Skip to site content

Training the Church’s Next Generation of Leaders

I was well into my second decade of ministry when my friend, Milt Hughes, brought alive a verse from the Bible that changed the way I looked at what I was doing.

The text is 2 Timothy 2:2. The New International Version translates it this way: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”

Milt helped me to see that I was not simply calling out and discipling leaders, I was charged with developing leaders who would have the ability to do the same thing with others.

This is the way that Christian discipleship has worked through the ages – one person invests in another and that person in turn invests in a third generation.

A corollary to this is that each generation of disciples faces new challenges so how they apply what they learn will change.

We share principles and concepts that become part of individuals’ lives, but the application in a particular context must change over time.

This verse has come back to me in recent days as I have thought about the opportunities we have to call out a new generation of disciples – Christian leaders for the 21st century who will in turn call out a subsequent generation. I must say that I am a bit concerned about this.

Military leaders say, “We are very good about training soldiers to fight the last war.” The implication, of course, is that we will not fight that same war again.

Tactics and circumstances change. The next campaign will not be Vietnam, the Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom or Afghanistan, but something completely different.

The same can be applied to the church. The challenges and opportunities of today are very different from those of 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

Despite this, we often try to force “new wine” (young leaders) into “old wineskins” (outmoded structures).

As we call out and develop a new generation of disciples, we must not instill ideas or practices that will stifle their service. How can we do this?

Let me suggest three steps in a 2 Timothy 2:2 ministry:

First, commit yourself to a ministry of encouragement that identifies and calls out young leaders.

If we think back over our lives, we realize that one of the key aspects of our calling was the affirmation of others.

When I was a college student, a campus minister I admired said to me, “I would be honored if you were my son’s campus minister.”

This helped me realize that if someone else saw me in this role, perhaps it was a possibility.

We need to keep our eyes open to those with the ability to lead not only in the present but also in the new emerging reality.

Second, accept a role as an equipper of young leaders.

Use the 2 Timothy 2:2 model and become a mentor or coach to those who show potential in the work of ministry.

This applies to both clergy and lay prospects for leadership. Both require the same commitment on our part.

I have come to the point that I will not accept a leadership role in the church without a co-leader, and my preference is to work with a young leader in that role.

Third, be prepared to empower young leaders.

In order to empower young leaders, we must not just delegate assignments but also provide space for creativity, flexibility and possible failure.

If we micromanage too much, we curtail the learning of the growing leader.

Provide the opportunity, the parameters and the resources, then allow the person to lead. Be available to coach and evaluate but don’t seek to control.

The task of encouraging, equipping and empowering new leaders is not for the faint of heart, but this is the way that the church grows leaders from generation to generation.

Are you up to the task?

Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is associate professor of ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column first appeared on Pinnacle’s blog and is used with permission. He blogs at Barnabas File and you can follow him on Twitter @ircel.