I love people who start things. They are courageous, visionary, self-motivated, resilient, and entrepreneurial. These are lauded attributes in leadership books, and many of us wish we had them in greater measure. But there is a shadow side to these innovative people. Sometimes those who form (or reform) churches and institutions have a hard time sharing them with others or giving them up when the time comes to move on. That’s called “founder’s syndrome,” and it is one of the most persistent and unhealthy dynamics in ministry.
A version of founder’s syndrome lies behind our reluctance to invest in emerging leaders. Whether it’s a large corporation or a small group, those of us currently in charge want to make sure it continues to be done the “right” way. And all too often, the “right” way translates into doing things our way.
Yet Scripture offers us a very different model of leadership: one that pushes leaders to identify, mentor, and make way for the next leader. Abraham had Isaac, Moses had Joshua, David had Solomon, Elijah had Elisha, John the Baptist had Jesus, Barnabas had Paul, and Paul had Timothy. This model also is why Moses required parents to impress the Law on their children (Deut. 6:7, 20-25). It is why Solomon communicated his proverbs to his son (Prov. 1:8). It’s why Jesus chose 12 disciples to teach about his kingdom (Matt. 4:18-21).
Supporting and advocating for emerging leaders isn’t easy. Sometimes the broader community pushes back against the emerging leader. Remember how Paul had to encourage Timothy to not to let anyone look down on him just because he was young (1 Tim. 4:12)? Sometimes emerging leaders lack conviction and character—take, for example, the sons of Samuel, who proved unworthy to succeed their father. However, my experience has been that the single biggest roadblock to emerging leaders is when “senior leaders” resist investing time and energy in future leaders or fail to take necessary risks to help them or allow emerging leaders to arise.
Yet when we invest this time and take those risks, the payoff is usually worth it. There is no greater blessing than to have cooperated with the Spirit for the flourishing of emerging leaders. During my time in Haiti, nothing gave me more pleasure than mentoring new pastors, church planters, and missionaries.
The Christian Reformed Church has also made commitments to doing leadership well. One goal (or milestone) of our five-year denominational ministry plan is to become churches and communities who “listen to the voices of every generation, shaping us for ministry together.” What an exciting calling!
I, for one, look forward to seeing whom God is preparing for leadership in our congregations, classes, and denomination. And I want to point out that these emerging leaders are not just from younger generations. Throughout the CRC we have seen leadership and growth in churches and membership from ethnic minority groups. Striving to listen to the voices of new generations of CRC members will require us to make way for Latino, Korean, Southeast Asian, Black, and Indigenous leaders and leadership styles.
If we do so—if we repent of our founder’s syndrome and recommit to nurturing leaders of all ages and ethnicities—we have an opportunity to become a Revelation 7:9 church made up of “every nation, tribe, people and language” as God intended.
About the Author
Rev. Zachary King is the general secretary of the CRCNA. He is a member of Fuller Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.