Are We Demanding too Much of Young Leaders?

Dr. Tim Foster - 8 November 2021

In this week’s blog, Centre Director Tim Foster argues that we need to rediscover the value of allowing leaders to grow up slowly. Young leaders need less pressure and more room to prepare, learn from others and make mistakes. At the same time, in our youth obsessed culture, we need to be wary of devaluing more mature leaders.

Alexander the Great created the largest empire the world had known by the age of 25. Joan of Arc turned a war around at 17. William Pitt became Prime Minister of England at 24. In 1915, Australian-born physicist Lawrence Bragg won the Nobel Prize when he was just 25.

Today a number of very young leaders are creating a huge impact through their leadership on issues such as climate change, race, and gender. Grace Tame, Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai are household names.

Some leading Christian figures also began making an impact at a remarkably young age. George Whitefield travelled to the Americas for the first of seven visits when he was 24. William Wilberforce entered parliament at 21. Billy Graham started preaching at 19.

There is something uplifting and hopeful about young leaders. Identifying, training and empowering young leaders, and giving them opportunities to step up into leadership, are vital for the future of the church. If we want to see younger congregations, innovation and energy, then we need young people leading them.

Yet our veneration of young leaders may have serious downsides. When we place too much value and heap too many expectations on younger leaders we may well do them a huge disservice, while also missing out on all that older leaders have to offer. Maybe it’s time to rethink how we view the relationship between leadership and age.

We Miss What Older Leaders Have to Offer
When Mark Driscoll visited Sydney in October 2008 he made a stinging critique of the Sydney church. He said that young people are often at the centre of a movement ‘everywhere but Sydney. I’m an older guy where I’m from – but here, I’m young. Young people are often at the centre of movements.’ He went on to say, ‘One of the reasons your church is so small is that your young men don’t get to lead them until they are old and they run out of gas before they get there.’ (1)

Certainly there can be downsides to older leaders (especially from the perspective of the younger ones). There is some evidence that older leaders are change resistant, inflexible, slow, and lacking in energy and drive. But, according to Darlene Howard, a psychologist emerita at Georgetown University, the balance of evidence is that, for most people, the ideal time to tackle leadership roles is in their mid-50s.. (2)

Older leaders, especially if they are self-aware and have invested in their development, are able to develop their ‘shadow side’. This means that the downsides of their strengths – for example a people-oriented leader may pay insufficient attention to tasks – have been addressed and they can more readily switch to their ‘unnatural’ leadership style as the situation demands.

It is not always the case, but the lack of drive can sometimes be a good thing. This may be because mature leaders are more secure and have less to prove. They know that ministry is a marathon and not a sprint, and that drivenness is not sustainable. They are therefore better able to trust and empower others, and to be gentle, patient, and empathetic. Idealism is replaced by a more measured and pragmatic recognition of the possible. Experience and mistakes have provided hard lessons that have been learnt and applied.

So the veneration of younger leaders can lead to a failure to recognise the value of the maturity and experience older leaders offer. The church that favours the young leader because they think he or she will attract the holy grail of ‘young families’ may miss out on a leader at the very point they have most to offer.

Doing Younger Leaders a Disservice
Perhaps the veneration of youth has its most deleterious impact on the young leaders themselves.

The situation is analogous to the cultural pressures that force children to grow up too fast. As one psychologist puts it, this creates ‘a psychological prison that the child is put into by their caregivers, where they are expected to be perfect, meet unrealistic standards, or fit a role that doesn’t belong to them.’ (3) We need to let children enjoy their childhoods without giving them responsibilities that they are not ready for.

I wonder if we inadvertently create unreasonable expectations of young leaders. The rookie vicar in their first role expects to turn a church around quickly and see marked results. The church planter who has only just turned 28 is expected to grow a church such that it is sustainable in just a couple of years. The assistant pastor is given responsibility for a congregation without the support and oversight they need.

These expectations lead to poor self-care, stress, workaholism and burnout. The rookie vicar desperate for quick results may well drive dramatic change but fail to consult, thereby marginalising the congregation, and in their youthful enthusiasm inadvertently generate serious conflict. The church planter who becomes obsessed with numbers overworks to the point of burnout in order to achieve the outcomes expected of them. Ministry trainees cut short their theological education so they can get out and meet the demands of ministry without completing some of the most foundational subjects such as theology of church or preaching. All because they are driven by a sense of expectation placed on them as young leaders.

For the sake of young leaders, and to better ensure they can build strong capabilities that will lead to a lifetime of fruitful ministry, we need to rediscover the value of growing up slowly. Taking the time to prepare well with a thorough theological education will serve them for a lifetime of ministry, as will engaging in an apprenticeship where they are well supervised, are allowed to make mistakes, and are not expected to be an overnight sensation.

We also need to encourage young people to see that they have a lifetime of growth and experience ahead of them, and that their best years are down the road. When they are older, they will be better leaders! You don’t need to be a star from the outset, but can grow into leadership, take time to learn, and make mistakes along the way. This would possibly also engender greater humility and a willingness to learn.

There will always be natural born leaders who, like Alexander the Great or Malala Yousafzai, have a tremendous impact before they are even 25. But they are the exception and should not become the standard. Most of us need time to grow, will make plenty of mistakes along the way, and may well have our best years as leaders ahead of us.