Church Leadership

Why the Next General Conference President Should Be in Their 30s

March 24, 2015

This past weekend was Global Youth Day in many churches.  At the AY program at my Spanish church, one of our Pathfinders gave a great presentation on an important figure in Adventism: John Nevin Andrews.  Andrews was the first Seventh-day Adventist overseas missionary and a great writer, leader, and scholar.

One incredible detail that I learned from his talk was that Andrews was the third president of the General Conference at 38 years old – and by that time, he had already been an ordained minister for 14 years.  That got me thinking:

“How old were the first few GC presidents in our church?”

My wife and I did a quick search and found the following:

These were the ages of the first five General Conference presidents when they first took office:

John Byington: 65
James White: 44
J.N. Andrews: 38
G.I. Butler: 37

(Note: Yes, those are four names, but they are the first five presidents.  Google it.)

Don’t let the beard fool you. Andrews was a young man!


Notice a pattern?  Other than the first president, the rest of them were pretty young!  Before I go any further, let me be clear: I’m not having delusions of grandeur.

I’m not sharing this in some vain attempt to get myself elected president in San Antonio.  I don’t even qualify at this point in my ministry since I’m only 28 (my non-eligibility actually gives me more freedom to write on this).  I’m not even going to be pushy about the mid-30s age range. My overall point is the need for our church to consider younger voices in general for leadership positions, as we have many capable people.

The common refrain heard from some leaders is that young people are not experienced enough for leadership positions.  A friend of mine was even told verbatim by a former GC administrator the following:

“No one is ready to work in high levels of church administration until at least age 55+, because until you have silver hair and grandchildren, no one is able to navigate the international political nuances of the world church.”

Now, I know that the church is important.  But if multi-million dollar companies (Burger King’s CEO is 33, Yahoo’s CEO is 39, and Facebook CEO is 30) trust their corporations to young people, how old do you have to be to have “enough” experience for the church?

Some churches give belittling titles to young people like “junior elders” and “junior deacons” (titles that don’t exist in Scripture, by the way).  It gets even more awkward when someone points out that Jesus founded the church at 33.

Also, one writer noted that Jesus’ twelve disciples were probably young, almost all under the age of eighteen and some as young as 15. All were most likely bachelors, but for one (Peter). 2000 years later and I’d say that wasn’t bad for a bunch of young people!

I kept looking at the rest of the list of the past presidents, but found that sadly (outside of those first few early examples), there have only been three GC Presidents under the age of 50:

  • Ole Andrews Olsen: 43 years old (voted in 1888, anything familiar about that date?)
  • A.G. Daniells: 43 years old (voted in 1901, longest serving president at 21years)
  • Robert Folkenberg: 49 years old (voted in 1990, Carolina Conference alum. Had to represent!)

Currently the median age in the U.S. is 36.8, but most of our administrators are closer to retirement age than the median age of the general population.

The latest data reported from seven of the nine North American Division unions regarding the ages of five positional leaders at union and conference levels—president, executive secretary, treasurer, ministerial secretary, and youth director—revealed an overall median age of 55.5 years.

The Youth Directors of NAD conferences and unions are a little better with a median age of 48.3 years (only one such leader is under 30 years old).

One challenge of this is that, although there is concern in the church over the exodus of Generation Y (or Millennials), there are few leaders in this age group that are directly involved in guiding the processes to reach their peers. One likely result is that the church usually invests in outreach methods that generally worked for the Builder and Boomer generation and are surprised when they don’t lead to the desired outcomes among younger generations.

Dr. Stan Patterson, chair of the Christian Leadership Department at Andrews University, shared the following anecdotal story about the need for young people to be intentionally involved in the guiding process to reach their peers:

In a 2005 speech at the St. Louis, Missouri Seventh-day Adventist world church session, then president, Jan Paulsen, spoke on the topic of encouraging youth to participate in the leadership of the church (Kellner & Surridge, 2005). Following his speech a delegate approached a microphone on the floor of the auditorium and asked, “How many young people do you have on your staff?” Elder Paulsen paused and humbly answered, “We have work to do in that area.”

This implied commitment was followed by publication of a document entitled, Youth First: Involving Our Youth (GCYouth, 2005) but the visible evidence of a significant inclusion of youth or younger adults at the General Conference office remains lacking. Younger employees there primarily serve in the communication and information systems areas but are not represented at the decision-making levels. We still “have much to do in that area.”

What are some young adults saying about this?  Here are some thoughts that were shared with me as of the writing of this article:

“Age doesn’t automatically mean experience in some cases. It’s a shame that a person needs to reach 55+ to lead in the church because the environment is so political. So the message is ‘to lead you need to become a politician.’”

“People wonder why our youth and young adults have trouble staying in the church but we don’t give and/or aren’t given responsibility or a ‘place’ in the church.”

“The mentality of staying around for such a long time and not refreshing things is what has severely hurt the urgency of our message.”

According to one recent study, approximately 50% of the pastoral workforce in the North American Division will be at or near retirement age by 2022.  Many of these positions are in administrative areas.  Dave Gemmell at the NAD Ministerial Department shared that, “Most administrators around the division are eligible or will soon be eligible for retirement.  The Adventist denomination may have a great need for younger, experienced administrators over the next few years.”

