A good ten years ago, I took a weeklong intensive leadership course at a seminary, it was a course on community organizing. And the man who was behind the course was kind of like the godfather of this program he was well into his 70s at that point. And I remember so clearly one day he got up in front of this room of 80 people and he asked: How old do you need to be to be a leader? And the room is hemming and hawing and people are saying under their breath, well you can be a leader at any age, and one person finally says it aloud, you can be a leader at any age, and this man says. No, you have to be 30. And one of the Lutheran seminary students stands up and goes, like, hey that's not fair, you don't have to be thirty to be a leader. And the leader laughs and asks, how old are you son? ...36... ... Hah, well? I remember sitting there 22 years old feeling like, no he's right, man, I'm not ready to be a leader. Of, well, anything!
I love this passage from 2 Kings this morning because it shocks us with a few easy to overlook details. King Josiah was 8 years old when he became the King. He was 26 years old when this story takes place. He was 39 when he died.
Christ Lutheran, can you imagine handing over the keys to a third grader? Can you imagine having your entire organizations mission and vision renegotiated by somebody just a few years out of college? Can you imagine having your full 30 years vested in your pension before you even turn forty? I can't! But that's not even the main point of the story, this is not a story about how old people should be in leadership, it is a story about reigniting our community's commitments to God, and there just so happens to be a young adult at the center of that work.
This raises a series of fundamental questions about leadership, before we can even begin to proceed with this bible story.
What does it mean to be a religious leader?
In a religious community, what are we entrusting our leaders with?
How do we decide who to trust with leadership?
What qualifies someone for leadership? Is it age? Is it experience? Is it education or a credential?
How much do we define "good leadership" just as whether or not they're making the same decisions I might make?
What room do we have for leaders called by God even if they are not who we would choose? Or if they lack the age, experience, credential that we would prefer?
In my esteem, the work of religious leadership is to keep a community focused on the work of the Greatest Commandment, which is to keep up on track for loving God, loving our neighbor, and loving ourselves. It is about maintaining the faithful core of the life of the Church, and building a community around that core that is animated by that faith that is engaged in the work of friendship and of care. Rather than first looking at resumes, I feel much more interested in talking to people of all ages and asking them how they would approach that work and that responsibility, and these are questions that people of all ages have insight in.
It could even be as simple as:
What do you think our Church is good at? What do you think we could be doing better?
How do you think we should welcome newcomers?
What ideas would you like to try in worship?
What problems in our community would you like us to put our effort towards solving?
What kind of social events do you think would be fun for us to have?
If we found $10,000 extra dollars in the budget, what should we spend it on?
Giving away leadership doesn't mean we make an eight year old the King, though we ought to wonder why not, perhaps. But giving away leadership does mean we show an interest in how people of all ages, all backgrounds, all life stages, all perspectives would lead us and then being brave enough to let them try it and rooting for them while they give it a go.
This has been a funny learning for me, still a new-ish priest, still feeling very new-ish in my role, and it has felt very counterintuitive. I'm the priest. I'm in charge! And more and more I've realized that my job is to give my authority away. At my young age of 32, I am already out of touch with the lives of my college students and younger young adults. And a community built entirely out of the preferences and machinations of a 32 y/o gay depressive creative, is mostly going to only attract and retain other 32 gay depressive creatives. My leadership of my young adults is as much making the space for them to lead each other, and to lead me as well, as it is about me being the guy in charge so that they can attract and keep and empower their peers, not mine.
I think it happens a lot that teenagers and young adults in church have to possess a certain level of patience and endurance for the decisions made on their behalf by older adults,, I wonder do older adults desire to have the same patience and endurance for decisions made on their behalf by teenagers and young adults? My college students and young adults have certainly shown me a lot of patience and endurance and support,, and I'm learning that it's my job now to show the same to them.
I say all of this not to say that we need to hand over the keys to the kingdom to an 8 year old -- that is not the moral of this story, though it is an important detail of the story. The moral of the story is that it is the responsibility of every generation and every member of the community to pursue the work of faith in God and care for one another. It is the work of every generation to do that work, and every generation can lead us in that work. By today's standards, King Josiah should've just been in the Sunday School. Jesus should've been in charge of the 20s and 30s group. So don't hand over the keys yet, but do start by asking folks how they would lead, and then don't argue with them about what they come up with. I think you just might be surprised, and probably excited too by what they've got to say. I sure bet they were surprised when King Josiah came forward to all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem and told them about the book he found that would change everything.