Monday Morning Insights

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    Why I left the ministry…

    Why I left the ministry…

    Alan Nelson writes:  I know what it’s like when someone “leaves” the ministry. Internal eyebrows rise. We wonder what caused someone who professed a call from God to preach the Gospel and lead a congregation, to jump ship and do something else. Our minds race to the seamier side. Was the pressure too much? Did he have a call at all?  We don’t often say it, but we wonder, don’t we?

    After more than 20 years of being a pastor, I left the ministry, technically speaking. But after authoring a dozen books and nearly 200 articles on ministry and spiritual life, plus serving as the executive editor of Rev! magazine, I exited the pastoral field.

    The reason was simple. Time was running out and I desperately wanted to change the church—and if possible, society at large. 

    No matter how much we value egalitarian and democratic processes, history is not made by the masses. Three dominant factors change society: discoveries, disasters, and leaders, but the most significant by far is leaders—whether good or bad. If you want to change history, you must focus on leaders. But how do you change them?  For more than a decade, thanks to books such as “How to Change Your Church,” “The Five Star Church,” “Me to We,” and “Embracing Brokenness,” I was able to travel as a pastor, teaching workshops and seminary courses. But after a decade of that, I came to the conclusion that investing in adult leaders yields a low return on investment.

    My dad used to say, “Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The less you have left, the faster it goes.”  By age 45, I was convinced that we needed to lower the age of leadership development, identifying and developing influencers while they’re still moldable. Barna’s research coincides with that of Kohlberg and moral psychologists, noting that character is pretty much established by age 14.

    Thus I began prototyping an executive-caliber leadership training program with the upper age set at 14. The goal was to learn how young you could teach serious leadership skills. During our research phase, we discovered that if a child displays leadership aptitude, by 10 years of age, s/he is cognitively mature enough to learn sophisticated social skills required in leading. So at the ripe old age of 49, with two sons in private college, I gave up my paycheck and benefits to launch a non-profit organization called KidLead. 

    Pastors don’t need to give up on adults, but if we’re good stewards, we need to be putting a lot of eggs in the kid basket. Even better, we need to target our very young leaders. The most strategic time for developing effective and ethical leaders is a 4-year threshold we call the 10-13 Window. Unfortunately, very few church staff are leadership savvy. They confuse it with discipleship and service. And preteen/middle school ministries always tend to be low on the church totem pole. 

    Even if you don’t have a personal call to this area of ministry, you can still champion it.  We have developed the first of its kind, executive- caliber leadership training curriculum called LeadNow. The faith-based version is beginning to be used in premier Christian schools and some larger churches. It is sophisticated enough to require certification to use it. You watch a brief video and take a free leadership aptitude assessment on a child by going to the KidLead website ( By pushing the “parent” button, you’ll get an automated response to help you understand the type of child you should be reaching for leadership mentoring.  There’s also a book that summarizes our findings.

    Waiting until college, seminary, and first employment is far too late to develop effective, ethical leaders. We must start younger, much younger. Churches and Christian schools are the best places to accomplish this task, because these are social communities where young leaders can develop their skills in a context of faith. 

    My challenge to pastors is to respond to the call of identifying and developing young leaders. If there’s one thing your church does well, make it young leader development.  If you want to change the world, focus on leaders.  But if you want to change leaders, focus on them when they’re young. I “left the ministry” to make a bigger impact on the church. You don’t have to quit being a pastor, but I pray you’ll join me in this endeavor. 

    Alan E. Nelson, Ed.D. ( is the author of KidLead: Growing Great leaders and the founder of KidLead Inc..  The Nelsons live near Monterey, CA. For more info on KidLead, contact them through the website:


    WHAT DO YOU THINK?   How is your church doing in 'young leader development'.  Is it that important?  If so, could you/should you be doing more?



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    1. CS on Wed, April 14, 2010

      Several thoughts:

      -Why is there such a fixation on leadership in the church today?  Can someone please explain this?

      -Conversely, why isn’t there a fixation on follower-ship in the church today?  I would even say that there’s a higher proportion of verses and teaching that pertain to being a good sheep than a good shepherd.

      -The post said:

      “The reason was simple. Time was running out and I desperately wanted to change the church´┐Żand if possible, society at large.”

      Those tasks are not laid out in the Bible with pastoral duties, so I would say that stepping down was likely a good thing, so that he could pursue those goals.  If he went into a pastoral role with that as his goal, that would seem to have been for the wrong reason.

      -The post also said:

      “The faith-based version is beginning to be used in premier Christian schools and some larger churches.”

      Don’t we regard leadership in the church as a spiritual gift (Romans 12:8)?  If so, how does this effort, which was initially geared towards secular purposes, match up with a gift that is given by grace?


