Championing young leaders (Ben Gardner)

Monday, 18 June, 2012

Ben GardnerBen Gardner asks why we jump through hoops to leadership?

I oversee a 260-strong student church at St Thomas Crookes Sheffield. The way in which we run this church is through missional communities: groups of (between 15-30) university students who have a passion for a particular people group, sub-culture or geographical area. Many of these missional communities are reaching people who would never normally be reached by the ‘traditional’ church system and structures that are currently in place.

Some of these missional communities are growing quickly. Therefore, my team's priority is to identify, equip (through an apprenticeship model) and release new young leaders quickly: and I mean quickly… sometimes within weeks and months!

Through this process I have come to realize that many of our young leaders, who are brilliant at what they do, would never stand a chance with the church's current system of ordination. For many, ordination might not be a calling but for some it is. However, my issue is that it takes a long time - up to nine years - of jumping through hoops to get to a point where a young leader can be released to plant and grow missional movements.

Let's look instead at the Apostle Paul's approach. As an incredible coach for new leaders, it seems that he entered a town/city, identified potential leaders, spent time with them and released them to lead and grow new Christian communities. We have to remember that he didn't stay long in these communities so how did he do it?

In 2012, why does it take so long to identify, equip and release young leaders to plant and grow new churches?

Here are some hard questions to set us thinking:

  • is it due to the fact that many leaders fear giving leadership away?
  • do we undermine the potential that young people have in leading a missional movement?
  • are there unnecessary barriers that mean a massive number of young pioneers are not being indentified and acknowledged as church leaders?
  • is the process of ordination necessary? Is it too slow? 

Let the discussions begin!

About the author: 

Ben Gardner is St Thomas Crookes' student worker.


I wonder if part of the problem is how the church is set up to mentor and develop new/young leaders on the ground without shipping them off to "vicar factory". Mixed mode training may have helped to address that issue a bit, but I think there's still a bigger problem of how much time/resources church leaders have available to do what St Paul did.

I wonder whether there needs to be more dedicated resource to coaching and mentoring, to help church leaders support emerging leaders.

I agree that the process to identify, train and deploy leaders is far too bureaucratic! In my diocese the hoops which have to be jumped through to be selected for training, even for lay ministry seem to be excessive. For example, an individual can't even apply for lay ministry training until they have been on a day conference which only runs three times a year. The next one of these now isn't until November, then you can apply to do a introductory course which lasts for 18 months, and towards the end of that you apply for selection for licensed lay ministry, and then begin that training. So someone considering licensed lay ministry now, couldn't even go forward for selection until Summer 2014, and wouldn't finish training until 2016 at the earliest!

For me, there's also issues of how the church is geared up to accept people who can't move away to theological college for one reason or another. Speaking very personally, I got into quite a bit of debt when I was in my early 20s. Although I have a good job, and repayment hasn't been an issue, I wasn't in a position where I could quit my job and basically go into unpaid training for 2-3 years. However, I was told quite clearly by my then DDO that he wouldn't even begin the ordination discernment process until I was debt-free. Part-time training with a view to self-supporting ministry weren't even an option because of my situation.

Saying all that though, I think there needs to be a process of checks and balances and I'm aware of some horror stories particularly from the free churches where people have been sent out to plant churches with very little, if any, training, coaching or discernment and things have gone horribly wrong.

I do wonder if too much focus has been put upon the academic nature of leadership in the church though - whether all the courses and assignments really are necessary - and could be replaced by good old fashioned apprenticeships. Which opens up a whole other can of worms as to whether the priesthood should be a "graduate profession"!

coz we dont want to let them go ????? might there be fear thye may not return, coz deep down some of 'the church' know young leaders arent always (often?) given a 'jesus to disciples' type arrangment??? and there is a regular under promoting of the Christ??
maybe also coz 'parents' usually want their 'kids' to look just like them. with two parents this is possible, the church and loads of parents it aint neccesarily so...a legacy left by a #parent'...quite unlikely if each new is properly and wonderfullu and humbly and locally contextualised and responsive to th epeople around it

It seems to me that there are two strong strands of conversation within the pioneer / FX thinking that could do with coming together.

In one stream we have a discernment that one of the weaknesses in the western church over the last decades has been a lack of emphasis on the cost of following Jesus, on discipleship, on training and coaching.

In another stream we have a discussion about what is needed in terms of training and calling out leadership, that sometimes seems to focus on a desire for this to happen quickly, and a frustration with thorough and costly training being required.

I thought from about the age of 18 that I was called to church leadership, and was actively in the process of discernment with a diocese from the age of 24/25, going to theological college at the age of 30 (having been to two Advisory Panels). One of my reflections is that if I had been more willing to be discipled earlier in that time, then I think that it would have been shorter. The issue was not that there were hoops to jump through, and that the process was too bureaucratic, but that I was not ready to lead others because I had not learnt to be led.

I really valued my time at college, and feel that it was very important to have a time apart, in which I could be shaped, in which I could focus on learning, and in which I could develop spiritual disciplines that have sustained me since. As a pioneer minister, I am really grateful for the process that I have been through.

As for using Paul's approach as a model, whilst the narrative of Acts is fast moving in terms of literary pacing, it is important to note that it is sprinkled with "stayed a long time", and that although not actually present Paul maintained oversight via letters, many of which reveal that the leaders in these young churches really struggled. In fact, it could be argued that the reflections on the qualities in leaders found in the Pastoral epistles are informed by Paul's reflections on the experience of people having been fast tracked into leadership.