But here is where we find the paradox that many young people looking to get into ministry face:

You need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience.


Let’s look at some possible solutions.  A great way to avoid a wave of inexperienced leaders, in my opinion, is for each leader in local churches and administration to intentionally find someone to mentor.  Likewise, young people should also be intentional about seeking mentors to learn from.  I have a phenomenal mentor who is challenging me to unlock my full potential. Another possible solution is to consider a Levitical model of leadership where after the 50 year mark, administrators should switch to a church ministry or intentional mentor role for the new wave of leaders.

Think about it: you’re either investing in others, or you’re investing in yourself.

It would be well worth the time for every church leader to read Dr. Patterson’s conclusions and recommendations.  His study focused on our denomination’s mission effectiveness as it relates to the age of our leaders:

Age is impacting the mission of the North American Division but not due to lack of competence or commitment on the part of existing leaders. The impact is being felt or will be felt in the following areas:

  1. The current team of organizational leaders, due to lack of professional contact, does not have the availability of outlook and generational culture of Generation X and Y. As a result it is likely that a gap between mission strategy and the needs of the target population are off-mark simply because the mission is being perceived through Boomer eyes without the inclusion of Generation X and Y leaders in the process.
  2. Place young leaders in the roles of developing methodologies for reaching their generation with the Gospel rather than filtering methodology through the Boomer generation.
  3. Explore the possibility of adopting a Levitical model that would encourage the experienced ministry professional to move from the quantitative “doing” aspect of ministry to a wisdom focused model of mentoring and development of the next generation of leaders.
  4. The mentoring of Generation X leaders that is necessary to overcome cultural bias in both generations thus assuring the discovery of common values and organizational culture necessary for the preservation of core values is not happening to any noticeable degree.
  5. A failure to move to an intergenerational model of organizational leadership now will assure an impending leadership crisis within the next 10 years due to inadequate relational transfer of leadership skills, knowledge, and history necessary to prepare Generation X and especially Generation Y for competent spiritual leadership of our mission and institutions.
  6. The recruiting of young people from the Generation Y demographic into a gospel ministry model that includes intentional relational mentoring by experienced leaders is critically important to the long range leadership needs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America and beyond.

One final note, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that even in 2015, the parts of the church that intentionally elect and involve young people in decision making leadership are some of the fastest-growing parts of the church. In October 2006, the Executive Committee of the South American Division voted to recommend 38-year-old Erton Köhler as the new president of the South American Division; a large, dynamic region of the world Seventh-day Adventist Church. Notice what he said about his experience (you can read more here):

“I moved to the conference department level at 25, to the union conference when I was 28. And at each move some people said, “But the man is young.” Yet the church knew me and had grown confident in my ability to lead. When I went to the division I was young—just 34. Church members need to know the young adults and their points of view in order to be confident in selecting them for new roles” In that role, he believes that his age played an important factor in how the church was perceived in the eyes of the younger generation:

“I can tell that our youth and young adults are very happy because they feel they have an open door in our division. They can say, “The president is my same age; I can talk with him.” They’re glad because they have a representative and an open door with leadership. The young leaders in our work are certainly happy, too. It’s an opportunity for them to call me, to speak with freedom about things that trouble them or dreams they have for this church.

During Bible times, God called many young people to lead. God believes in young people, but in our modern world we say: “No, today we need a more experienced person.” God can choose young people today. Young people helped to start this church, and I believe young people have a special responsibility to finish the work of the church. And yes, I’m an example of this.”

Believe in your young people.  They aren’t just the future of the church, they are the present!  Have any thoughts?  Leave them below!


Update April 23, 2015, 5:15 PM: I would like to make an extra note because of a certain misconception that this post has raised among some readers. With this post, I am not suggesting that what makes a capable leader is age alone. Nor am I suggesting that the church needs to operate like Burger King, Facebook, or Yahoo. Spiritual leadership is categorically different than how other entities operate. Richard Blackaby talks all about this in his great book “Spiritual Leadership.”

What I am suggesting, however, is there that our church needs to consider younger, spiritually mature voices not only in theory but in practice. There is a problem when our church talks a lot about the importance of young people yet ignore, belittle, or make excuses when younger people like me share concerns about why our results are what they are.

Don’t take my word for it. Erton Köhler, SAD President (South American Division, not depressed), said it like this:

“If a church elects young people to lead, the church is saying that young people are needed in the church. The church shows it believes in young people, not just in words but in action.”

  • I have watched the church chase away my generation and those behind me by excluding them. We want to be involved, but telling us we have to wait until we are 50? Why should I have to wait 30 years before I can lead? I am 22, and right now most of the people I grew up with have left the church because of how they where treated, or how people they care about where excluded and attacked., by the time we are 50 the church will be lucky if any of us care enough to take part.

  • Joel

    Interesting. My problem with all the talk and the studies is this: God is in control. How about we stop focusing on studies and strategies, politics and “choosing” the right leaders, and just let God do His work in us? The problem has never been and never will be the age of the leaders. The problem is we, all of us, not allowing God to do His work thru us.

  • Wasaka Zakiya

    This article is well composed. I wish the current church leaders take it as a serious matter.