.

When you give opportunity, young leaders seek out wisdom, training and coaching. But they will often ignore wisdom and coaching when these come before ministry. Not only do they ignore wisdom and coaching, so do all of us.

Between training and coaching, I invest up to 40 hours to get a speaker ready for a Sunday. I use the “Square” discipleship and coaching tool described in Mike Breen’s Building a Discipleship Culture.

I will often hear the first 10 messages a leader gives before I am confident that he or she doesn’t need to present it to me 3-4 times out loud before teaching on a Sunday. This summer, I gave several emerging leaders opportunities to teach our adult services. I often heard their messages 6-8 times before they presented them.

Because we have allowed them to serve, these twenty-something leaders goes through this grueling process.

Philippians 4:9 describes the ultimate goal: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

We train and coach until they put into practice what they have learned — not just their demonstrating their skills, such as teaching and leading, but also their character and spiritual development. I am amazed at how quickly young leaders mature when, with training and coaching, you give them an opportunity.

When I tell leaders in their late 20s or early 30s that they are no longer young leaders, they look at me with puzzled confusion. I tell them, “You are now an older leader who needs to invest in young leaders.”

I am amazed at how quickly young leaders mature when, with training and coaching, you them an opportunity.

Often the older leaders and teachers I first gave a ministry opportunity to will lead young leaders in this development process much better than I had led them.

Lastly, we provide leadership and spiritual covering for all leaders, but particularly for young leaders. The Apostle Paul said to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young” (1 Tim. 4:12). But people do look down on young leaders. So, if we are going to develop the next generation, we need to provide spiritual and leadership covering.

I’ve learned so much about covering from our predominately African-American Converge churches, in particular, from pastor John Jenkins of First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Maryland. Several of pastor Jenkins’ Whiteboard Leadership talks on covering are available on the converge.org resources page.

(Side note: Are you taking advantage of the fantastic leadership insights found in Whiteboard Leadership talks by Converge president Scott Ridout and other leaders of our movement? It is my go-to leadership resource.)

“I wish I had been that wise at his age.”

Here is my take on leadership and spiritual covering: I tell our young leaders, “You are covered. Your mistakes and challenges are my mistakes and challenges.”

I use the phrase “borrow my authority.” By this, I mean that if a young leader is going to be in a difficult meeting, he or she can invite me to attend — not to lead, but to cover.

When young leaders speak at our adult services, I’m not on vacation; I’m in the front row taking notes. At times this means being with young leaders when they admit they made a mistake.

I try to be with them, and after they speak, often say, “Don’t you love serving with leaders who are humble and admit their mistakes? I wish I had been that wise at his (or her) age.” It’s one way I provide covering.

Because the young leaders know that I — or other leaders on our team — will provide covering, they tend to invite us into an issue when it is a challenge and not yet a mistake. Often, I have hard talks with young leaders about character development. Because these come in the context of leadership and spiritual covering, the hard talks are received.

I wish we always lived up to this. There have been big disappointments with people whom we failed and also with those who failed us. But we always come back to the fact that we have to develop leaders. Many of these principles could be applied to developing any leader at any age. But empowering young leaders is so critical.

Leighton Ford, who spent the last chapter of his ministry mentoring young leaders, says, “In evangelical ministry, leadership skips a generation because the next generation isn’t developed. Instead of forward movement, that transition results in a stop and restart.”

Today pray, “What about the kid? Lord Jesus, who are the young leaders I need to invest in?”

Converge residencies can help your church develop the next generation of leaders to prepare for your next season of ministry.

Paul Johnson, Senior pastor, Woodridge Church

Paul Johnson is senior pastor of Woodridge Church, Medina, Minnesota.

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