My first ‘real’ (read: paid) church ministry role was as a children and families pastor when I was around 22, newly married, and yet to have children. I had worked in childcare previously, I had childcare qualifications, and was fairly confident in my position. Yet even still, every now and then I would get that little niggling feeling that maybe I was too young to have this role, maybe I wasn’t experienced enough…after all, who was I to counsel on parenting, when I wasn’t even a parent? Who was I, to think I could spiritually disciple these kids, when I had no kids of my own? Who was I, to lead a team of leaders who were mostly older than me who do have children?
Maybe you’ve felt that way before too, as though your age somehow makes you less of a leader, or somehow undermines your authority. Maybe you’re the apprentice at work, getting given all the rubbish (maybe even literally!) jobs, or you’re a young retail worker doing great work, but being passed over for promotion. You might be the young associate pastor, trying to meet with congregates who would rather wait to meet with the senior pastor.
Sometimes these feelings come directly from others; there are always going to be people who look down on young leaders simply because of their age. Sometimes they may come indirectly from others (for example no one specifically tells you you’re too young or too inexperienced, but they might treat you differently), and sometimes we might actually be the cause of our own feelings. In the role I mentioned earlier, no one ever told me I didn’t know what I was doing because I wasn’t a parent. None of my older leaders ever made me feel less than them. I was respected and appreciated, but I often doubted myself because of my age.
It’s challenging enough to be a leader, let alone if you are younger than those you are leading.
The reality is, there is this underlying idea that ‘adults’ (in this context I am referring to anyone older than the young adult age bracket, 18-30) should know better. Those older than us should set the example. And you know what, in a perfect world, that would be true. But this is not a perfect world, and we all know people who are older than us, but definitely not wiser.
Imagine how difficult it would have been for young leaders in the early church, in a time and place that put a very high value on age and experience. And yet, (and I’m sure you know where I’m headed), what does the apostle Paul say to his young protege, Timothy? “Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” (1 Tim 4:12)
It’s as if Paul is saying, “don’t just meet the standards people might expect of someone so young, exceed them! Set the bar high, not just for your sake, but for the sake of those watching.”
We often expect those that are older than us to set good examples, to lead the way, but Paul makes it clear that age has nothing to do with setting a good example. If anything, being a young man or woman of God who speaks with wisdom, conducts themselves with integrity, and generally sets a good, Godly example is an even greater example that that of someone older.
In Psalm 144:12 David writes “our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants”. A “well-nurtured” plant could also be described as a “mature” plant, one that has fully grown, and therefore produces fruit. Likewise, Solomon writes that it is “Better [to be] a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king…” (Ecclesiastes 4:13).
Old does not necessarily equal wise, just like young does not have to equal immature.
Unfortunately, the way that older people looked down on younger people in Paul and Timothy’s time is probably not all that far removed from the way it is today, and issues facing young people are still rife. In the last few years the Youth Minister position was removed from cabinet (for the first time since 1978), the Office for Youth disappeared, youth unemployment rates are high, as is youth homelessness, and suicide is the leading cause of death for those under 25.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics states that:
“Young adulthood is a time of transition and growing independence. However the experiences of young adults today can be quite different to those in previous decades. Traditional milestones such as moving away from the family home, moving in with a partner or getting married have been delayed until a little later in life.”
As I said earlier, it’s hard enough being a leader, let alone a young one, but it’s also hard just to be a young adult. The traditional ideas of what constitutes adulthood (moving out of home, full time employment, marriage) are often happening later in life now, and in our Western, Aussie culture there is little (if any) understanding, let alone practise, of any sort of rites of passage. For the majority of the population, no one is teaching us how to be young adults, let alone young adults who are leaders.
What an awesome encouragement it is to know that as followers of Jesus, who we are specifically as young adults in leadership, is valued. Who we are as young adults in leadership is encouraged. Who we are as young adults in leadership is really important!
Whether you are leading in the church, in retail, in education, in business, or in your family, it is vital that you set a Godly example. Paul’s mandate to Timothy, and to us, isn’t often easy, but let’s not forget this is the same guy who was confident enough to say in another letter, “follow me, as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). At the end of the day, as leaders, what (or rather who) we are leading people towards is Jesus Christ. Jesus, the ultimate example and role model, whose Spirit empowers us to be mature, loving, wise, and courageous young adults leading others wherever we are.
By Jess Currie