Here are four steps to successfully pass the baton on to the next generation of church leaders.

Susanna Fleming

If you have ever witnessed a 4×100 meter relay race, you know just how exhilarating this track and field event can be. The race begins with the first “leg” of runners crouched at the starting line, ready to spring into action at the sound of the starting gun. 

As the gun fires, these runners burst forward, sprinting furiously toward the next runner, who is waiting to receive the baton. With each baton exchange, the audience collectively holds its breath. The runners have just a split second to complete the hand-off within their exchange zone. If they drop the baton, they are disqualified. If the athletes are not in step with one another during the hand-off, they may trip over one another and fall. If, however, the baton is exchanged smoothly, the next athlete can ride the wave of her teammate’s momentum and sprint forward to continue the race. 

Church ministry may be more of a marathon than a sprint. Still, the 4×100 meter relay offers a compelling picture of what successful, multigenerational mentorship can and should look like within a church community. 

The effective transfer of wisdom, passion, leadership skills, and authority from experienced church leaders to younger generations is crucial for the continued growth and impact of churches. But what happens if the baton doesn’t get passed?

Age Trends in Christian Communities

According to a recent report by Faith Communities Today, many churches have been slow to pass the baton to the next generation. While the public workforce is made up of Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z, many churches do not reflect the same level of multigenerational participation. In fact, the data shows a sizable discrepancy between the average age of church attendees and the age distribution of the general population. 

And this isn’t just any report! This is a twenty-year study on multiple church communities that tracked trends in the U.S. religious landscape from 2000 to 2020. 

According to the data, the median age of religious leaders has risen from 50 years old in 2000 to 57 years old in 2020. The data also shows that 33% of congregants in religious communities are 65 or older, while this demographic only represents 17% of the general population. 

As an important disclaimer, there is nothing wrong with clergy members being older than their congregations. Having older pastors and church leaders can be incredibly positive, as age often equates with experience and wisdom. 

I firmly believe that faith communities should be quick to value members and leaders of every generation!

The key operative here, however, is every generation. God can and does raise up young leaders to serve in the Body of Christ, and it is crucial that churches make space for young leaders to step into their Christian calling.

Thus, if the average age of clergy really is increasing, we should intentionally ask ourselves, why

Reasons the Baton isn’t Being Passed 

One possible explanation that young leaders are not being raised up in church leadership is there are fewer people ready and willing to receive that baton. This could be due to a lack of opportunities for mentoring and leadership development within the church community. Additionally, cultural and social changes, such as the decline of Western cultural Christianity, may have led to a general disinterest in pastoral ministry among the younger generation.

On the other hand, it is also possible that older pastors are increasingly hesitant to transfer authority to the next generation. This may be due to a lack of available resources to invest in emerging leaders, or it may simply reflect an unwillingness to step down from leadership roles. 

Given all of these possibilities, how can we prepare the American Church for the next “leg” of this multigenerational relay race? How can we ensure that there are people ready to take the baton and run with it, and how can we ensure that the baton doesn’t get dropped in the process?

#1 Foster a Culture of Mentorship

The first step in raising the next generation of church leaders is to foster a culture of mentorship. Ultimately, our goal as Christians is to be disciple-making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), and this has to start in our own church communities! If we aren’t actively investing in multigenerational mentorship, we are missing out on valuable relationships within the church community that break down generational barriers and create unity. Multigenerational mentorship also serves as an opportunity for leadership development, providing young Christians with the guidance, support, and encouragement they need to develop the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit in their lives. 

#2 Identify Potential Leaders

As churches actively pour into the next generation through a culture of mentorship, they should also work to identify potential leaders within their church communities. This does not simply mean looking for people with leadership qualities, however. Just as God instructed the prophet Samuel to consider the heart rather than external qualifications when selecting a king for Israel (see 1 Samuel 16:7), we must be looking for people who have the heart qualities of leadership. These qualities may include humility, teachability, self-control, courage, servanthood, and love. Once these leaders are identified, the church should invest in their development through intentional training, coaching, or discipleship. 

#3 Trust Young Leaders with Real Responsibility

This is the step that is often missing when it comes to a transfer of leadership. In order for young leaders to be equipped and ready to serve in pastoral or other leadership roles, they need to have practice. This means that they need real empowerment to face real-life scenarios within the church. It can be easy for current leaders to coddle their mentees to protect them from failure. Even more often, it can be easy for current leaders to avoid trusting the emerging generation with real responsibility because they don’t want things to go wrong. 

Unfortunately, this approach can majorly hinder the development of emerging leaders and prevent them from gaining the experience and confidence they need for future responsibilities. Empowerment can take many forms, such as the opportunity to lead a small group, organize an outreach event, or preach a sermon. If we want to see the generation successfully grab the baton, we have to be more committed to this goal than we are afraid of failure. 

#4  Trust God with the Final Hand-off

Eventually, there will be a time in which the final-off has to occur. This is the moment when pastoral succession takes place or when new leaders are fully established in ministry roles. The transition from Moses’ to Joshua’s leadership in Joshua 31:1-8 is a beautiful example of what this can look like. Moses had already been raising up Joshua as a leader because God had identified him as such. When the time came, Moses gathered the people together and publicly passed the baton of leadership to Joshua, affirming his calling and encouraging the people to follow him. This can be a scary moment, of course, but it is also a necessary and exciting one! The final transfer of the baton is a time for celebration and reflection on what has been accomplished, as well as anticipation for what is to come.

Setting Your Church Up for Success

Part of passing the baton to the next generation in your church is making sure that systems are organized and in place to ensure a smooth transition of leadership. This includes everything from finances to member directories to communication systems. Breeze’s church management software is an incredible tool to help church leaders get organized and stay focused on their mission. To learn more, sign up for an instant demo today!