by Dick Wamsley
I am serving as interim minister for a rural church in southern Illinois that averages about 100 in worship attendance. They have four elders. Three of those elders are 40 years of age or younger. That unusual ratio of young elders did not just happen. It was an intentional decision made by their four previous elders, who were all over 60 years old at the time.
About three years ago they began to see that they were in a rut as a church. They were hearing comments like “we’ve always done it that way” and young adults were not engaged in the life of the church. So they challenged some of their young men to consider opportunities for leadership as deacons and elders.
At this church, elders serve three years, so three of them determined that when their three years elapsed, they would not serve again. Instead, they would add a younger leader. The first of those three young men was 37 at the time he became an elder in 2018. Two more young elders came on the next year, one about 40 years old and the other about 30. They also added several younger deacons during that two-year period.
During the transition to younger elders, they kept the congregation informed about why they were intentionally encouraging younger men to serve the congregation as elders, that it was time for a younger generation to lead. They assured the people that the change in leadership was purposeful and that the younger elders were not just “taking over.”
While there were some questions from older members at first, the transition has been smooth. When I came to serve with them last January, I was impressed by their eldership. They were leading, not just maintaining the status quo. The congregation was vibrant with an eye to the future. They saw how their transition in senior ministers was an opportunity to break out of the “rut” they were feeling and make a greater impact on the communities they serve.
The first younger elder to join in 2018 is now leading the elder team. His leadership has been critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. After several Sundays of online worship, the elders decided to begin services in the church building using the Center for Disease Control guidelines for face masks, social distancing, surface cleaning, serving communion, closing off sections of the building and other preventive measures to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. In spite of their best efforts, after eleven weeks of Sunday worship several members tested positive for the virus. So the elders met immediately and decided to take another three-week break from live services. As leaders, they were decisive when they needed to be.
Churches of any size need to occasionally evaluate the demographics of their leaders. Are most of them from a single generation or two? Is it apparent that there is some disconnect among the leaders and the younger generations? Are the leaders encouraging younger men to consider taking leadership roles as elders or deacons? Are they developing formal or informal mentoring relationships with those who express an interest in those roles?
Intentionality and expressions of confidence are keys to developing young leaders. It may take longer than two or three years to bring new young leaders on board, but until there is a plan to intentionally challenge younger men to take up the mantle of leadership, it will not happen.