Five Ways to Invest in the Next Generation of Leaders
Practical tips for raising up more people in ministry
Recently, I started helping with a small group for university students. I’m only a few weeks in, but I’m already in love with them. They’re smart, passionate, kind, creative, and fun to be around. They are crazy about Jesus, and they love the church. They love deeply and care for each other incredibly well. When I look around this small group of students, I see unlimited potential.
As we were leaving after our second meeting, one of them asked me, “Are you sure you want to take us on as a small group? I mean, we’re a little crazy.” I smiled, and told her I wouldn’t have it any other way. As I drove home, I started dreaming and praying about how to help them unleash their God-given gifts to make an even greater impact in the world. These students are the future of the church, and that gives me incredible hope.
An essential ingredient for healthy leadership is the ability to raise up other leaders. This is discipleship at its best: raising up the next generation of leaders in the church who will carry on the mission and vision of Jesus. When we develop leaders, we take the cap off our own leadership capacity and exponentially increase our ability to influence the world around us through discipleship.
In my experience, I’ve found that this generation of young people eagerly look for people to invest in them and challenge them. Here are five tips to help you recruit and invest in the next generation of leaders:
1. Believe in their potential.
Stop looking for existing leaders, and start looking for passion and natural influence. When he or she speaks up, do their peers listen? Do they ask questions and demonstrate interest in a particular area of ministry? If so, they are exactly who you need to spend more time with. They might not have experience, but maybe that’s because they haven’t been given a chance yet.
A person needs someone to believe in them and tell them they have what it takes. When I was starting out in ministry, I had an incredible boss who saw something in me that I couldn’t yet see in myself. He believed in me, and kept giving me new opportunities that stretched me and helped me grow. If he hadn’t believed in my potential, I would never have developed into the leader I am today. Give a young person the gift of believing in them self, and watch them rise to the occasion.
2. Recruit to vision, not to need.
Would you rather help set up chairs, or be part of creating an environment for genuine and authentic community where lives are changed? If we’re in event or ministry planning mode, we often see a list of tasks that need to be done. Then we go about trying to make sure all the tasks are completed. Sure, someone needs to set up chairs, but no one is inspired by that task! Instead, cast vision for how each task helps to accomplish the vision. Specifically, learn to cast vision for how your ministry changes lives.
I work with small groups, and I absolutely believe that small groups are the life of the church. If our small groups aren’t healthy, our church isn’t healthy. Whenever I meet someone who I think could be a potential volunteer, I start sharing my heart for small groups. If I see them get excited about the vision of healthy small groups, then I start sharing a little bit more about what our small-group ministry team does and ask if they would consider being part of how we’re changing lives through small groups. Always lead with vision, not needs. Once someone buys into your vision, they’ll be willing to meet any and every need that comes up. Show them the impact their life can have if they join your team, and you’ll find a loyal team member who will stick with you in the trenches.
3. See them as individuals and develop their gifts.
People have a deep desire to be known individually—their unique experiences, gifts, and passions. As you spend time with the next generation of leaders, point out what makes them unique and help them identify and develop their gifts and abilities. Encourage their strengths and affirm when you see them excelling in their gifts. When possible, provide roles to help them develop their strengths.
As I get to know the people in my new small group, I can’t wait to get a fuller picture of what makes each person unique, encouraging each one in their strengths. One young man has spunk and grit, and he will make a fierce leader one day. A young woman has wisdom beyond her years, and one day she will help an organization navigate wisely through a hard season. Yet another young man a free spirit, and one day he’ll remind the church to shake off our tired routines and fall in love with Jesus in a fresh new way. Each young person is made individually and by God for a unique impact in the world. I want to help each one move closer to their unique gifts and calling and watch them come alive.
4. Build relationships.
In Mark 3:14, Jesus didn’t just appoint the 12 disciples to go out—he appointed them "that they might be with him." And Jesus didn’t just bring the disciples around when he was about to teach or perform a miracle. He shared meals with them, traveled with them, and met their families (Matthew 8:14).
The next generation of leaders look up to you, and want to know how you do what you do. They need to see who you are when you’re not in “ministry mode.” How do you balance work, family, and friends? How do you respond when you’re stressed? How do you take care of yourself? What does your marriage look like? Who are your closest friends, and how do you support one another?
Your greatest ministry doesn’t come from the stage. It comes when others witness the thousands of everyday moments when the character of Christ is being formed in you. Allow these young people to see your real life. They don’t just need to learn ministry skills; they need to develop the character that supports the work God wants to do in and through them. Invite them into your home for dinner, let them run errands with you, and provide an inside look into how God is at work in your everyday, messy, chaotic life.
5. Take a risk and be okay with mess.
If you're going to take a risk in ministry, let it be on believing in people. Development as a leader is messy and these young people will make mistakes along the way. With your care and guidance, those mistakes will turn into learning opportunities that propel them toward even greater leadership.
I was 23 when I started my first job working with a college ministry. I remember the first couple of times I taught at our weekly gathering, and I wince now to think of how it went. But since then, thanks to more and more opportunities to practice and receive feedback, I’ve grown to be much more confident and effective in teaching.
An omnipotent and omniscient God still chooses to work out His purposes through flawed humans because he knows that we’ll grow and develop to be even more effective leaders through the process. How much more should we be willing to take risks and give young people the chance to learn and grow! Reaffirm that you still believe in them, help them learn from their mistakes, and give them a seat at the table with you.
Laura Copeland serves on the small groups team at Saddleback Church in California.