By John Derry
Sociologists have identified certain characteristics associated with contemporary generations, differences church leaders will find helpful as they seek to resolve conflict and bring generations together to achieve common goals. One generation is not better or worse than another. They are just different, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
The Silent Generation or “Tradition-alists” (born between 1925 and 1946) lived through the Great Depression and World War II and experienced the postwar boom in America. They are known for loyalty, a strong work ethic, respect for authority, and resistance to change. They are very civic-minded and prefer leadership by hierarchy.
Baby Boomers (1946–64) found themselves in the midst of technology growth, the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution. Their values include dedication, team spirit, and a preference for leadership by consensus. Boomers like challenges, are driven to achieve, and are even inclined to be workaholics. They also have an obsession with youth and don’t like the thought of growing old.
People born between 1965 and 1982 are often referred to as Generation X or the “Me Generation.” They grew up with video games, the Internet, and MTV during a time when there was a marked shift in societal values. This group is perceived by some to be skeptical and apathetic. They are not impressed with authority and look for leadership through competence. A good work-life balance is very important to them, with time for family and personal pursuits.
Generation Y (also called the Millennials, born 1982–2000) is estimated to be about three times the size of the preceding generation, at least 60 million. The high school graduating class in 2009 is projected to be the largest in our nation’s history, and Millennials are more likely to attend college than any previous generation. Facebook, cell phones, and socializing are part of their lifestyle, and due to the influence of globalization, they are very open-minded and tolerant. Achievement is important to them and that is how they identify successful leadership.
We must consider how we can best equip the next generation of leaders. Merely placing someone in a position of influence or assigning a title doesn’t make that person a leader. Leadership must be cultivated and accomplished intentionally, giving consideration to the unique characteristics of potential leaders in each generation. As elders, ministers, teachers, and parents, we should be thinking creatively about how to develop this pool of leadership talent for the future. The task may not be as overwhelming as one might think, if we simply approach it with a plan in mind.
Identify. The Millennial Generation consists of those who are age 26 and younger, with most of them still in high school or college. How can you identify those who have genuine leadership potential? While there are a number of fine leadership assessment instruments, it’s not necessary to start there. Sometimes we are drawn to certain charismatic personalities or physical characteristics that we think should indicate leadership. Meanwhile, we can remember Jim Collins’s research in Good to Great. He found the most enduring and successful companies had CEOs he identified as “level five leaders,” and they were unassuming and reserved yet totally committed to their cause.
Over the past 30-plus years I’ve worked with college students, I’ve had the opportunity to observe leaders develop during this formative stage in their life. They are beginning to establish their own identity as they explore options for the future. Young men and women I’ve hired have grown professionally and now hold positions of significant influence in churches and corporations around the world.
In potential leaders I’ve looked for character, commitment, spiritual maturity, self-discipline, and the ability to relate well to others. One can see these qualities in young people through their interaction on service projects or mission trips. We need to be cautious and not overlook the individual who faithfully serves in the background or the proverbial “diamond in the rough” who just needs an opportunity to show his or her capabilities.
Invest. Our churches invest literally millions of dollars in facilities and high-tech audio-visual equipment, all of which will depreciate over time. How much are we investing to develop competent leaders to disciple others and give direction to our churches, mission organizations, and schools? Do we consider budgeting resources to send these young men and women to conferences or colleges where they will be properly prepared? It would be foolish to think that somehow there will be a vast reservoir of talent in the future if we do nothing to build it now.
There are a host of excellent resources available.
• Growingleaders.com is a Web site dedicated to developing young Christian leaders who will transform society.
• Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion collaborated to establish Youth In Ministry, an outreach to encourage ministry as a career. Participants reflect on where their leadership skills might best be used by God.
• Christ In Youth conferences have served us well as a place for young people to start getting in touch with their leadership gifts.
• Lincoln Christian College hosts an annual Biblical Worldview Seminar for high school-age youth. The instruction helps establish the kind of foundation every church leader needs in order to make good decisions.
• Hope International University conducts “Dare to Lead” conferences for high school student leaders. The program is an intense look at one’s leadership ability combined with actual leadership experiences and exercises designed to motivate students to consider where God can use their gifts.
Every church should identify young people who would grow at meetings like these. Then make the necessary investment to ensure they can take advantage of the opportunity.
Involve. Jesus knew one of the best ways to develop leaders is to give them hands-on experience. After investing himself in future leaders, he sent them out for on-the-job training that included both success and failure. He wanted them to understand not just the rewards but the frustrations and challenges they would encounter. Leadership development is not an event, it is a process, and it requires innovative thinking to find ways to get people involved.
Shepherd of the Hills church in Porter Ranch, California, is working to raise up leaders from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. The church has established a mentoring program for minority high school students that challenges them to consider their leadership responsibility within the kingdom of God.
This approach is one important way to assist others in discovering their gifts. Mentoring works well with this generation. Relationships are very important to Millennials. They seek an experiential faith that is authentic and practical. They want to make that journey with someone who is willing to get involved and to be transparent in their interactions—someone they can depend on to pray for them and stand by them as they struggle to become like Christ.
Many leaders are serving churches around the world today primarily because someone showed a personal interest in them and encouraged and pushed them at just the right time to “test their wings” of leadership in a supportive environment. The most successful youth ministries may not necessarily be those that have figured out how to attract large crowds, but those that engage in serious discipleship that facilitates meaningful relationships and accountability. It is this kind of culture that produces strong leaders.
Inspire. We live in a time when the focus often falls on leaders who have been guilty of betraying the trust that was placed in them. At the same time we regularly hear criticism of humble, faithful, and godly servants who don’t live up to artificial standards imposed by those on the sidelines. Sometimes we’re inclined to talk about the burden of leadership and forget to emphasize the blessing and privilege it is to serve in positions of positive influence. To watch people’s lives change, or to help a church or other organization fulfill its vision and rise to new levels of outreach are the kinds of gratifying experiences that come with being involved as a servant-leader.
We need to communicate the joy of leadership and challenge young people to aspire to such roles. Whether you are part of the Silent, Boomer, or X generation, be on the lookout for that young person who may become an outstanding leader. Offer them a word of encouragement, or better yet, make an investment of your time and treasure in developing their genuine leadership potential.
Dr. John Derry serves as president of Hope International University, Fullerton, California.