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The Power of Giving Away Power (to Young People)

Gemma Madle

08 May, 2024


The upcoming Annual Youthscape/St Mellitus Lecture is tackling the topical subject of ‘Young people, leadership and transparency in the Church’. There is so much to unpack in this and it couldn’t be more timely. Gemma reflects on what it might mean to centre young people’s voices as we rethink what leadership can look like.


Listening to young people’s views on leadership

Too many of us in Youth Ministry have experienced abuse of power within the Church and it can occur in much smaller contexts and subtler ways than we hear about from the big scandals. Events in both national and international politics have also left many of us wondering if we’ve lost our way when it comes to leadership. The challenges are real and present both within and outside of the Church. Many of us have been left disillusioned (and sadly in too many cases harmed) by unhealthy or damaging leadership and there is widespread frustration with the structures that haven’t done their job of protecting the vulnerable from harm. There are now multiple online public spaces in which people can share this frustration and the pain they’ve experienced. But where will our future leaders come from and what will their leadership look like? If current leadership styles both in and out of the Church aren’t attractive to younger generations how do we find the different models of leadership required in this new age? Perhaps we need to not just let young people help us work out what church leadership of the future could look like, but centre them in those discussions?

Upside-down leadership?

Each time I return to the Gospels I’m reminded of how Jesus’ leadership was so outrageously different to those in positions of power at that time. He engaged directly with those on the margins, with those that the authorities oppressed with their hierarchy. He was often found in spaces that other leaders were afraid of visiting and he offered an upside-down view of what life in the kingdom of God looked like compared to the status quo. Whereas today it seems that some of our church leadership structures and styles are indistinguishable from the corporate world and some Churches can feel like comfortable middle-class clubs. Is it any wonder young people have lost interest in Church if it doesn’t appear to offer anything radically different from the culture around them that their generation is questioning?

Lighting up the room

Back in 2021 I attended a talk at the Cheltenham Literature Festival at which Matthew Barzun was one of the speakers. His book – The Power of Giving Away Power – shows how ‘when leaders find the courage to distribute power—rather than hoard it—creativity multiplies, trust deepens, inclusivity expands, and a new kind of order emerges.’ (1). He described ‘The Constellation Mindset’ where each member of a community is an individual star, linked by imaginary lines to other stars and when it shines, adds its own contribution to the unique picture it is part of. The example he gave was of a recent American President who in his words didn’t ‘light up the room by radiating light so it could be reflected back to himself’ but instead ‘empowered those within the room to

turn on their own lights’. There’s a profound difference, perhaps illustrated in reverse by the transition from that President to the next!

As Christian Youth Workers we are instinctively and intentionally working to help empower young people ‘turn on their own lights’. Whether our work is evangelistic or discipling, church-centred or community-focused, targeted or open access, we’re all generally trying to help young people discover who they are in Christ and to let that identity shine brightly in the unique constellation that they are part of. Both our professional standards and our call from Jesus mandate that we work in an anti-oppressive way. This doesn’t just mean that we don’t abuse our power, but that we also seek to dismantle the structures that bind, blind and harm the vulnerable & oppressed, to take down anything that obscures or hides a young person’s God-given light.

Assimilation or redesign?

The recent closure of the British Youth Council is tragic, as for 70 years this organisation has worked tirelessly to influence our political structures and systems with the voices of young people, by directly connecting young people with decision makers, not merely representing them. The Church of England’s own Youth Council closed in 2019 due to a lack of interest from young people in participating and a move was made at General Synod last year to consider how the Church should move forward. (2) As numbers of young people in our churches decline, their collective voices become quieter and quieter, unless we seek them out and amplify them the church at large will never benefit from what they have to bring. Yes it might disrupt the status quo and feel too difficult at times – but isn’t part of young people’s contribution to the church to ask the disruptive questions, to throw into the mix the wild and crazy ideas and to challenge the way we do things? Especially how we do leadership? And our role as Youth Workers to provoke these disruptive questions, encourage the challenge, and support them to explore the new and innovative ways God might be working in them and our communities? If our leadership models are not attracting young people to participate then we need to change those models and redistribute power within our church communities to enable them to influence and lead.

Will we let young people lead us to create new structures that amplify their voices and bring their light to our Church communities? Or are we trying too hard to assimilate young people into the constellations we already know and recognise?


(1) https://simonsinek.com/optimis...

(2) https://www.churchofengland.or...

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