Thriving or Diving as an Emerging Leader

A friend of mine graduated from a well-known evangelical seminary in 2005 with more than $90,000 in undergraduate and graduate school debt. This was before a financial crisis and soaring higher education cost increases and before churches put a squeeze on hiring.

Today, many a seminary graduate goes on to become a $9/hour Starbucks barista, waiting for a chance to interview at a church that has received more than 100 applicants. In a worst-case scenario, one of the “lucky ones” gets hired at a church that overworks, underpays and underinvests in its staff.

And so, sadly, the burdens of catastrophic debt and unhealthy ministry positions lead many emerging leaders into other careers (or back to first careers), rather than following their dream of serving God through the local church. Young leaders with no financial footing and no work experience are the most crushed when left in the lurch.

How can we begin to undo this trend? Several factors contribute to creating an environment where emerging leaders can thrive: 1) coaching and mentoring, 2) help in discerning one’s call, 3) financial stability, and 4) a place to serve. Thankfully, some organizations and churches are laying the foundation for such an environment.

For example, the Kern Family Foundation walks alongside emerging leaders not only while they’re in seminary but also for years to come. Since 2002, KFF has offered grants that enable seminaries to select Kern Scholars—students who receive subsidized tuition while engaging with a peer-learning community. After seminary, Kern Scholars receive five additional years of investment in the Kern Scholars Network, taking the form of everything from continued-education grants to counseling and retreats. After five years, pastors are encouraged to remain in the network for lifelong learning.

Photo: courtesy Tom Olson. Tom Olson (at left) chats with The Orchard’s executive pastor, Bill Bradish, and intern Jared Hendricks during a mission trip fundraiser. Now serving as campus pastor of The Orchard in Barrington, Ill., Tom has benefited from investment as both a former Kern Scholar and The Orchard intern.

Eighteen current EFCA pastors have already benefited as Kern Scholars, including Tom Olson, campus pastor of The Orchard EFC in Barrington, Ill. “Because I wasn’t having to work part time or full time elsewhere to pay for seminary,” Tom explains, “I had the chance to be deeply involved in my church—and that’s a blessing that has helped me for the long haul.”

Tom’s church started its own formal internship program about five years ago, in conjunction with nearby Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Each year, eight students receive a stipend for serving 15 hours a week in various ministry roles, during which time they’re coached by pastors and mentored by lay leaders.

The program is a “win, win, win,” says Bill Bradish, The Orchard’s executive pastor. “The seminary is supported, the future church is served, and our local body is blessed by the love and labors of these young servants.”

Equipping those within your church

Bill—himself the product of a lay-leadership course—believes that all churches can be developing leaders. He encourages every pastor to identify three to five emerging leaders and start investing in them: together, study Scriptures on servant leadership, as well as classic books on Christian theology and ministry. Then include those leaders in all aspects of church ministry.

“What a privilege it is,” Bill says, “to equip and deploy people for ministry inside the four walls of our own church.”

Darin Anderson, pastor of Grace EFC in Louisville, Ky., is a product of this type of investment. “I am a pastor today because my youth pastor saw potential in a shy, often sarcastic and sometimes straying teenager,” Darin says. “He was intentionally incarnational and eventually invited me to intern with him, so I could experience the life of a pastor and begin to serve as one.”

That personal investment propelled Darin into seminary, where he went on to become a Kern Scholar. “Without the Kern Foundation, I would not have attended Trinity,” Darin explains, seven years after graduating, “and we would almost certainly still be paying off school loans.”

With mentoring, some emerging leaders, like Darin, may head to seminary and find support through foundations like KFF or church internships like The Orchard. But other emerging Christian leaders will faithfully and powerfully serve in their local church and community—volunteering on school boards, leading businesses and coaching sports teams—for decades to come.

Whatever the futures of these emerging leaders may be, the impetus is on current leaders to find ways to help lift financial weights from their shoulders and stand alongside them as they learn to serve.

Another EFCA church with an intentional pastoral mentoring program is Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kan. Read a previous EFCA Today article about how to launch a similar program.

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