Multiplication Rather Than Addition

Discipling young leaders

Leadership Development - Kids //


Although I am an advocate for discipling any child, I am particularly passionate about discipling young leaders at a strategic age, because establishing character is paramount for ethical leadership.  Hardly a week goes by that we’re not bombarded by headlines, screaming at us about some new leadership scandal.  Control, greed, sex, embezzling, manipulation and coercion are fruits of unethical leading.

The reason why you need to disciple leaders is because of their multiplication effect.  When you fail to disciple a non-leader, you’ll get a bad egg who may never mature and perhaps not even make heaven.  But when you fail to disciple a leader, you are getting a person who will negatively influence many people and may even keep scores from finding God.  Although we cringe at the thought of overlooking a single soul, stewardship requires that we begin by identifying the social influencers and getting to them first.  That’s what doctors refer to as triage.  Make the call.  Jesus did.

The reason why you want to identify and disciple leaders at an early age is because that is when their character is still moldable.  Moral psychologists tell us that a person’s character is primarily established by the age of fourteen.  It’s interesting because typical rites of passage to adulthood historically and in most cultures today are still around 12-14 years of age.  The modern invention of adolescence did not come into being until the Information Age started.  That’s when we began keeping our kids at home longer for education in order to help them succeed in life.  Even at 12, Jesus said he needed to be about his Father’s business.  That statement reflects a sense of adult responsibility.


The graph above displays the strategic intersect between character and cognitive development.  The blue straight line represents moral development, starting at about age two.  It crescendos around 10-12 years.  Then we become far less pliable.  Although we don’t become immoral at 13 or 14 (unless you ask mothers of teen girls), we’re far less likely to change, outside of an act of God, trauma, or therapy.  Youth pastors should thank children’s pastors, because their job is primarily to buff and shine what you’ve done.

Cognitive development also begins around 2 years of age and then tops out around age 35.  That’s why folks at my age need crossword puzzles and Sudoku, because it’s not going to get any better.  Although I believe in discipleship as well as leadership development for all ages, if we’re to see a critical window of opportunity, shoot for the 10-13 Window.  That’s when character is still moldable and cognitions are most elevated, so that we can get to their hearts through their heads and still make a lasting impact.

By focusing on leaders before and during this strategic window, we raise the chances of developing ethically good leaders.  When you get a leader who lacks character, he’ll take the rest of the kids down roads they ought not go.  They become gang leaders, bullies, frat pack instigators and eventual headliners.  Just ask the scores of people who invested in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.  Who knows, as many as 70,000,000 people might have been saved if a Sunday school worker had gotten to little Joey Stalin as a preteen, after his dad died.  Don’t just think about the lives you’ll touch proactively.  Consider how many evil leaders you’ll help head off while they’re reachable.


Unfortunately, most of us have never been trained on how to disciple well, especially leaders.  People who are wired to lead tend not to be classroom academicians who absorb knowledge with textbooks and Sunday school manuals.  They are the activists, who learn best by observing and doing.

My recommendation is that you DWJD: Do What Jesus Did.  He did not go shallow with the masses, but went deep with the few.  Not long ago I wrote a book titled Spiritual Intelligence (  It was my distillation of 50 years of attending church and 25 years of leading in the church, regarding why we aren’t more effectively turning out mature, Jesus-like believers.  Think of the petty people you know who’ve been in worship services, Bible studies, small groups and on church boards for decades.  They gossip, criticize others, and change churches at the drop of a hat.  Behind the closed doors of most pastors’ studies, pastors will admit that the level of spiritual immaturity baffles them to no end.  Our goal is not knowledgeable Christians, but mature disciples.

I’m convinced that the primary reason for this fiasco is not flawed doctrine, watered-down theology, or even half-hearted devotion.  The big ah-ha is that we’ve failed to implement the methods Jesus used.  He did not build a building and hang out a sign that said, “Worship Services, Sundays, 9 and 10:30 AM.”  Instead, he handpicked twelve to do life together for three years.  At times we see him fleeing the crowds and avoiding the throngs.  That is not what today’s pastors are rewarded for or attempt to do.  Most children’s ministries follow their pastors.

If you really want to disciple young leaders, you need to handpick them and then create a very sizable, high commitment team.  Then you, or some other committed, leader-type adult, should pour into this group.  Sometimes you’ll study the Bible, but you’ll also hang out at the mall, go on campouts, and do lots and lots of ministry projects together.  It’s all about on-the-job-let-me-see-you-with-your-hair-down type of activities.

This isn’t a ½-hour a week schedule to get their tickets punched.  You’ll need chunks of time to let these young influencers see, hear and experience their adult mentors in a variety of situations, not just churchy ones.  Then, when you weave in the God-talk and spiritual moments, they become far more authentic and effective.

Don’t even start this team if you can’t do it well for at least 6 months.  Even better, see if you can mentor this same team for 2-3 years.  Jesus did.  That’s when you earn the right to speak into the life of a young leader in such a way that even when you whisper, you’ll be shouting to them.  The reason we have to shout at kids is because we’ve not earned that right.  You ask, “Well, what about the rest of the children?  They need discipleship too.”  What did Jesus do?  Don’t worry about the masses, until you’ve taken care of the leaders, because in the long term that’s our best bet for the future—developing spiritual leaders.

Children’s pastor, don’t rely on the pastor or youth pastor.  By the time they get your kids, they’re already baked and are just cooling off on the cookie rack.  No, go after parents and leaders in your church now to handpick kids who are wired to influence and then invest your efforts in discipling them.  The church is dying for that kind of leader.

Recommended Readings:

  • Raising Spiritual Champions by George Barna
  • Spiritual Intelligence by Alan E. Nelson
  • Spirituality & Leadership by Alan E. Nelson
  • Spiritual Leadership by Oswald Sanders
  • The Art of Leadership by Max DePree






About the Author

Alan E. Nelson, EdD is a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School and founder of KidLead Inc., ( He lives in Monterey, CA with his family and has pastored for over 20 years.