Leadership Development Among Early Career Adults

A Challenge 

Let’s get right down to it: early career adults are less likely to make themselves available as leaders in their communities and congregations. Likewise, as society becomes even more secularized, there are fewer opportunities for early career adults to explore the intersection between work and faith. Even among those who are active in their faith communities, there are few opportunities for young adults to dig deeply into questions of purpose, character, and call, especially as these questions relate to their specific careers. How might that impact the future of our communities, families, congregations, and places of employment?

Key Question

Will an intensive, cohort-based program of small group and one-on-one engagement significantly affect the way early career adults see the intersection between faith and life and effectively equip them for community engagement/leadership?

Project Summary

Eight early career adults (ages 27-37) were invited into an intensive cohort experience rooted in spiritual formation, self-reflection, vocational discernment, and leadership training. The nine-month program used a three-pronged strategy to EQUIP participants with a theological framework (four months of weekly gatherings and two retreats), CONNECT participants with vocational mentors (five months with a vocational mentor), and MOBILIZE participants to be faithful change-agents in their vocation and community.

Some Conclusions

Based on leader observations and extensive group and individual assessment, the pilot program was effective in (1) forming a strong sense of belonging; (2) provoking robust conversation about the intersection of faith and work, (3) providing helpful tools for self-assessment, (4) building desire for vocational mentoring, and (5) and amplifying the need for faithful leadership among early career adults. What is not known is the program’s long-term impact on participants, especially as to whether or not they become more faithfully engaged as community leaders.

Where did this journey begin?

During the congregation’s recent strategic planning process, we interviewed 25 leaders from throughout the community. We were fascinated to hear a common theme focused on leadership. In particular, there was/is growing concern over the lack of young leaders who feel compelled and/or prepared for community engagement and leadership.

We have felt the same concern at St. John’s, which led us to invite two different groups of early career adults into conversation about leadership. Of the fifteen who were convened, there was strong consensus about two concerns: lack of direction and the need for mentoring. We knew that a significant portion of our strategic plan would include the broad category of leadership; now we were convinced that our focus would be among early career adults. In particular, we invited early career adults into a period of intensive study, small group engagement, and vocational mentoring so that they might be equipped for community engagement and leadership.

This article outlines that journey, in which eight early career adults were invited into a time of deep self-reflection amidst intensive community in order to make room for God’s grace-filled revelation.

Is there a need for another project focused on millennials?

As the most analyzed generation in history, it seems that there’s not much left to discuss about these youngish adults. There have been more books, articles, and dissertations written about millennials than any other topic in the social sciences. The “hover generation” of parents has become the “hover generation” of researchers, saturating bookshelves, airwaves, and blogs with nuanced answers to the somewhat tired question, “What are we going to do with them?”

This project will not add to the broad mix of millennial research but seeks to address a much more specific question faced by congregations and communities that are starting to turn over the keys to this younger generation: How might early career adults be effectively and faithfully equipped for leadership?[1]

Before that question can be answered, it’s useful to draw from current research about millennials. Within that field are three topics that significantly affect their preparation for leadership: Cultural shifts; changing trends in leadership development; and the work-faith dilemma.

Increasingly, life is pigeon-holed, separated in neatly distinct categories of family, social relationships, work, and faith. As society becomes even more secularized, there are fewer opportunities for adults early in their careers to explore the intersection between work and faith. Even among young adults who are active in their faith communities, there are few opportunities for them to dig deeply into questions of purpose, character, and call, especially as these questions relate to their specific careers.

Dorothy Sayers and Timothy Keller write passionately about the risk of further separating the realms of work and faith, especially among a communities’ youngest leaders — a risk that will have dramatic effect on communities, families, congregations, and places of employment.[2]

Keller contends that the church is seriously underdeveloped in taking seriously the realm of work as a ministry expression. He connects one’s work to God’s plan for renewing the world that originated with the divine call to Israel, a people chosen to show forth God’s purpose in life and work. In that light, work becomes a calling when it is “reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interest.” The purpose of work is elevated “from making a living to loving our neighbor and at the same time releases us from the crushing burden of working primarily to prove ourselves.”[3]

Sayers, writing 50 years earlier, makes the same claim: “The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done” … such that “work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do.”[4] Kester Brewin contributes to the discussion by claiming that young adults are crying out for an organic, bottom-up vision for church that gives less attention to the gathered nature of the church — evident primarily in Sunday morning worship — and more attention to the scattered church, i.e., the ways in which God’s people are scattered throughout their communities via life and work.[5]

[1] This project distinguishes between millennials and early career adults. Although often one-in-the-same, our focus is on a subset of millennials who have been engaged in their career of choice between 2-6 years, thus “early career.” The expectation is that they are somewhat settled in their profession and beginning to ask deeper questions of purpose and calling.

