I grew up in a staunch, Christian home. We went to church whenever the doors were open, 15 miles each way, via Iowa farm roads. I committed my faith to Jesus at the early age of 5, was baptized at 6, and later invested over 20 years in pastoral ministry and eventually wrote books and ran a national magazine for pastors. I’m quite appreciative of my spiritual upbringing. But, amidst all that good stuff, there was some not-so-good stuff. In our family there was room for only one leader, and it wasn’t me. It was dad.
The problem is that God had gifted me with leadership ability. At school, the kids asked me what we should do at recess. I’d pick softball, football, Red Rover Red Rover, or something else. Sometimes I got a “C” in conduct for being the class clown. But at home, I crawled into my shell and became passive, because anything other than Dad’s way was considered rebellion. The scolding and spankings communicated to me that our family could not have more than one leader in it, so I withdrew.
When I tell my story as a young leader, sometimes I see other adults, shaking their heads, relating to being raised by an autocratic parent who didn’t allow them to develop their leadership ability at home. On occasion, I have a parent come up to me afterward and admit, “I think I’m shutting down my kids.” Over the last several years of researching and designing our leadership training curriculum for kids, I’ve run into dozens of people who have shared testimonials on both sides of the fence. These represent a much larger number who unknowingly confuse young leader suppression with Christian discipline.
Here’s my point. If you see a child who has the innate ability to influence peers—getting them to do what they normally would not do—you owe it to that child to see how his/her gifts are being recognized and developed at home. Far too many families suppress the leadership ability of their kids, because they perceive them to be rebellious or disrespectful to parents and elders. At other times, we see dominant siblings who overpower younger or less strong leaders, thus diminishing the development of latent leadership abilities. Parents allow this to happen under the rationalization, “That’s just the way they are.”
We most frequently notice this when we see a kid leadership aptitude assessment come in with a low average, taken by a parent. But after observing the child in a leadership training session among peers, s/he shines. It tells us that something is going on in the home environment that is suppressing the young leader. The child is not behaving the same in social settings as at home, more than likely because home life is stifling young leader behaviors.
I’m not talking about overt abuse or neglect, but a common adult misunderstanding regarding young leaders. By trying to control them, coerce compliance, or spiritualize dominance, we frequently knock their God-given leadership ability right out of them. We punish them for exhibiting early, undisciplined leadership behaviors that someday will be rewarded handsomely in organizations. When we do this under the guise of spiritual formation and respect for elders, we put a slant on it that telegraphs the idea, “God doesn’t want to use my ability to influence others.” That’s one reason why, in my opinion, the church is one of the least leader-friendly cultures in society. That is also why, after nearly 25 years of being a pastor and working with pastors, I committed the second half of my life to identifying and developing young leaders.
Great children’s ministry concerns itself with more than what happens at church, when kids are attending your scheduled programs. Ministry leaders who don’t want to get involved in family life beyond crisis and trauma, fail to embrace the full extent of their godly calling. The more we can influence a family’s development of a young leader in its midst, the better we can create a long-term benefit to the Kingdom and society at large. There are 168 hours in a week. Church attendance, among people who think of themselves as regulars, has gone down from attending 3 times a month 10-15 years ago, to twice a month. The bottom line is that our interaction with kid leaders for 2-4 hours per month is hardly enough to counterbalance the enormous amount of time at school and in the home. That’s why we must be about educating and equipping parents to be the primary spiritual nurturers in general and young leader developers specifically.
Young leader development should transcend merely finding a place for the child to lead in your programs. Sit down with the parents of social influencers and talk about what you see in their child. Let them know that you recognize leadership potential, so they too can see it and hopefully develop and not suppress it in home life. Maybe it’s irritating at times. Perhaps the child does have a strong will, or a lot of opinions, or comes across bossy at times, but like a young colt on wobbly legs, your child is getting ready to run as a leader.
Perhaps you can’t do this sort of parent-teacher conference with every child in your ministry, but be sure you do it with the strongest 10-25 percent of your influencers. Suggest ways parents can let the child learn to lead around the house, by being put in charge of family events, planning outings, and making sure siblings are willing to submit to the child’s leading during these times. By becoming an advocate for kid leaders, you’ll empower them to embrace the abilities God placed in them and they’ll someday thank you for it. Families can and often should have multiple leaders in them. Even though parents are ultimately responsible, they don’t always have to lead. A family, like any organization, that has an insecure leader at the helm, will tend to stifle the leadership ability in others.
Those of us who are parents understand that no one cares more for our child than we do. We know more about our children than anyone else. But we don’t know everything about them and there are some things that others observe that we don’t. By helping parents see when a child has above average amounts of leadership potential, we can assist them in developing that potential in the family. For some young leaders, that alone is enough to save them from years of oppression. Letting a child lead in a family can be very difficult for some parents and siblings. You owe it to both kid leader and parent, to educate them gently and gracefully, on how they can co-exist as parent and young leader.
Family life ministry is more than a fad. It’s the swinging of the pendulum back toward Deuteronomy 6, after the age-group segregation of the church the last 50 years. Think of family ministry as a stewardship issue, increasing your influence beyond the token hour or two every other week, to impact the life of a child beyond church walls. This is never so pertinent than in the life of a young leader.