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Nurturing millennial leadership attitudes

| by Bob Whitesel

How does leadership look different as the baton is passed to the next generation? Here are three millennial leadership attitudes and how these could benefit your ministry. 

Attitude 1: Others and their needs drive the leader.

1.a. Live among them.

A key to knowing the needs of others is to experience life with them. Leaders who become out of touch with those they serve experience churches that stop growing in attendance.33 For example, a church leader might move out of a church’s neighborhood as the church attendance grows and live in a different culture (usually a more suburban and affluent one) than do the congregants. David McKenna states, “By leaving the ghetto behind, the church has implied that its mission is meaningless to the poor, the hopeless and the wretched—except when an ocean separates the church from the ghetto.”34

Yet by living among them, a leader not only demonstrates solidarity with the poor but also continues to experience (and understand) their needs firsthand. John M. Perkins, a sharecropper’s son who went on to found a well-known urban ministry, believes living among the needy is key to understanding and not patronizing them. “Living involvement,” Perkins said, “turns poor people from statistics into our friends.”35

1.b. Learn from and with them. 

One hundred years of church growth study in North America have shown that the more seminary training pastors received, the less likely they were to grow a church.36 The culprit was not the training, but how the pastor came to depend on other seminary-trained leaders for ideas and innovations.37 In other words, as pastors went through seminary, they began leaning more on the advice of other seminarians rather than leaning on the input of the people they served.38 

To prevent this, the millennial learner learns fromand withthe people he or she serves. Aaron Norwood, pastor of the Bridge in Phoenix, orchestrated the purchase of a homeless shelter for the church’s office. Norwood feels that having their office and ministry meetings in a homeless shelter keeps them connected to those they serve. “I learn so much from my friends in our addiction recovery program about faithfulness, perseverance, humility, and vulnerability,” states Norwood. “As I teach them each week from Scripture, they interpret it back in such a rich and challenging way. As a leader, this ongoing conversation with them grows me tremendously.”39 

Seminaries are discovering the power of two-way communication through student-congregant collaboration. Many seminaries offer online seminary education, so seminarians can remain in their local church and immediately apply the lessons they learn. And some seminaries even require students to get input and advice from local congregants on their homework before they turn in their assignments.40 Such collaborative actions are required if leaders are to indigenize the lessons they study. 

1.c. Prepare to “sift out” the bad since both good and bad are in each culture. 

At the intersection of Christ and culture there is innovation, but also pitfalls. Canadian researcher Michael Fullan said, “Change is a double-edged sword. Its relentless pace these days runs us off our feet. Yet when things are unsettled, we can . . . create breakthroughs not possible in stagnant societies.”41 The millennial leader understands that close fellowship with people outside the church can foster new innovations, but also immoral enticements.

God recognizes this, too, and God “acts redemptively with regard to culture, which includes judgment on some elements, but also affirmation in other areas, and a transformation of the whole.”42 The church leader is not just a student of Scripture, but also an assessor of the culture into which he or she must translate it.43 This requires the millennial leader to sift out what goes against the good news and retain what affirms it. “What does the gospel have to say to our culture? What elements does it affirm, what does it reject, what does it accommodate, and which need to be redeemed?”44 

Attitude 2: Others are souls to be nurtured. 

2.a. Look for and nurture the potential in others.Millennial leadership has a keen sensitivity to the potential that God has put into all of his creation. Emerging leaders see God’s people as created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), which means they recognize that because the Holy Spirit is within laypeople too (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17), it will be together that a vision forward is discovered and attained. 

But millennial leaders recognize at the same time that everyone has short-comings and struggles. Millennial leaders often develop organizational unity by retelling stories about how anyone, even someone with shortcomings, can rise to the top. Citing their own personal journeys, leaders recall that though unqualified, it was circumstance, opportunity, and the help of others that allowed them to succeed.45 Thus in millennial churches, those who might be overlooked by a more dignified Christian community are welcomed, affirmed, and put to use.

As a result, the millennial leader embraces the biblical admonition to take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? . . . Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start— comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 The Message

2.b. See learning in others as important as their performance. 

