One of the most interesting discoveries in my dissertation work is the emergence of obstacles that inhibit youth and young adults from being given leadership in a local church or ministry setting. By far, the most prominent obstacle has to do with possessive leadership. In other words, there are circumstances where people who currently hold positions of influence struggle to relinquish their control to others.
For my study, I interviewed 25 leaders from 15 different congregations throughout North America that have been successful in raising up next generation leaders. When asked to identify what obstacles hinder the development of younger leaders, 13 of the 15 churches suggested that people in power who seize possession of leadership created the greatest obstacle. Of the 583 transcribed lines from the interviews which focused on "Generational Transference Obstacles" 278 of those lines specified "possessive leadership." In other words, 48% of the discussions about obstacles to raising up younger leaders was spent on this particular issue. Some of the interview participants highlighted issues of distrust and control and fear in a top-down hierarchy while others highlighted the lack of opportunity for advancement of personal goals within an organization.
One older leader expressed in his interview, "I think we do need to do that; raise up a whole new generation of leaders. But it’s not going to happen if we’re holding on to the reigns." Another older leader reflected on the experience of his own church, saying that "for a period of time there was that ceiling, there was such a strong group of leaders in place that to actually break into leadership was hard… And we lost a generation that couldn’t break through at the time and now it’s hard."
Each of these thirteen churches suggested that there exists a temptation for current leaders to seize control of a sense of entitlement rather than help foster an environment that releases younger people to take ownership of leading. Another older leader identified possessive leadership as the key issue that could derail the forward movement of their church in the years ahead. He said, "That's a big challenge isn't it? Not just to have an older generation relinquish ownership of ministry but to give it over and allow a younger generation to do it a little differently." That same leader suggested that "there is a sense that when someone has been in a particular ministry for a long time, there is a real sense of ownership that can come there. So it is difficult for them to accept help or to see the value in them passing that along."
One leader suggested that the only true foundation for dealing with the struggle of possessive leadership is to remember who is actually the head of the Church. "Our Western default in the church is to build fences," this leader stated, "and we build them generationally. We want control." Ultimately, however, leaders of churches are to remember that God is control of his church. So, this leader continued, "we're going to trust that the Spirit is the one who leads," this leader stated. "[We're going to trust] that Jesus builds His church and we don't have to control all of it, and there's a great freedom that comes from that."
How does changing our mindset concerning "who is in control" change how we lead and raise up others to lead?