(By Alan Nelson)
I know what it’s like when someone “leaves” the ministry. Internal eyebrows rise. We wonder what caused someone who professed a call from God to preach the Gospel and lead a congregation, to jump ship and do something else. Our minds race to the seamier side. Was the pressure too much? Did he have a call at all? We don’t often say it, but we wonder, don’t we?
After more than 20 years of being a pastor, I left the ministry, technically speaking. But after authoring a dozen books and nearly 200 articles on ministry and spiritual life, plus serving as the executive editor of Rev! magazine, I exited the pastoral field.
The reason was simple. Time was running out and I desperately wanted to change the church — and if possible, society at large.
No matter how much we value egalitarian and democratic processes, history is not made by the masses. Three dominant factors change society: discoveries, disasters, and leaders, but the most significant by far is leaders — whether good or bad. If you want to change history, you must focus on leaders. But how do you change them? For more than a decade, thanks to books such as “How to Change Your Church,” “The Five Star Church,” “Me to We,” and “Embracing Brokenness,” I was able to travel as a pastor, teaching workshops and seminary courses. But after a decade of that, I came to the conclusion that investing in adult leaders yields a low return on investment.
My dad used to say, “Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The less you have left, the faster it goes.” By age 45, I was convinced that we needed to lower the age of leadership development, identifying and developing influencers while they’re still moldable. Barna’s research coincides with that of Kohlberg and moral psychologists, noting that character is pretty much established by age 14.
Thus I began prototyping an executive-caliber leadership training program with the upper age set at 14. The goal was to learn how young you could teach serious leadership skills. During our research phase, we discovered that if a child displays leadership aptitude, by 10 years of age, s/he is cognitively mature enough to learn sophisticated social skills required in leading. So at the ripe old age of 49, with two sons in private college, I gave up my paycheck and benefits to launch a non-profit organization called KidLead.
Pastors don’t need to give up on adults, but if we’re good stewards, we need to be putting a lot of eggs in the kid basket. Even better, we need to target our very young leaders. The most strategic time for developing effective and ethical leaders is a 4-year threshold we call the 10-13 Window. Unfortunately, very few church staff are leadership savvy. They confuse it with discipleship and service. And preteen/middle school ministries always tend to be low on the church totem pole.
Even if you don’t have a personal call to this area of ministry, you can still champion it. We have developed the first of its kind, executive-caliber leadership training curriculum called LeadNow. The faith-based version is beginning to be used in premier Christian schools and some larger churches. It is sophisticated enough to require certification to use it. You watch a brief video and take a free leadership aptitude assessment on a child by going to the KidLead website www.kidlead.com. By pushing the “parent” button, you’ll get an automated response to help you understand the type of child you should be reaching for leadership mentoring. There’s also a book that summarizes our findings.
Waiting until college, seminary, and first employment is far too late to develop effective, ethical leaders. We must start younger, much younger. Churches and Christian schools are the best places to accomplish this task, because these are social communities where young leaders can develop their skills in a context of faith.
My challenge to pastors is to respond to the call of identifying and developing young leaders. If there’s one thing your church does well, make it young leader development. If you want to change the world, focus on leaders. But if you want to change leaders, focus on them when they’re young. I “left the ministry” to make a bigger impact on the church. You don’t have to quit being a pastor, but I pray you’ll join me in this endeavor.
[Alan E. Nelson, Ed.D. (www.alanenelson.com) is the author of KidLead: Growing Great leaders and the founder of KidLead Inc.. The Nelsons live near Monterey, CA. For more info on KidLead, contact them through the website: www.kidlead.com.]