A generational approach to ministry innovation: “Can I have the keys?”

Mark DeVries and Trey Wince encourage a generational approach to innovation.

Closeup detail view of old massive metal key in a large huge church wooden ancient door. Secret mystery entrance. Traditional gothic grunge vintage style. Medieval security and safety

Love eclipses our need to succeed. Innovative ministries may flop, mutate, adapt, change, or fall away. But love never fails. — Kenda Dean, Innovating for Love

Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation program in the world, brought a group of young men and young women (“homeboys and homegirls”) to participate in a panel discussion. He sat in the back of the room. After a few softball questions from the audience, a woman turned to the panel and asked, “One day, Father Greg is going to die. What are you going to do when he’s gone?”

It was not quite a gasp, but an uncomfortable rustling rippled through the crowd.

Without missing a beat, one of the homeboys stood and nodded to his fellow panelists, who also stood. He said simply, “All of us have keys to the place.”

They received a standing ovation.


Something in us loves to hear stories of passion, agency, and leadership passing from one generation to another. We love it when the recipients of ministry become not only agents of ministry but the leaders of the generation that came before them.

Father Greg reports that approximately two-thirds of Homeboy’s current senior staff members are themselves graduates of the program.

“I don’t run this place anymore,” he says. “People who have come through the program run it all.”

Millions of dollars have been invested, countless hours spent and thousands of pages written, all dedicated to trying to “solve the young adult problem” in the church. We have tried slicker programs; we have tried “letting them” volunteer; we have sought better leaders and more meaningful mission work; we have tried doing more, more, more for them.

What we haven’t done so well is “give them the keys.”

Why young adults are saying, “No, thank you”

John, a young adult who served on the senior leadership team of a multi-million dollar accounting firm, supervised dozens of professional employees. When he volunteered to serve on his church’s finance committee (a church with a budget of $150,000 or so), he was told he didn’t yet have enough experience. He was offered the consolation prize of being able to pass out bulletins on Sundays.

Jessica, a 30-year-old with two master degrees related to organizational leadership, was elected to the leadership board of the church. She was half the age of the next youngest member. Month after month in meetings, her input was minimized, mocked, and consistently undermined. The message: She was too naïve and idealistic to be taken seriously.  She ended her term early, shocking the leadership board. Their narrative?

“Young adults just aren’t committed.”

The young adult’s narrative? “Why would I waste my time with people who act as if their primary job is to keep me in my place? I will serve somewhere. But I will serve where I can co-create, even if I have to start a ministry of my own.”

“Why would I waste my time with people who act as if their primary job is to keep me in my place? I will serve somewhere. But I will serve where I can co-create, even if I have to start a ministry of my own.”

It’s possible that in some contexts 30 years or so ago, churches could afford to expect the next generation to “pay their dues” for a decade or two before being allowed a consequential role in the church’s leadership. Those days are gone.

We will not solve the “young adult problem” or the shrinking church problem until we give up our addiction to clinging to the keys.

Let’s not confuse this with “easy”

The two of us, Mark and Trey, have spent most of our adult lives finding ways to offer the keys of leadership to the next generation. Trey served in a half dozen roles in churches, mission organizations, at the judicatory level, and as a coach and consultant. Mark, a youth pastor for over 35 years, founded Ministry Architects and
co-founded Ministry Incubators, both coaching and consulting organizations focusing on innovation and the next generation.

And even more acutely, the two of us live out this generational handoff in real time. In January 2023, Mark officially passed “the keys” to Ministry Architects to Trey, who now serves as president and CEO.

“I work for Trey now,” Mark said, echoing Father Greg. “I don’t run this place anymore.”

The handoff, though, was not a single event, but one in a long series of intentional handoffs.

“For 20 years, I was consistently trusted with more opportunities than I was prepared for or qualified for. Over and again,” Trey said, “mentors handed me the keys and then went about the (substantial) work of helping me be successful.”

“Only now do I realize the enormous foresight and humility this move required from my mentors. My seminary education was crucial, but so much of my work since then involved skills I didn’t (and maybe couldn’t) learn in the classroom, like the delicate dance of platforming agency for young leaders. One of my favorite key-passing experiments we called the Training Hub.”

We will not solve the “young adult problem” or the shrinking church problem until we give up our addiction to clinging to the keys.

The Training Hub

Eight years ago, Trey held weekly meetings with four pairs of seminary students, having shoehorned them into co-pastorate positions with five, small-but-not-yet-dying mainline churches. He called it the “Training Hub.”

Trey pitched a simple, but not-so-sensitive, idea to the participating churches.

“Your current downward trajectory is clear, and your current 10-hour-per-week pastor is insufficient,” he said in the pitch. “What if you took a risk on two young, talented, passionate leaders and let me teach them the boring stuff like reading a budget and crafting meeting agendas?”

Since, he has watched previously neglected churches explode with energy and possibility.
These churches witnessed silly Christmas pageants, folksy fall kickoffs, and every possible flavor of sermon experiment.

