Global Leadership Network UK & Ireland

GLN UK & Ireland

Where Are The Younger Leaders? Part 1 – James Lawrence

Several weeks ago Bill Hybels said one of his biggest concerns for the western church is the lack of 20-30s leaders. I’ve been thinking about this comment ever since. Is it true? If so, why might it be so? And what can we do about it?

I need to declare my position. For the last fifteen years I have spent a considerable part of my working life thinking about how to develop leaders. When I started I was a leader in my thirties, but now I am in my late fourties. I can no longer think of myself as a ‘younger’ leader. I may well be part of the problem, but I also could well be part of the solution. So over the next few posts I want to engage with Hybels’ statement and offer a few reflections.

Is it true?

Well, yes and no. The latest Church of England (2009) statistics are revealing. There are only 82 stipendiary full time parochial clergy under 30, and only 520 under 40. The average age of ordination is now 48. Other denominations reflect similar trends of an ageing clergy. When I trained at my vicar factory 24 years ago it was unusual to be over 30! But it is also the case that some denominations seem to attract younger leaders. My brother is an elder in a New Frontiers church. Attending one of their leadership gatherings a few years ago I was stunned at the average age of the leaders. Twenty-something was the norm.

So why have some denominations suffered more than others, and what are some of the more general factors that influence the decline in younger leadership in churches?

  1. Less opportunity. Some theorists suggest that back in the 1940-1960s there were a number of paths that developed leadership (and some of the disciplines that are foundational to healthy leadership) in younger people, national service being one. With the gradual erosion of these paths in the 1970-1980s people began to identify a global emerging leadership vacuum. Combined with the rise in the discipline of ‘management’ post 1950, leadership development became increasingly sidelined.
  2. Church on the edge. As the church has moved from the centre of a Christendom culture to the periphery of a post-modern, post Christian culture it holds less attraction to those who want to be at the centre of a cutting edge movement. Perhaps the mainline traditional denominations have suffered this more than others.
  3. Suspicion of leadership. The last ten years have seen an increasing suspicion of those in leadership, especially any associated with ancient institutions (the Church being one).
  4. Impact of relativism. I have a hunch that the undermining of gospel confidence through relativism not only impacting general social attitudes but also permeating the lifeblood of the Church means that fewer people believe in the importance of gospel ministry (interesting to note those parts of the Church which are attracting younger leaders better than others).
  5. The shift from a culture of commitment to a culture of choice. Increasingly younger people are less likely to enter a ‘career for life’. Some research suggests that by the time someone is 38 they will have had 14 jobs. So even those who are thinking about taking on a full time leadership role within the church may not be thinking of it as life commitment, but a choice at this time.
  6. Role models. One of the most sobering factors is what I hear younger people say about existing church leaders. At best they think they have an impossible job as they observe the way they are treated by either the denominations of which they are a part or those they attempt to lead. At worst they seem them as exhausted, cynical and lacking in vision.

I wonder what you would add to my list? And what can we do about it? More on this next time.


About Guest Blogger James Lawrence – Director, Development Team, CPAS

James is not your run-of-the-mill kind of guy. For a start, he confesses to a love of ironing and early mornings. Ask any graduate of the Arrow Leadership Programme about the latter and they’d probably agree – the ‘late breakfast’ on residentials begins at 7:45am.

As the director of the CPAS development team and Arrow, James lives and breathes what he teaches. More than just the raison d’etre for Arrow and Growing Leaders, James really does exist to help church leaders to be led more by Jesus, lead more like Jesus and lead more to Jesus.

It’s worth noting that phrase, which concludes with his greatest passion – people coming to know Jesus. A former associate minister and adviser in evangelism, since joining CPAS he has fulfilled a number of roles, written several books and courses, as well as having a four-year secondment to the Springboard evangelism initiative.

Energy, enthusiasm and a commitment to excellence give you a good handle on James.

On top of his work promoting leadership development throughout the Church, James has a busy life full of his wife and three children and a fitness regime driven by a love of sport. Perhaps that’s why he loves early mornings – so there’s enough waking hours to fit it all in.

T 01926 458419
E jlawrence@cpas.org.uk


  • Tim Cross

    Great to read James’ thoughts on this crucial business. Developing young Leadership is definitely something we need to focus our attention on and, like many others I am sure, my home church is ‘working the issue’.

    I will want to stay alongside this debate as it develops, but I would want to chip in with an immediate thought; in an ageing population we need to capture and retain the wisdom of those who have experienced success and failure in their leadership – and in particular get them alongside and Mentoring those developing leaders coming through.

