the shape of leadership

Why Next-Gen Pastors Need Hands-On Experience

Three lessons practical experience teaches

Kent Ingle on September 5, 2023

What is one thing you wish you knew before you led?”

I was scrolling through responses from a survey when I read this question. Several thoughts popped into my head — developing a leadership framework, cultivating discipline in my life, and implementing a lifestyle of continual learning.

It’s challenging to narrow it down to one. With years of experience in leadership, many of us could write a book (or already have) on things we wish we knew before we stepped into our roles.

We are asked questions like this because people want to learn from our experiences — whether it’s the bumps and bruises we encountered or the insights we gained. They want the assurance that they can make it through difficult times by hearing someone else’s similar experience. And they want to know how they can avoid the messiness, awkwardness, and painful moments of human relationships.

After all, everything we do in leadership centers around people.

Many of us within the church have most likely been asked the same question by the next generation of aspiring pastors. If I had to narrow it down to one answer, I would start by encouraging the next generation of pastors to get practical experience in a local church.


The Value of Hands-on Experience

Through a catalytic personal event that took place in my life, I felt the call to go into ministry. At the time, I was a sports broadcaster. But I was excited about this journey in life because I loved working with people, and I had always been involved in the local church. This next season started with me assembling a team and going into the Northwest Los Angeles community to start a church, where I pastored for 10 years.

When God opened the doors of ministry to me, what my mentoring pastor had poured into my life in high school made a huge difference in my ability to handle God’s call. I had spent time under my pastor’s leadership, learning the ins and outs of serving the local church. And this has been a priority for me as a college president — equipping the next generation to serve the local church.

Every year, I watch hundreds of students step into leadership positions on our campus at Southeastern University. They lead devotional groups, chapel services and missions trips. They have shared with me how these experiences taught them to lead a team of people, care for the needs of others, and develop their character. By stepping out in faith, they have learned that God honors their willingness to say “yes.”

As Philippians 4:9 says, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

Here are reasons why hands-on experience is invaluable for the next generation of pastors:

1. It teaches how to handle conflict.

A recent Barna survey revealed that “young pastors more often than their older colleagues wish they’d had better preparation to handle issues like conflict, crisis management and leadership demands.”

As we train the next generation of pastors, we must keep in mind that we’re preparing leaders to be released into the world.

These findings were similar to those from an informal survey I conducted through my newsletter subscribers and social media followers. Most responses came from young adults. I discovered many of them had questions about conflict management. They wanted to know how to resolve and deal with disagreements.

You can help young adults learn these lessons by placing them in leadership positions — leading small groups, participating in children’s ministries, and volunteering at the church. By leading a group of people, they are bound to encounter disagreements.

Conflict is a catalyst for young adults to learn, grow, and mature in their thinking, decisions, and actions. It helps them see the world through someone else’s perspective. Encourage them to look for ways to turn conflict into collaboration through open and honest conversations. Conflict teaches that awareness and empathy are necessary to connect with others and attempt to dissolve strife.

Remind young leaders of Proverbs 15:18 which says, “A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel.”

2. It teaches how to manage stress.

In early 2022, 42% of pastors considered leaving the ministry. Many of them cited the immense stress of their jobs.

In my informal survey, one of the most common causes of stress young people reported was juggling multiple tasks — taking on too much and trying to find the balance between personal and professional life.

We must encourage the next generation in learning to manage themselves and implement disciplines in their lives. For many leaders, the natural response to stress is doubling down and pushing through the pain. Sometimes that needs to be done. But often, they must step off the gas, reassess their personal disciplines, and start again.

During stressful situations, encourage young adults to avoid making quick decisions in the heat of the moment that may cause them to go back and unwind what they have already accomplished or hinder any progress from occurring.

Psalm 55:22 says, “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.” Encourage young leaders to use their worries and struggles to be invitations for Christ. Jesus wants them to bring their concerns to Him.

3. It teaches the importance of the call.

One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Wherever I have served, whether in sports broadcasting, pastoring, or as a college president, I’ve always had this deep gladness that I can connect with and make an impact in the needs or issues of the people I have the privilege of serving.

It doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced trials — and that’s why self-awareness has been integral to help me understand my divine design.

When I experience moments of difficulty, feelings of burnout or stress, I take the time to reflect on the gifts God has given me and what He’s called me to do. I spend time reviewing my encounters that day and how I used my gifts. This reminds me of God’s faithfulness and the passion I have for where He has placed me.

This is the principle we must remind young people of. When life’s most difficult moments happen, when young adults face obstacles and feel they can’t do anything else, they must take time to reflect on the gifts God has given them, the moments they have seen Him present, and the doors He has opened for them.

As Psalm 37:23-24 says, “The LORD makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand.”

As we train the next generation of pastors, we must keep in mind that we’re preparing leaders to be released into the world. It’s not about developing talent to retain at our churches but developing pastors to further God’s kingdom. If a young adult asked what was the one thing you wished you knew before becoming a leader, what would it be?

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