The Scriptures are full of the stories of young people, called by God, to be leaders. And not just class presidents or merit scholars—leaders of tribes, prophets of Israel, slayers of giants, judges, apostles, and even a mysterious twelve-year-old, teaching in the temple, Savior. We have the evidence of God’s hand upon young women and men as spiritual leaders. But we might need a few other things to nudge us, remind us, and inspire us.
First, we need a word from the Word—the divine testimony that all people, who are baptized, who believe in Jesus Christ, and who are open to serve as Jesus did, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can be tapped to lead God’s people. The requirement for leadership is call. Call by God and call of the community.
Next, as a nominating committee begins its work each year, how wonderful would it be if they began their discernment by reading together some of the call stories offered in Scripture. Interestingly, a good number of them are about young people; the call of shepherds, students, young wives, young girls, young adults. Beyond the reminder of the variety of personalities, responses, and situations, there is proof that God’s hand taps those of all ages and lifespan stages.
Thirdly, be inspired, rather than nervous, by what a young person brings. Young people are more idealistic and less worn-out by church politics, history, and tradition. Use this. Use their ideas and their idealism to push yourselves to try things, to be more inclusive, to be more plainspoken. Young people called to serve as ruling elders should not be novel, should not be a source of pride. Instead, their service should simply be a response to a very long and faithful legacy.
Here are few things to bear in mind as you consider calling a young person to serve as a ruling elder:
- Call a young person if they demonstrate the gifts evident of a faithful leader. Being called to serve is about God’s call—and the subsequent response of the community and the person called. It is not a “seat” or a “spot” to be filled.
- Keep young people on your radar. Leadership looks radically different among adults than among young people. While many teenage leaders have been winners of awards, well-spoken, and fairly high profile, remember those who shine a little less brightly but who possess poise, wisdom, and faithful church engagement. The quiet one or the funny one may be a dynamic elder. Get to know them.
- Consider calling younger leaders in pairs. In the congregational legends of young elders there are tales and more tales of young people who felt uneasy, baffled, overlooked, and lonely. How would you feel, as an adult, if you were the only adult placed at a table entirely surrounded by all youth? It’s challenging enough to be a ruling elder. The meetings, the focus, the decision-making, the backside view of the church. Add to that the oddity of being the only one. Lifting up more than one young person could be helpful.
- Consider forming ruling elder partners. Partners serve as listening ears and a prayerful presence for each other. It’s helpful, especially for a younger leader, to have a trusted partner/accompanier on the session. And, removing age from the equation, it is helpful for all leaders to have a partner. Encourage session partners to debrief questions, information, decisions with each other, avoiding the parking lot conversations.
While it is a reality that most young people don’t have extensive knowledge of Roberts Rules of Order, church finance, property maintenance, or theological debates, they do have ideas, viewpoints, and intimate knowledge of the lives of younger church members and participants. Young people are valuable to the life of the church and have much to offer.
Gina Yeager-Buckley is a ruling elder who serves as the associate for Ministries with Youth for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Gina lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky.