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Lambs, Leopards and Little Children:

Developing Young Leaders to Serve the Church

Calling: A Journal for Leaders Who Nurture Vocation
Volume I – Number 1
Fall 2004

By Dr. Terry L. Brensinger, Senior Pastor, Grantham Church (Brethren in Christ)

I was just sixteen at the time, and I still do not know just what my pastor saw in me. I had only been a Christian for several months, yet he asked me to preach anyway one Sunday morning. With a sense of exhilaration previously unfamiliar to me, I stood before the 400 people attendingour United Methodist Church. My life has not been the same since.

In Isaiah 11, the prophet delivers what in my view stands as a formative statement on developing young leadership. As he envisions what Walter Brueggemann aptly describes as the ‘real world’—wolves, lambs, leopards, calves and lions living together—Isaiah announces that “a little child shall lead them.” This alarming picture of a little child leading both gentle and ravenous animals continues to stretch my imagination and those of many people around me.

The congregation I now serve wants to empower young people to lead its members (both the gentle and ravenous types!). Some of our reasons for encouraging young leadership arise from traditional ideals about the value of youth. We believe, for example, that young people comprise the church of tomorrow. Providing teens and college students with meaningful ministry opportunities, as my pastor did for me when I was still young, can literally change their lives. Young people live, study, and work in communities all around us. We cannot simply ignore them.

But we at the Grantham Church also want to empower our young people for a different reason. We pursue leadership opportunities for youth because young people have a great deal to offer us! They help us to discover, often in profound ways, what the church of today should be like and how we can build it together. Young people exude a fresh creativity and unbridled enthusiasm, not to mention their willingness—indeed passion—to think outside the box. They provide innovative perspectives and new windows into the world. These windows invite all of us to see life in a more genuine or honest light. It is hardly a coincidence that, as Isaiah envisions his future peaceable kingdom, he sees young people working at the forefront.

In our congregation, we consciously work to prioritize the cultivation of young leaders. I regularly raise vocational issues in worship services and other settings. I encourage staff and volunteers to do the same. We read books about ‘call’ and vocation and discuss them in small group settings. And we implement formal programs designed to provide opportunities for young people to explore emerging interests in ministry. Our G.A.S. (“God’s Active Servants”) program, for example, offers a supportive context for selected high school students to develop their leadership gifts. Our internship program enables up to six young people, typically college students, to serve on our staff each year. While these interns share some common responsibilities and experiences, each of them also selects one area of ministry to which he or she wants to direct special attention. Finally, our pastor in residence program, just now getting off the ground, will invite a recent college or seminary graduate to join us full-time for one or two years. Each of these young people is personally mentored and given meaningful responsibilities in our congregation.

More important than any of these formal programs, however, is our increasing commitment to integrate young people into the life of the church in the broadest sense. We try very hard, for instance, to make our worship services intergenerational. On any given Sunday, you might find a teenager reading the Scripture, eading the singing, or acting in a drama. From time to time you will even find them preaching. Much the same thing could be said about our children and senior adults. We want our church to be a faith community in which people of all ages freely participate in corporate worship, not merely as respondents in the pews, but also as what Philip Yancey refers to as “prompters” on the stage. Such an intergenerational atmosphere creates the type of environment in which young people think more naturally about ministry and leadership. Ministry, in other words, becomes a vocational option that arises naturally from the daily practices of our congregational life.

Through informal and formal initiatives, I have watched our congregation grow increasingly excited about nurturing young people. Not only do our people wait eagerly to hear our intergenerational voices, but they also recognize the value of developing the next generation for ministry. Six young adults from our church are currently pursuing seminary training. Others are headed in that direction. With the encouragement of the Fund for Theological Education, our
church is also organizing a lay-driven task force whose primary responsibility will be coordinating and further developing mentoring activities. To date, I have asked two individuals in our congregation to serve on the task force. Both have agreed enthusiastically. One volunteered to chair the task force; the other offered to serve as secretary! Without a doubt, watching young people committed to ministry inspires other members of the congregation to become involved themselves.

One consuming idea keeps arising as I reflect on young people in church leadership: we who are ministers need to model a passion for ministry ourselves. We also need to cultivate a corporate culture in which the gifts and perspectives of young adults are celebrated. Appropriate and effective programs can subsequently grow out of such a corporate culture, but the programs themselves cannot carry the day.

Isaiah had it right a few thousand years ago. Imagining the enormous potential of young people—“…a little child shall lead them”— remains a crucial pillar upon which many of our future dreams for the church rest.

Terry Brensinger is the senior pastor of the Grantham Church (Brethren in Christ), a 500-member congregation adjacent to Messiah College in Grantham , PA. He was previously a professor of Old Testament and chair of the Biblical and Religious Studies Department at the college, where he
continues to teach part-time. His email address is tbrensin@messiah.edu


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