By Jeff Brumley
Top leadership roles aren’t all that easy to come by for 20-somethings in the moderate and progressive Baptist world, making Andi Sullivan all that much more grateful as executive director of executive director of His Nets.
She assumed leadership of the malaria-fighting nonprofit in February when her dad became a pastor in France. They founded the organization together in 2005, and she had served as a board member ever since.
“It’s really cool,” she said. “I was the youngest person on the board and they believed in me that I could do this.”
Sullivan, 26, is among a small group of Cooperative Baptists in her generation with such responsibilities. “It’s a good experience for me to have this kind of leadership, but a lot of people aren’t getting the chance,” she said.
Officials in CBF acknowledge there are roadblocks to leadership for Sullivan’s age group, including intergenerational differences and more candidates than positions. But Baptist leaders say there is a lot of good news, too, and point to Sullivan and other young, progressive Christians as signs that institutions are making room for younger Baptists waiting in the wings.
‘Speaking different languages’
But for that to happen, older church members and denominational leaders will need to become more accepting of young Christians, Sullivan said.
“People are kind of suspicious of our generation — that we’re flaky or unreliable,” she said.
Seasoned Baptist leaders do recognize that bias, said Terry Hamrick, who retired from CBF earlier this year and is now directing its CBF Fellows program, an effort to nurture the ministry of first-call pastors.
“We must be intentional in engaging the younger generations,” he said. “How do we listen to what the 20-somethings say to us about leadership?”
Part of the answer is in what CBF is already doing in mentoring programs like CBF Fellows, Hamrick said. Some churches also are actively engaging youth to nurture relationships between older and younger church members.
“We’re both speaking church and faith, but we’re speaking that in different languages because we’re coming at it from different places.”
Hamrick added that refusing to listen to younger generations isn’t an option. “The success of the church depends on the leadership of this age group,” he said.
‘Pipeline clogs up’
That’s become a concern at the institutional level at groups like CBF and the Baptist World Alliance, where efforts are being made to hire staff in their 20s and 30s.
The idea is to put people in place in associate and assistant roles to prepare them for top leadership positions later, said Bo Prosser, coordinator of missional congregations for CBF.
“However, the downside is that some of us aren’t ready to move on yet,” Prosser added, referring to older leaders in churches and state and national organizations. “So the pipeline kind of clogs up.”
But that’s as it should be, said Daniel Vestal, who retired as executive coordinator of CBF in June.
“I don’t think in any denomination there have ever been enough positions to satisfy the demand, and there shouldn’t be,” he said.
There remain ample opportunities outside of pulpits and administrative jobs, Vestal said, and it’s a matter of being flexible and recognizing that other fields, such as mission work or youth ministries, can satisfy callings as well, even if only in the interim.
“The opportunities are limitless,” Vestal said. “The question is: will young adults step up and accept that?”
‘Enough to carry us on’
Vestal said he believes the answer is yes. He said he’s impressed with the quality of current and recently graduated seminarians and other young people in moderate Baptist circles.
That’s also been the experience in the Baptist World Alliance, said Chris Liebrum, a BWA general council member and director of the Education/Discipleship Center for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Liebrum led a recently concluded five-year program that brought together young Baptists from around the world to learn more about and experience BWA life and institutions.
Many of the Emerging Leaders Network participants are now serving on committees and in other BWA roles. One of them is a vice president of the organization.
“There is a catalyst enough to carry us on through the next several years,” Liebrum said.
Happy to prove herself
An American participant was Elijah Brown, now serving on the BWA’s commission for international freedom.
Brown, 31, was in his early 20s when he joined the network and in his late 20s when BWA tapped him to be their de-facto envoy between the world Baptist community and Baptists enduring persecution and war in the Sudan.
Even so, Brown said his concern is that BWA and other moderate Baptist institutions are inconsistent in their leadership development efforts.
“There is room for continued intentionality in including young leaders in the larger network of Baptist life,” said Brown, an assistant professor of missions at East Texas Baptist University.
“We live in a globalized world and Baptists need to continue to work to produce globalized thinkers and leaders.”
Sullivan said young, progressive Christians face these issues outside the church as well. Nonprofit groups, and the culture as a whole, often harbor distrust based on generation and faith.
It’s one reason Sullivan said she’s grateful for the opportunity to lead His Nets.
“I’m happy I can prove that I am capable of this and can show people my age are capable of doing these tasks,” she said.