Last year I was ordained as an elder. I was twenty-one years old. When I received the call from my church’s nominating committee, I was confused. In my experience, elders were people who were well established, probably with a few grey hairs, and—to a young person like me—seemed to be on another plane of existence. A university student barely scraping by does not fit the image of a traditional elder, at least in my experience.
There is something incredibly powerful about feeling as though others in your congregation trust you to step into a leadership role. I prayed about the call and took the position. Although even some of my confidants and I felt that I was too young, I was reminded of Jesus’ emphasis on empowering those whom society usually does not let have a voice—especially the young. When Jesus was on this earth, He, the Son of God, chose twelve young men, most of whom were teenagers, to follow Him. Not only that, but following His death, Jesus trusted these young people to spread His message across the world. It is indisputable that these people diligently did what they were instructed—and they did it well! Paul also empowered young people to lead; he told Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because he was young (1 Tim 4:12). Several of the pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church were hardly older than twenty, if that! God uses young people just as much as He uses the more experienced.
Since joining the leadership team of my church, I have received an immensely valuable experience that I think that any young person, regardless of their position, should be exposed to. Getting to sit in on board and business meetings, organize worship services, and be involved in the church’s strategic planning have been fantastic opportunities. I suddenly find myself being much more involved in my church, with a new appreciation for its organization. I have enjoyed talking to the other elders, all of whom are at least two generations older than me. Hearing about their experiences and perspectives has helped me see issues from their point of view. I hope that my own age and experience have also been an asset to the leadership team. An intergenerational group allows for a unique team planning experience.
From my perspective, it appears that we want youth to be involved, yet we are often unwilling to give them a seat at the table. Initially, I felt awkward during our meetings. I was not sure whether I could share my opinions and be heard. As I began to share, there were times when I felt overlooked, but there were more times when I felt as though my opinion was just as valued as everyone else’s.
What I loved about my experience is that while I had previously been disengaged with my church community, I was now involved in the everyday running of the institution. I became immersed in the church.
There is power in intentional mentorship. It is never a good idea to throw someone into the deep end without a way out. When I was about seventeen, the head elder started to teach me how to coordinate church services. He stood by me for the first few services and walked me through how to do it. He then started letting me coordinate it by myself and put me on the roster to regularly organize services. When I got the call to be an elder, years later, some of my fellow elders intentionally looked out for me and modelled what I should have been doing. This mentorship was an excellent way for me to start as an elder in a safe environment where I felt confident.
I am still learning, but I think we all are. I’m learning how to better fulfill the role of an elder by continuing to watch those around me and by reading the Elder’s Handbook. I also seek God’s guidance as He continues to shape me.
I implore you, as a team, to prayerfully look for leadership potential in the young people who attend your church. When we give young people the keys to the church and the permission to thrive in their roles, we are ensuring a vibrant future for our church. If you are willing to walk alongside a young person in your church and intentionally mentor them for leadership, you will be astonished by how much it will mean to them and how much of an impact it could make for the kingdom. The prerequisite for becoming an elder should not be based on one’s earthly maturity (age), but rather their spiritual maturity and discipline, as mentioned in Titus 1:5–9. The role of the elder can involve emotionally draining and challenging situations—ones in which age can perhaps be a positive influence. In these situations, you can help young people grow into the role and develop their wisdom! Young people do not want to be passive observers; we want to be involved in the life of the church where we are called to be. For some young people, that means taking on the position of elder despite their age.
Kira-leigh Josey is an elder at Thornleigh Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sydney, Australia.