[2] Sayers, Dorothy L. Why Work? Discovering Real Purpose, Peace, and Fulfillment at Work. A Christian Perspective. (Out of print; originally published in 1949) and Keller, Timothy, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012).

[3] Keller, 4.

[4] Sayers, 11.

[5] Brewin, Kester. Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church that is Organic, Networked, Decentralized, Bottom-up, Communal, Flexible, Always Evolving. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004).


The Participants

There were four criteria for participating in the cohort:

  1. Fall within the target age range (ideally between the ages of 25-35)
  2. Have at least two years of experience in one’s chosen vocation
  3. Have a connection with St. John’s, either through membership or family relationship.
  4. Identify as a Christian

The Plan

The hope is that this time of deep self-reflection, spiritual formation, and leadership training will motivate cohort members to connect faith and work and become more actively engaged in community and church leadership. With that in mind, we incorporate a three-pronged strategy during the cohort:

  1. Equip participants with a theological foundation for mission while providing tools that help assess one’s personality, giftedness, and leadership, all within the bounds of a strong sense of community.
  2. Connect participants with a trained vocational mentor who serves as a model and guide in connecting faith and work.
  3. Mobilize participants who are armed with a specific plan for how they might faithfully and effectively engage their vocation and/or community.

Hoped-for Outcomes

As we journey through this period of training and discovery, we anticipate a number of outcomes for our participants:

  1. To articulate a greater understanding of one’s identity in relation to God’s identity;
  2. To more fully trust in God and one another;
  3. To better understand a language that is rooted in faithful leadership and the work-faith dynamic;
  4. To identify ways in which participants might bear the light of Christ in places other than the church; and
  5. To embody key traits of effective leaders. 

Our Goal

Our goal was to build a platform of leadership development for early career adults. To build the platform, we challenged two basic assumptions about millennials: their lack of commitment and resistance to deep self-reflection. Indeed, from the very beginning participants understood that this cohort experience would require a high level of commitment and a willingness to engage in honest self-reflection.

Some Observations

Community matters. Younger generations understand that the church is not perfect. They have observed and many have experienced unhealthy Christian community. For most, the jury is still out on what that looks like, but one thing is clear: community matters. That’s particularly true for a generation that is becoming increasingly cynical, isolated, and alone, thanks to technology, information, and consumerism. Our cohort experience provided space for early career adults to form deep relationship and healthy community. They came from very different backgrounds and belief systems, but through this cohort, they helped to craft a new understanding – a new narrative – about what Christian community looks like.

Simple, not shallow. From the planning stage and beyond, we were sensitive to a concern expressed by Sharon Parks and others, “that too many of our young adults are not being encouraged to ask the big questions that awaken critical thought in the first place.”[4] The answer, we posit, is not to create ministry, messages, and programs that are shallow, but ones that are loaded with depth and authenticity, as long as they are rooted in life-giving, joy-filled community.[5] We have attempted to simplify language without dumbing it down.[6] We have avoided providing universal “steps for success” by creating a curriculum/journey that is highly organic.[7] And we have tried to build a solid platform of leadership development that is based upon a simple formula: My Gifts connected to My Community’s Needs leads to My Opportunity for Leadership.[8]

New funnels are needed. I went to a small, church-affiliated, liberal arts college in North Carolina. Three years ago, the college hired a well-respected, state champion high school band director to build a marching band program. I have enjoyed watching the band grow to over 100 members, adding great energy and entertainment to fall football games. No doubt, it has been a successful venture. Recently I asked the college’s president why they chose such a risky and costly venture. He began by saying that small colleges are facing enormous challenges to recruit good students while sustaining their unique role in liberal arts education. His next statement I wrote down as quickly as I could: “We have to find new funnels through which students become connected to our mission and surrounded in deep, meaningful relationship.”

The same is true for the church. This cohort experience has convinced me that the church must find new funnels of engagement with younger generations – a generation that is not averse to the church’s ancient mission, but seeks meaningful community that is organic, authentic, simple, trustworthy, faithful, loving, inclusive, joyful, and, yes, even Christ-centered

A generation that, like the church, is an evolving work of art.

[1] Ibid., 30.

[2] Niebuhr, Richard. The Meaning of Revelation. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2006, pp. 31-41.

[3] Niebuhr, 70.

[4] Parks, xii.

[5] See Marva Dawn, Truly the Community.

[6] See Mike Breen. Building a Discipling Culture: How to release a missional movement by discipling people like Jesus did. (Pawleys Island, SC: 3 Dimensional Ministries, 2011).

[7] See Kester Brewin, Signs of Emergence.

[8] While this formula is not part of Rainer and Geiger’s argument, they have made a compelling case that the church must find ways to simplify our work in making disciples. See Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples. (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006).



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