This is related to 2.a. The millennial leader will give followers permission to fail. As Jesus did not harangue but heartened his disciples when they failed (Matthew 17:16-19), so too the millennial leader recognizes that failure is a powerful learning tool (Matthew 17:20- 21; Mark 9:29). The millennial leader is not frustrated, angry, or even surprised when failure occurs. He or she sees this not just as a part of life, but as an important element of instruction. In reflecting on his church’s office in a homeless shelter, Aaron Norwood states, “I have a sense that the call of the spiritual leader must be helping people internalize that they are in fact ‘His Masterpiece’ (Ephesians 2:10) and that their value is based on their Creator/Redeemer, and not results.”46 

2.c. Solicit others’ input.An article titled “The Power Trip” in the Wall Street Journalpointed out while nice people are more likely to rise to power, once they get there, they become less compassionate.47 The millennial leader instinctively recognizes the lure of a power trip and solicits frequent input from those one serves. Today’s successful leaders regard followers’ input as equal to their own insights.48 Further, good leaders nurture “effective talkback” where followers are free to talk back to the leader with the truth.49 

2.d. Obtain followers who complement your weaknesses.In the increasing complexity of the new millennium one person’s insights and skills are inadequate for holistic leadership. Not surprisingly, millennial leaders surround themselves with people who complement them.50 For example, if the leader is a strong visionary (sometimes called a “strategic leader”), he or she will often have a right-hand person who is good at number crunch- ing (often called a “tactical leader”).51 If the leader is not a people person, a complementary colleague will relish interacting with others. In the complexity of the millennial world, team leadership is not an option, but a standard.52 The author of The Leadership Jump: Building Partnerships between 

Existing and Emerging Christian Leaderssummarizes: “We have begun to see that effectiveness depends less on the heroic leader and more on the collaborative efforts of a number of people to create a team environment where together they can move the company, organization or ministry forward.”53 

Attitude 3: Others are led by integrity. 

3.a. Live a simple life.It is not the number of followers or the number of luxuries that characterizes tomorrow’s leadership. In a world increasingly stratified by haves and have-nots, tomorrow’s leader is known by an ability to connect across such chasms and bring people together. To achieve this, millennial leaders sense the need not to be pretentious or showy. Even if they attain stature, millennial leaders still resonate with the common person because they are in essence common. Before his execution in a Nazi prison camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote movingly about this: 

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man [and woman] must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. . . . When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.54 

3.b. Live a natural life.Don’t try to copy the leadership styles of others. Don’t even try to copy the leadership styles of this book. You can’t. This book is a compilation of dozens of stories and observations about millennial leaders. Instead, create a collage of ideas, characteristics, and tools that are relevant to you and to the people you serve.55 As we saw in the introduction, a natural connectedness to those you serve is part of what it means to be organic. 

3.c. Live a well-thought-out life.The millennial leader resists quick decisions, easy answers, and come-what-may attitudes. He or she recognizes the propensity of modern leaders to be recklessly optimistic and excessively hasty. The millennial leader develops a more unhurried and circumspect attitude toward God’s plans. Aaron Norwood writes, 

Planning, praying, and preparing for each day are so fundamental to who I am as a follower of Christ. My all-too-often experience is that daily “winging it” always leaves out prayer and scripture. And, long-term thoughtlessness keeps me from planning meaningful times with my family. To hold to these priorities means carefully and daily thinking about them.56 

A leader knows that participation in God’s mission will bring triumphs and hardships. The millennial leader’s levelheadedness is fostered by an attitude that recognizes that the leader’s personal vision can always be tainted by pride, self-importance, and haste. 

3.d. Live a life of honesty and openness about faults.Millennial leaders often share openly their struggles and shortcomings, but they are careful not to do so in a sensational or inappropriate way. Being honest means that each struggle and shortcoming can help others relate to one’s trials and triumphs. Yet this openness recognizes there is an audience where sharing personal faults is appropriate and other audiences where it is not. The millennial leader takes great pains to distinguish between the two. 

3.e. Live a life that models themissio Dei. While the modern leader may try to attain a perfect life, the millennial leader is an open book of travels, travails, and triumphs. It is honesty coupled with resilience and persistence that demonstrates to others how the leader is reconnecting with God. This journey of return points others to the missio Dei: God’s mission to redeem his creation and restore fellowship with it. 

Excerpted from Organix: Signs of Leadership in a Changing Church, by Bob Whitesel (Abingdon Press 2011). For further online notes: See Chapter 1 Complete Notes.

Bob Whitesel

Bob Whitesel (D.Min., Ph.D.) is a sought after speaker, church health consultant and award-winning writer of 13 books on missional leadership, church change and church growth. He is founding professor and former professor of missional leadership of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He also holds two earned doctorates (D.Min. and Ph.D.) from Fuller Theological Seminary where he was awarded “The Donald McGavran Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Church Growth.” His website is

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