As a seminary president, I go to a lot of denominational meetings. Usually the average age is somewhere north of “mature,” but recently I attended a church meeting in the Midwest and was pleasantly surprised at the number of younger pastoral leaders — and even seminarians — who were present. So I asked around. What was drawing younger leaders to a denominational gathering?
Someone told me that every committee in this judicatory region had a designated slot for a pastoral leader younger than 40. These under-40s even had their own Facebook group to keep in touch. Literally, a seat at the table was making a difference, helping them to be more connected with life in the larger church, enabling them to learn from and teach their elders in the faith, to receive from and give to our denominational body.
I’m an aging boomer, and perhaps I’m in the minority, but I think that participation in denominational life is one of the ways that spiritual life is nurtured. If we want these rich experiences to be passed along to younger leaders, we need to think carefully about how to do it. Do the structures of our corporate life need reforming — our church-wide task forces, committees, and conventions? Do we need to reach out with greater clarity and hospitality to welcome the input of younger pastoral leaders? Have we asked promising young leaders what would encourage them to employ their gifts in support of both local ministries and the wider church?
In chapters 13 through 15 of the book of Acts, we see a case study of what can happen when an organizational center of influence changes (in this case, from Jerusalem to Antioch). Several principles from those chapters have instructed me — including the simple facts that established leaders bear the responsibility for initiating the process of empowering emerging leaders, and that inevitable tensions in church life are best neutralized by mature leaders who value the effectiveness of the church over the maintenance of their own preferences.
Both the new-and-improved and the tried-and-true can easily become idols. Our goal cannot be simply to embrace one or the other, but we — established and emerging leaders alike — should be mindful that the structures we create to express the life of our church need constant evaluation so that they fairly represent Christ’s Kingdom.
Seminaries may be one place where such conversations can begin. For example, we in leadership can invite seminarians to consider what they expect out of denominational life and whether they hope to influence their denomination now or in the future. We can ask them to reflect on how to bring about changes they feel God is calling our denomination to realize. And we can urge them to explore the paths of denominational leadership that are open to them.
Those of us in leadership positions should do our part. Younger pastors have many gifts to offer our denominations, but they won’t break down the doors. Let’s open the doors and clear the barriers with gracious hospitality, ready to see what God has in store.