One 22-year-old pastor dressed up in a full “Gerald the Generous Giraffe” costume each week of his church’s stewardship drive. Trey saw it as a laughable gimmick until he saw the congregation’s giving tick up more than 20%. Oh, and every single one of these declining churches saw an average attendance growth of 12% to 20%. These churches rediscovered their imagination by opening themselves to be led by someone 1/3 their average age.

…Churches rediscovered their imagination by opening themselves to be led by someone 1/3 their average age.

Okay, a few things of note before we paint too rosy a picture:

Each “hubber” was in their early to mid-20s. Their ability to write a coherent strategic plan: borderline abysmal. Most had never seen a standard profit and loss statement. One tried to move the worship service to 11 a.m. because 8 a.m. was “just too early.” Trey had to establish Sunday morning fashion guidelines for at least three of them, and he literally drove to a church one Sunday morning to teach one of them how to tie a tie. In a reversal of influence, Mark, the older of the two, learned the Training Hub model from Trey and implemented it at a small church in Nashville years later, a story reported previously in the Outlook.

More than ever, we both feel the urgency to prioritize the deliberate and active investment in new leadership, so when the day comes for young leaders to receive the title of director or president or senior pastor, they’re already 80% prepared. Unfortunately, few young leaders in the church experience anything close to a proactive approach.

Without the years-long onramp, they can find themselves crushed in an ecclesial machine blaming them for being too young, excitable, naïve, too inexperienced, too zealous. Most of us can imagine the aging armchair quarterbacks shaking their “I-told-you-so” heads as their predictions come true.

Having attempted this process of handing off the keys of leadership in greater and lesser degrees of effectiveness (and hilarity), here are three lessons we’ve learned:

  • Young adults are not particularly interested in joining established ministries. They are interested in inventing initiatives that make an impact way beyond getting people to come to church meetings.
  • Churches, pastors, and leadership teams need training and support in creating welcoming spaces for incubating young adults’ outside-the-box ministry dreams.
  • Handing leadership to the next generation is more complicated and nuanced than doing things we already know how to do, like planning and leading worship, holding committee meetings, and repairing the building.

No more experts, please

If the audacity of investing in a generation of leadership before they’re ready sounds familiar, we don’t have to look much further than the gospels. Without completing (much less passing) any required coursework, the 12 were sent out to do things they were wildly unqualified for. Remember how they were expected to do things like preach and cast out demons (Mark 3:14), all without passing the Bible content exam or completing a Hebrew or Greek exegetical paper?

Dr. Luke tells us (6:12), that the disciples preached that “all should repent,” an echo of Jesus’ first sermon (Mark 1:15 and Matthew 4:17). Now “repent,” of course, literally means “to change the mind.” Is anyone in a better position to invite change than the young who just don’t know any better (the fable of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” comes to mind)?

During a check-in, Trey asked his hubbers why they had felt a tug toward ministry. Awestruck, he sat quietly as every single hubber’s answer included some version of this phrase:

“I don’t know WHAT the heck they were thinking, but they put me in charge of…”

  • VBS
  • a mission trip
  • children’s Sunday school
  • an entire worship service
  • a neighborhood missions program

And the list went on.

Each young leader told poignant stories of being handed the keys before they were truly
ready, and each story had the same two ingredients: Keys and lead blocking.

  1. Keys: Someone handed them real responsibility with real decision-making power and real risks at stake if (when?) the young person didn’t deliver.
  2. Lead blocking: A seasoned leader went about the heavy work of clearing a path for this young person to be successful.

A warning to our seasoned leaders: Lead blocking is thankless work. You take the brunt of the hits, but you won’t be credited with the touchdowns.

Sports metaphors aside, lead blocking will look mundane: helping new leaders build a volunteer recruitment plan rooted in reality; introducing important stakeholders in the church; building communication lines to the church’s leadership team (i.e., “never surprise your Session”); giving promotional airtime during worship; establishing a budget line item; sending an obstacle-removing email to the communications director that says “please include this person’s announcement in our bulletin.” And cheerleading during the required lessons in resilience after a failure.

But lead blocking is where legacies are made.

At some point, great leaders will turn their attention away from what they can build toward the meaningful things they can leave behind.

Can we admit that the church of Jesus Christ, at least in the North American, mainline context,
is filled with experts, experts at leading the kinds of churches that, by and large, no longer exist?

Jesus’ disciples were anything but experts. They were rank amateurs.

Maybe in this time between times in the church, Jesus has us right where he wants us. As beginners.

If we have ears to hear, the Spirit may use the multi-pronged crises in the church to compel us to drop our confidence in our own expertise. Maybe when we realize how much we have to learn, we can begin to step into generative approaches to ministry, appropriate to the post-Christendom, post-Covid church.

The church we serve today exists because Jesus spent more time investing in the “not-yet-readies” than he did in gripping the keys to the shop. May we do our best to follow suit.