In the movie Shawshank Redemption, the character named ‘Red’ says of his escaped jailhouse buddy, Andy: “I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice.” (1) Here CRAIG VERNALL reflects on the often difficult decision to release our best and brightest.
A sign of fruitfulness is a community that continues to raise up leaders. Some of our best New Zealand examples of leadership development are found in our national sports teams. Highly evolved leadership sponsoring structures exist in the best sports team cultures. With the average career length of a sportsperson being under ten years, leadership succession is an ever-present demand. This is especially so if the team captain is sidelined by injury, thus forcing the issue of leadership upon the coach and team.
Churches face this same challenge but without the same sense of immediacy or urgency as a sporting code. This can lull the church into a false sense of security. Then, as a number of denominations have eventually realised, a leadership shortage can appear that will take years to backfill.
As Baptists, we have traditionally been blessed with great leaders. The mix of pastoral and lay leaders has been a huge strength for our churches and our movement. In both pastoral and mission work, we have experienced visionary and courageous leaders who have shaped our movement.
So within our Baptist DNA there is a place for leadership development. Within our Baptist culture we have always provided space for leaders to grow. The local church is the ideal place to test and approve whoever God is raising up into all arenas of leadership. But leadership development has to be intentional; it rarely happens on its own. Leaders are more likely to develop when present leaders take a keen interest in what God is doing amongst our young men and women.
It does not matter whether your church is rural or urban, smaller or larger, God will be raising up leaders in your midst. The obligation is upon all present leaders to identify that next generation who will replace and supersede the previous generation.
The challenge of releasing leaders
Yes, there is a challenge and it is for all of us. It is a personal one and we would rather not talk about it.
Church leaders can be happy and willing to train leaders to a certain point—that point being the different leadership roles being offered within the church. For a pastoral leader, there is no greater gift than a group of volunteer leaders who take seriously the responsibilities they have been tasked with, who see their service as firstly honouring God, and who maintain a humility through serving others. Church life thrives on the sacrificial commitment volunteers like this will make to see a project through to completion.
The big challenge is in letting these people go. The sending church will pay a price for nurturing leaders who will ultimately go off to express their leadership calling elsewhere. It is hard for a pastor to suggest that the lay leaders in the church, who serve so diligently, should pack their bags and head away to Carey Baptist College. This creates a hole that can be hard to fill. It is a celebration when someone leaves for further training, but also a time of grief; pastors understandably become dependent upon their key volunteers and have doubts about their ability to replace them.
So for the pastor of the local church, giving your most capable leaders away is a step of faith. As in many parts of the ministry life, we have to be prepared to trust God to make up the difference. As we give away, can we trust God to bring the right people into, or up through, the church?
Church leaders can have a siege mentality when it comes to giving their best away. We may see that our numbers are static or our leadership horsepower is limited, so the thought of losing someone is really challenging.
I too feel this strain. But one of the most obvious thoughts that runs through my mind is the reminder that, at some stage, someone trusted God enough to encourage me into further training. Every pastor who reads this article can remember the significant conversation that was held with a respected leader who encouraged you to ‘cast your net on the other side’, i.e. to take up the challenge of being called into a faith adventure that puts you firmly in the hands of the God who calls you.
As New Zealand Baptists, we are facing an interesting dynamic within our movement. Presently we have very few people training specifically for pastoral ministry or overseas mission. Our college is full of students but not specifically pastoral leadership track students. Yet at the same time we probably have the most significant Christian youth movement in the country. Our youth groups are largely successful and our Easter camps are very influential. What is the disconnect between committed Christian young people and the call to ministry? We could suggest there are lots of new social and generational dynamics that impress upon a younger generation. But maybe the answer is as simple as the power of the ask—the tap on the shoulder and the discussion that starts with, “Could God be calling you into a position of leadership that you need to train for?”
A guiding hand and an ongoing conversation will generate the trust that is needed to help someone over the hump of identifying the call and setting a new course. So if you are a leader, why not stop to consider who it is that you would struggle to lose in your church. That is a challenging question, but the answer is one that could ignite a new generation into ministry leadership. We owe this to God and the people we lead. God’s highest for one of your emerging leaders may only be a shoulder tap away.
Story: Craig Vernall
Craig is the National Leader of the Baptist Churches of New Zealand and the Senior Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church.
1. Shawshank Redemption, Dir. Christopher Nolan. Castle Rock Entertainment, 1994. Film.
Photo credit: Ben Rodgers/lightstock.com