    Having run a number of Growing Leaders Courses over the last few years, and in my role as a Trustee and Tutor at the Leadership Trust (a secular leadership development Charity based near Ross-on-Wye) I have come to the conclusion that Mentoring is an increasingly important role. As we all look to develop our reach into younger leadership training/education we need to be challenging us old and bold (like you and me James!!) to learn how to Mentor well and get engaged.

    Can I also make a plug for Pete Wynter and One-Life – a great Ministry!!

  • James Lawrence

    Thanks Tim, couldn’t agree more. May be worth you knowing that I am currently writing a new mentor resource that we are aiming to publish in the autumn to help churches set up mentoring schemes!

  • Josh Hopping

    Interesting article… I agree with some of your factors and not so with others (but that is fairly typical isn’t it?) =P

    First off, I feel that I should introduce myself as my background will affect my response. I am currently the senior pastor of a Vineyard church in Idaho (as of four months ago) and will be turning 31 in seven days (I guess this makes me one of the young leaders in question). Prior to becoming a senior pastor, I served as the church’s associate pastor for two years – and was on the church planting team that started the church in 2006.

    Ok, now back to the post.

    In my experience, one of the biggest factors as to why there are not very many young leaders is the simple reason that there are not many young people in the church. As someone who grew up in the church and never left, I have seen a lot of my peers throw in the towel and leave the church for good – or, at least, they leave for several years before they come back, at which time they have to unlearn a lot of stuff before they are healthy enough to lead a church.

    As far as the factors you list, I can agree with the first one as there has been less opportunities to lead – or, at least, less opportunities within the traditional structure. Folks could always, and have, branched out and started their own churches or ministries… but within existing churches there hasn’t been much opportunity to lead because the existing leaders have not turned over the positions of authority. Like a lot baby boomers, they gained leadership authority early on and they plan on keeping it until the very end – which, don’t get me wrong, is not a bad thing, it just means that there are less positions open.

    This brings me to your number 3 point, “suspicion of leadership.” I’m not sure if I agree with this or not… On one level I can see why you mention this as folks my age are tired of the hypocrisy and the hype presented by leaders of all organizations (church, government, corporations, etc). Yet on the other level, I see myself and other like me who are actively seeking out mentors and leaders to help us navigate the changing culture. Some of us are even looking to the ancient church (Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic) for stability amidst a confusing world.

    Ok, I’ve said enough… =)

    Blessings and thanks for starting the conversation.

  • James Lawrence

    Thanks Josh, great to have your contribution, and your point about not a lot of younger people in our churches is so true. In the UK (where I am based) it is a critical issue and one we are needing to address. My colleague Ruth Hassall has done some fascinating work on how what we do with the 10–14s in our churches impacts whether they will be around later in their teenage years and early adulthood.

    Lead on…

  • simon taylor

    Excellent and provocative opener from James.

    My comment is that the Vineyard chap from the US and James’ own NFI/relative experience would be worth exploration in comparision to the CofE stats referenced. CofE is not the normative position, esp. globally. Suggests the CofE has some rapid response time required of it and a healthy dose of prayer.

    Could it be one possibility is that younger potential church leaders are not in the CofE but they do appear to be in other church groups, as cited above. The CofE may need to ask ‘why’?

    Another question could be to ask how a 31 year old who was in a ‘2nd chair’ position at 29 would be viewed in the CofE leadership development systems as they stand? An exception? Sadly.

    A third would be to ask what the CofE is to ask of its senior (in age) leaders. If there are desperately few next-generation(s) to release leadership to then this asks questions of the current cohort and expectations. More of the same?

    Finally, a slightly theological stance. Does the Bible view eldership as something that is a combination of age + wisdom? Possibly. The Lord also finds room alongside this though for ‘the others: the young’, sometimes hesitant (Gideon?) and at other times headstrong (many – take your pick). Have we professionalised leadership in the church and turned it into a graduation programme resulting in fewer of ‘the others’? Result: safety and stability.

    Should declare my hand: 42, CofE and leading a church.

    Look forward to hearing from James and others. A timely article.

  • James Lawrence

    Thanks Simon

    Really helpful insights and questions. We have done some work among other ‘mainline’ denominations and discovered similar issues to CofE. So, why do some of the newer churches not seem to have such an issue with this? I have a few thoughts:
    They give leadership responsibiity to people much younger. A friend of mine was leading a church at 23, and is now, in his mid-forties, the equivalent of a bishop.
    They have high relational values in the way they do church. This attracts GenY.
    They are passionate about making a difference.
    They have less of the accoutrements associated with traditonal church.

    I like your comment about the graduated leadership dynamic. I think you’re right. How might we address this?