Did you know that The Salvation Army in New Zealand was started by two English guys aged 19 and 20?
I don’t know about you, but when I think about myself at the age of 19, the thought of travelling to an unknown country to start a new church is mildly terrifying. And yet, the church has a history of empowering young leaders to do amazing things.
Labelling yourself as a leader though, especially when you’re still quite young, can be odd because it’s not really a label that you put on yourself at all, but rather a label that is bestowed on you by others. After all, leadership is about whether people want to follow you far more than it is about whether you want to lead people. Leadership is about influence.
For those of us who find ourselves in leadership roles at a younger age, it can be hard to know how to actually go about this, particularly in a church setting where we might be pastoring people 20, 40 or 60 years older than us.
I’ve recently stepped into a more senior leadership role at my own church and it’s definitely a question that I ask myself all the time. This opportunity that has been bestowed on me is exciting, terrifying, inspiring, and overwhelming all at once, and I want to do it well.
So while I’m still figuring out what on earth I’m doing, here are my top tips for young leaders – from one newbie to another.
1. Listen at all times to all people
The beauty of the Church is that it’s so diverse, full of people who have common interests but are also completely different. For this simple reason, it’s so important to listen to everyone and take their views on board.
Not just the people like you who are under 30 or who have the same interests, politics, and opinions, but everyone – as a leader, you’re there to serve others, not tell them what you think and what they should believe.
You don’t have to agree with them at the end of the conversation, but they should feel like they were heard and not ignored.
2. Understand people’s motivations
Like above, it’s important to not just listen but to actively make an effort to understand where people come from.
While we’re not totally inexperienced and naïve as young people, we often don’t know the whole picture, particularly if someone has a different generational view or if there is far more history to an issue than you were aware of.
If people have a grievance, take the time to understand why, and that means the whole picture and not just the surface level. Hurt people hurt people.
If you need to ask someone to do something, find out what makes them tick and ask them in such a way that it is helpful to them, and doesn’t burden them.
3. Earn your place and their respect
Respect isn’t given overnight but grown over time, so before you rush ahead and start telling people what to do, slow down to make sure that you’ve earned their respect first.
Taking the time to listen and understand people, like I mention in the first two points, can feel like you’re stalling sometimes but the investment is worth it in the long run when people come to trust you.
4. Jump on in there anyway
Despite everything I’ve said above about slowing down and taking time, I still think young leaders should jump on in and learn on the job.
There is never a right time to pick up leadership, as you will never feel completely ready – there is always more to learn! So make a move anyway and get on in there, learning as you go and trusting that people will show you grace as you show grace to others.
5. Be diligent and steward your role
Once you’re in a leadership role, don’t take it for granted. Steward the opportunity well, being diligent in using and developing your gift.
One of the most famous passages in the Bible when it comes to youth leadership comes from one of Paul’s letters where he is encouraging his young trainee, Timothy. We often just quote the first line, but it’s actually all of the verses that follow that are more helpful:
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.
Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely.
Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy chapter 4, verses 12-16, emphasis mine).
It’s not just about receiving the mantle of leadership, but what you do next. We need to keep learning, asking for help, and saying sorry when we stuff up, but we also need to keep devoting ourselves to our role, taking it seriously and not giving up.
The joy of being a young leader is that there is so much more of the journey to go! So be confident in your calling and be humble in being guided by the Spirit.
If we do that, we’ll all do just fine.
Rebecca Howan is from Wellington, New Zealand, where she works as an Executive Assistant in the humanitarian sector. She worships and serves at The Salvation Army, and is passionate about music, travelling the world and building community.
You can read Rebecca’s previous columns at https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/rebecca-howan.html