It’s high time we trusted young clergy with top church leadership

A section of youth from Migori Station of Seventh-Day Adventist Church Ranen Conference standing in the shape of a heart [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

Young people represent newness, innovation and the voice of the now.

They represent an interruption of the existing order and render a new interpretation of the context. They are nature’s forward agents – pulling down old ways and building new communities. Young people disrupt. They are not only a new generation but are generators of new knowledge. They are doubly couriers of past wisdom and agents of futuristic thinking. To think of them only as wineskins for old wine that receive ancient wisdom is to misunderstand them. They must be equally seen as new skins and to carry new wine. 

Biblical times have many accounts of young people playing critical roles in stories of national magnitude. Clearly, God did not undermine them. It is just right that the church sustains the same spirit. But for a long time the leadership of many churches has been a preserve of age-wise senior clergy. While representation of young people has become commendably important in most aspects of development, the actual granting of extensive responsibility is slow. Young people are still not trusted enough.

Cultural factors around young people respecting their elders play out in such a way that in robust leadership older people are preferred. The tradition of honouring elders is often stretched too far to the extent of becoming a barrier that excludes young clergy from accessing top denominational leadership. Many youthful church leaders have been mentored to understand respect for their seniors as an affirmation of youthful inability. Top leadership is thus reserved for the older generation – sometimes permanently.

Biblical narrative

A keen look at the biblical narrative reveals that maturity in the scriptures appears less a matter of age and more a factor of obedience – the zeal to hear and obey God. This maturity-by-obedience presents an opportunity for the church to intentionally open up their top leadership for young people.

But even with biblical narratives full of young people on the frontline on God’s mission, the church still lags behind when it comes to young clergy at the helm of denominational leadership. The perspective that young people have no capacity to lead whole denominations must be weighed against the question of the capacity of young people to hear and follow the voice of God. If young people can hear and follow the voice of God then the argument of their inability to take top leadership of denominational formations becomes an institutional one. 

Even their capacity to lead whole institutions should be evaluated against how other contemporary institutions are engaging young people in leadership. A glance at top corporations in Kenya quickly demonstrates that young people are increasingly being entrusted with leadership in the private and public sectors. In the corporate approach, youthfulness does not connote inability. Appropriate empowerment builds youth ability and trustworthy capacity. From this view, the church should not deal with the question of youth ability but address internal mechanisms invested to build the capacity of young clergy to run whole institutions.

Church conversations around youth and leadership often land in places where young people should not be granted leadership only on the premise that they are young. Youthfulness is not received as a sufficient reason to give people responsibility. But this view needs to be informed by the maturity-by-obedience perspective.

Readiness to willfully seek and follow God’s will is the true mark of spiritual maturity. When obedience to God is the standard, even experienced clergy may find themselves in the bracket of immature. Spiritually speaking, experience without a commensurate obedience questions suitability. It is this obedience equation that grants young people total leadership legitimacy.

Subordinating age to godly obedience is bound to disrupt the existing church leadership traditions. But often new traditions come with disruption. Reorganisation of an older order will soon get tiring with hardly anymore creativity achievable. At that tired point, only a radical disruption will do. Disrupting top leadership by including young clergy may be a prime doorway to give the church a much desired new kick for new contexts.  

But we must be careful not to fall into the youth romanticisation trap – where abilities of young people are exaggerated. Young people on their own cannot be the whole. Other members of the community are critical too. A well-discerned hybrid between the experience of the old and the curiosity of the young is essential. Seeing young clergy positively does not mean ignoring their slippery side. Youthful pride often stands in the way when young people baptise themselves the most superior demographic. Such arrogance makes them see positions of authority more as a right to be granted than a responsibility to be earned.

To give credit where it is due, the church is doing well in terms of ordaining youthful clergy. In some denominational formations, a majority of pastors are aged below 40 years, with the older few being in their early 50s. But this youthfulness can remain underutilised and invisible if young clergy are mentored on an old-time religion devoid of prophetic foresight. 

Numerous young pastors preach in pulpits every week and many youth leaders’ networks exist. But they remain largely in the background and their voice on the social-political dimension of the community does not have a consistent authoritative public platform.

Yet they uniquely embody the experience, feel and language of the present. Armed with a thoroughgoing obedience to God, young clergy need to take their place on the foreground to give their evaluation of the present and articulate their vision for the future community.

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