    2. Leonard on Wed, April 14, 2010

      Leadership is all over the bible.  Solomon in essence said… make me a great leader.  The church developed leaders, appointed leaders… Jesus recruited people and developed them as leaders…  Paul developed people as leaders… 

      Yes there is a special gift of leadership but this does not mean other people cannot lead.  I means some people are spiritually gifted to lead. 

      shepherds are leaders.  In Israel, the shepherd called his sheep and they followed.  In other parts of the world, shepherds will use dogs, and from the back shepherd sheep.  This is not the picture of shepherding in scripture nor in the culture of Israel. 

      Developing leaders is about helping people fan to full flame their gifts.  It is about training them to be great followers.  Crummy followers make crummy leaders most of the time. 

      Those tasks are not laid out with pastoral duties… sure they are.  If the church carries the mystery of God… if the church is to go and make disciples… if the church is the representation of Christ in this world… Then changing the world by changing people is the goal.  to preach the gospel to all people, proclaim that Jesus is alive, to call people to Christ and to turn away from sin… these are most defiantly the duties of a pastor.  These are the the duties of all believers. 

      No offense CS, but your nit pick panties are showing here.

    3. Carl Thomas on Wed, April 14, 2010

      I support the dude if this is what he feels called to do.  I hope he has much success with it.  But unless the Bible left out some pretty key information, Jesus changed the world with some morally bankrupt guys who were outside the windows of moral reform according to Barna’s research.

      And later, I think Paul turned into a fairly upright Christian even though he was not discipled at 13 in the ways of being an “effective, ethical leader.”

    4. Peter Hamm on Wed, April 14, 2010

      I’m all for developing young leaders, but I wouldn’t have guessed that you needed to start that young.

      That said, I recall some opportunities given to me at that age that really shaped me.

      This article has given me something really great to think about!

    5. Alan E. Nelson on Thu, April 15, 2010

      Interesting responses.  Having a doctorate in leadership (EdD), written half a dozen books on the subject and collecting over 700 books on it, I’ve yet to see a single piece of research suggesting that everyone can become leaders.  I believe leadership is overrated and under used.  Having said that, aptitude is the ability to learn how to lead so we need to find those with higher capacities for this.  History is not made by followers, but leaders.  Change the leaders and you change the followers.  I definitely concur we need better followers, but if they’re following inferior leaders, we’re still sunk. 

      In Exodus 18, Moses was trying to do it all until his savvy dad-in-law said, “Mo, go find people who can supervise groups of 1000, 100, 50 and 10.”  In other words, go find leaders of varying capacities to lead and care for these groups.  Jesus selected 12, not masses or “ya’ll come” invitations.  Matthew 25 says each servant was given Talents “according to their abilities.”

      Every pastor I’ve ever met has gifts.  But most did not have the leader gift.  They were influencers by their role and teaching or administrative gift, but not a leader who is wired to cast vision, catalyze change, and organize people to use their gifts together.  But we need to know how we can work through others leadership gifts, whether ordained or not.  If we only preach, teach, and care of folk, we’ll be wasting a lot of leadership talent God has placed in our Sunday schools, pews, and programs.  A leader is a terrible thing to waste.

      At age 12 Jesus said, “I need to be about my father’s business.”  We set the bar too low in our culture.  These preteens can do some amazing things.  Our job is to help them ID their strengths and develop them.  “A child is a book to be read, not to be written.”  As Hillel said, “If not now, when?  If not you, who?”

    6. toddh on Thu, April 15, 2010

      I guess I recoil a little bit at the very conscious guiding impulse to change the world that seems to be animating this discussion.  Only because I have struggled with that myself.  I think it’s a potentially dangerous and seductive path to travel upon.  If God grants you the opportunity to do something great and world-changing - hooray!  But I have also found that the world only works because of everyday people doing small great things locally.  Not world-changing, but allowing the world to continue flourishing.

      I like the idea of believing and expecting more out of our children and youth, but maybe not so much the conscious focus on grooming them for future plans either.  That’s how we get great gymnasts, actors, figureskaters, and golfers, but they don’t all grow up to be particularly healthy adults with all of the expectations placed on them.

    7. Tim on Mon, April 26, 2010


      I think this is great. Do you want to be the Cog or the chain? Until we develop Cogs we will always bee the chain!


    8. Gary H on Tue, April 27, 2010

      I think this speaks more of effective parenting than of leadership training.

    9. Ben Massung on Tue, April 27, 2010

      I’m a youth pastor working with this every day. I see a lower and lower bar set as kids are coming into the 6th grade. There are no expectations for students that age to even act what we have determined is normal for their age.
      There needs to be focus on the roles of community not just one aspect, such as the leader. Focusing on developing teams through this age would be a beneficial approach to teaching community culture. We need to teach people how to live together embracing their gifting and giving those with leadership aptitude the opportunity to be stretched and those will follower traits to feel free to follow. We then begin to change culture as student go into other churches and communities and expect culture to be as it was modeled.
      I have seen comments to other research saying that the high expectations of young adults on church culture keeps them home Sunday am.  We need to show students how they can make a difference in their local church by breaking down the walls of student ministry before their senior year and letting them experience real community and their place in it.

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