At last someone is saying it out loud

The Church of England process for discerning vocation, training and deployment of clergy is not fit for purpose, especially for younger pioneers.

Currently the process starts with a long period of (usually) profound discernment a short time of training focussed on learning a wide range of things (to a small extent)and then a curacy which is (often) about supporting dwindling numbers of elderly clergy.

In contrast the process should start as soon a church sees the need to encourage someone in their ministry. It should then involve

- Ongoing discernment about the gifts of the person involved and where they can grow
- Regular opportunities to learn through deep engagement with biblical studies, missiology, practical theology etc. This should start immediately and should continue for the rest of their lives.
- Regular opportunities to experience different forms of ministry; to give a wide perspective and to help them discern what God is calling them to
- Ongoing opportunities to exercise their gifts.

This would mean that the focus is on growing disciples who also have opportunities to serve the church. Sometimes it is valuable to take someone out of their context to learn and grow in another setting (but sometimes it is not).

At some point in this process, it may make sense for the person to be ordained as a sign of the authority the church sees them as having. Ordination has value in that it shows that the church believes the person to have a level of maturity and gifting that means they should be able to exercise a wide and profound leadership in the church.

Planting churches is in some ways a separate issue, there have been too many thousand people harmed church planting to throw young leaders at it as an answer to the Church of England's inadequacies. Planting churches however should involve young leaders who can have opportunities to exercise their ministries and shape the churches for today and tomorrow. These young leaders need to be supported and integrated with older (and those who are wiser) leaders.

I think this is a very interesting debate and I agree Oli with much of what you say. Many of my friends has come out of university, having been very active serving in their local churches wanting to get involved in active ministry - the church has turned them down because they feel that they do not have enough life experience! Many young people are then lost to other careers.

In many ways I feel the church tries to replicate the outer world, stuffing people through an academic course on which they have to write loads of essays (obviously relevant to everyday ministry!) and yes then curates are sent off to support churches where there is a vacancy.

Go and find Ed Jones at Arise ministries and ask him what I said in regard to life experience. This of course means you need to do something and not talk about it

Could you share your wisdom with us?

Its nececary to have both young and older leaders together. St Paul had a long preparation before he started to plant new churches. It took 14 years between he met Jesus at Damascus until he started to travel.
Renewal of old churches take time and and you must have some experience.
Small groups and clusters can be led by young Christians. But local churches need both enthusiasm and experience.

'Let's look instead at the Apostle Paul's approach' - Yes - read Titus 1: Note the word 'elders' (not youths) - married and proven faithfully so, of sufficient standing in the community to have visible moral integrity and able to silence the 'meaningless talk and deception' of the congregation. The Apostolic rule is normally the best.

Leadership in the Christian community for a short time or a particular season can certainly be offered by young people with gifts, energy, a bit of quick training and some wise mentoring. And when the time or season is over, that person will probably wave goodbye and be cheered on go on to the next bit of their vocation in the church or the world. A lot of good can be done, and (hopefully, in a short space of time)not a lot of damage can be done. In an energy-depleted church, this kind of short-term leadership does need to be enabled and encouraged.

Ordination, though, is not a job you do for a while and then change careers. (I am aware that someone in their 20s these days is likely to have more careers -not jobs, careers) than I've had hot breakfasts.) Ordination becomes not just what you do, but who you are, and for life. So you would want to invest a lot more in it, since it will be for ever. Just as you invest more in choosing your marriage or life-partner than you do in choosing your flat-mate for the coming academic year. In a church which can be dazzled by the cultural imperative to be constantly innovating and changing, this can be difficult to insist on.

It's not fair to caricature selection, screening, education and formation for ordination as "jumping through hoops." It's more like building a Mercedes Benz that will be on the road for 30 years, while choosing and equipping someone to lead a group of students for the coming academic year is like pumping up the tyres on your racing bike.

I'd also like to put in a good word for substantial theological education as an important investment both for individuals and the church. You can do a lot of good in a short time based on grassroots bible study and the latest popular theology paperbacks. But to do right by the church in the long term we also need people who do the hard yards of familiarising themselves with the whole theological tradition, all that's been thought and prayed since Paul sent unwelcome advice to the Corinthians and theological offspin to the Romans.

We may not need ALL our leaders to have studied theology, but we certainly need SOME of them to have done plenty of it, and to give the rest of us the skills to use that theology to interpret the signs of the times rather than having to constantly reinvent theological wheels.

Interesting! Tim Carter and Elizabeth Smith, I like your points a lot. Ben Gardner I think what you do is great for the context you are in. My question is, are any of your young leaders actually called by God to be ordained? (And if you think they are, what makes you think that?) You've collectively recognised a calling towards a kind of missional leadership in them and are training and mentoring them in the development of that kind of leadership within your church's culture and structure. In becoming ordained wouldn't they be becoming representatives of a church that they may not even believe in? And couldn't they end up being diverted from the things they are genuinely being called by God to do into other stuff that really isn't their bag? These are all genuine questions that I have cause to ask myself about some of the young pioneers I work with. The last thing I would want to see would be enthusiastic, effective young leaders being diverted away from the very thing they are actually called to...

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