4 Keys to Developing Emerging Generation Leaders


Marv Nelson says church leaders are often too quick to dismiss the potential of next generation leaders. To move beyond our own negative stereotypes, we need to invest time in really knowing millennials, equipping them, and believing in them enough to let them take leadership.

I’ve heard many church leaders air their frustrations about the millennial generation. Many times, they see the next generations as whimsical, self-absorbed, whiny, and unwilling to remain planted where they land. It’s as though these established leaders are asking, “How can we work with and invest in transient, entitled young people? We’ve seen data that backs up our ideas about them, and we don’t like what we see. They are always trying to get ahead without putting in the work.”

Some of these negative impressions came from a 2013 Time magazine article entitled “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation.” The data is remembered, but some of the article’s key points explaining why millennials are important and what good they bring to the table are often forgotten.

I’ve had these very same quandaries as I work with emerging generations. I’ve seen some of these negative qualities emerge in many of the millennials I work with and even in myself, an older millennial at 33. The data on these issues isn’t untrue. Yet they do not tell the whole story either. I have discovered that effectively setting up strong future leaders takes four things.

1. Knowing

The first of these is knowing. The fear of throwing the ball to emerging generations often comes down to not knowing them enough to trust them. Even if we are spending time with emerging generations, are we really getting to know them, or are we watching them to see if they fit into the assumptions that we’ve made about them based on the data we’ve read? The research is important, but the people behind the research need to be known and made more important than the data. Being known for who they are and not who we assume them to be is a passionate desire of emerging generations.

If we’re honest, it’s a desire of ours as well. We all have a desire to know and be known. The great news is that as you get to know the people you lead, they will also get to know you. Without it, trust can’t be formed enough to walk through the other aspects of equipping and releasing. You must know them, and they must know you to move forward.

2. Equipping

Equipping is the second piece necessary for empowering emerging generations of leaders. Once there is mutual trust, we can equip young leaders with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful leaders. Due to their wisdom, tenured leaders have a lot to offer younger men and women who desire to lead. These emerging generations are hungry for the wisdom of seasoned leaders. That may come as a shock to you if you’ve read too much into the data and haven’t spent enough time with millennials or Generation Z.

In my experience, one of the main values that emerging generations want from older generations is mentorship. Younger leaders may not always know the best ways to articulate this or know how to go about it, but they most certainly want it and recognize they need it. If emerging leaders know you and trust you, they will likely see your faithful and fruitful leadership and want to learn from you. Once you know them, you will see where they need equipping and you will have earned the right to speak into their lives.

All future leaders, no matter which generation, need to be equipped in five critical aspects of leadership — character, influence, vision, communication, and surrender. In my own leadership experience with younger generations, these five aspects are vital to their growth, as well as the health of those they will lead. Jesus himself encouraged his disciples in these five areas, so I think it is of utmost importance we do the same.

3. Releasing

The third aspect of unleashing emerging generations into leadership is releasing. It’s one thing to discuss the how-tos, but it’s a completely different thing to take action on them. After we’ve poured into, grown, taught, made into disciples, mentored, and passed on all the wisdom we possibly can, there comes the time for letting the emerging generation take the ball. As current leaders who are called to empower future leaders, it is our job to hand off the ball, turn the plays over to the new quarterback, and get out of the game.

These first three components build upon each other. We can’t call our young leaders to flourish if we don’t know them, and we can’t release them unless we equip them. Knowing, equipping, and releasing flow together and must be built one on top of the other.

4. Believing

Finally, we must hold a confident and expectant belief in the emerging generation of leaders — a belief that is convinced, confident, unconflicted, and unwavering trust in the emerging generation. When we come to this type of belief, we can help them also believe in themselves.

It is critical that we all begin this journey of gifting leadership to emerging generations in a spirit of belief. We must believe in the emerging generations. We must have hope and optimism rather than a doom-and-gloom type of pessimism. Let us all leave those feelings of dread at the door and look to a bright future with godly, passionate leaders who will lead the future.

This article is excerpted from Unleash: Empowering the Next Generation of Leaders (Abingdon Press, 2018) by Marv Nelson. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

Marv Nelson

Marv Nelson is lead pastor at Indiana Alliance Church in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Prviously, he served as the College and Campus Plant Pastor at Allegheny Center Alliance Church, a multiethnic, inner-city church in Pittsburgh. He recently coauthored The Anchored Life: Nautical Principles that Help Believers Grow (Emerald House Group, Inc., 2023), available at Amazon.

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