It’s on us to empower the future.
I’ve heard people described before as “natural leaders.” These people normally fit a pretty common mold: charismatic, intelligent, and confident. I think about that photo of Theodore Roosevelt riding a swimming moose across a river (it’s a short Google away). It’s the portrait of rustic regality, as a man temporarily tames a wild animal to ferry him across a rushing mountain river.
Forget that this photo was later proved to be falsified, but that guy has to be a natural leader, right? He checks all the boxes! Charismatic? Try telling me you’re not going to be convinced of anything someone tells you from moose-back. Intelligent? Calculating the river to be perfect moose riding depth is pretty astute. Confident? Come on. The man’s riding a moose. If ever there was a natural born leader, the person in that photograph is one.
Amazing photography aside though, I’m not convinced that someone can be automatically born a leader. It takes time and opportunity to develop the skills needed to inspire people to follow you. People are not born as leaders, but rather they become them over time. But more importantly than that, they must be given the opportunities to lead.
One of the things I love most about my job is being able to help young people recognize and realize the capacity for leadership within each of them. While I don’t believe a person is born a leader, I firmly believe that each of us is born with the capacity to be a leader. It’s something that I try to teach my youth group at every opportunity. Each of us, through our God given gifts, talents, and passions, has the ability to be a leader in our lives.
But do we really take this identity seriously? Do we really value the capacity for leadership within people, and specifically within young people? I’m not sure that we do. Many times we’re scared to lead because the society around us has conditioned us to not stick our necks out too far lest we become an easy target. Think about when you were in school. It’s not cool to be the confident student who is willing to give an answer when asked. Someone that raises their hand one too many times begins to hear faint whispers behind them and stifled chuckles. Hermione Granger was not the coolest witch at Hogwarts.
Even in churches, where young people should be not only allowed but also encouraged to realize the leader inside of them, we fall short. Too often in our churches we relegate young people to the role of “the next generation.” We tell them how important they are to the life of the church in the future and how one day it will all be on them. This is true, but it is a toxic truth. It denies young people the opportunity in the present to develop the leadership skills they need to become that next generation.
When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, he was hesitant to believe in himself because of his youth. “Truly I do not know how to speak,” he says in Jeremiah 1:6, “for I am only a boy.” God does not deny his youth, but does not agree with him either. Rather, God encourages him that “I am with you to deliver you” (1:8). Even before that, God told Jeremiah that before he was born he had been consecrated; the tools he needed to be the leader God wanted him to be were built into God’s design for Jeremiah. The same is true for young people today! God has equipped each of them, in the very fabric of who they are, with the tools they need to lead.
The weight of responsibility then falls upon the mentors, teachers, pastors, and we who guide young people in their lives to cultivate those tools. Is it an easy process? Surely not. Will there be missteps and times of frustration? Most definitely. But if we are afraid of their failures, then how can we expect them not to be?
Young people are the future leaders of our churches and of our society at large, however they are also leaders now. We must give them the opportunities to be those leaders. We must endure alongside them the hardships and growing pains that come with developing their God-given talents and skills. We must trust in them as God trusts in them, and not hold back the leaders He has already equipped.