Millennials and Distributed Leadership in the Church


A recent study by research group Universum looked at the leadership styles and workplace environments preferred by Generations X, Y, and Z. While their conclusions and recommendations were geared more toward a corporate work setting, there are many important insights for churches looking to better engage younger generations in their congregations.

When asked about employer structures and cultures, survey participants--particularly in Generation Y (a group more commonly known as Millennials)--indicated a strong preference toward flexible work environments that favor a more collaborative and less hierarchical approach. Millennials want to be seen as valued members of a team and rewarded for their entrepreneurship. Over 40% of Millennials surveyed indicated that if they had to choose a certain kind of employer to work for over the rest of their career, they would most like to start their own business or work for a startup. Small companies and startups are known for their flexibility and adaptability. Typically, in a startup, the workload is equally shared among the team, and titles or positions are less relevant than in a larger corporate setting.

Because of this, many companies--particularly in high-tech industries--are moving toward a model known as “distributed leadership.” In this approach, leadership is less about a particular rank or role, but instead is based on working together as a team to achieve goals that will positively benefit the client and influence the organization in a meaningful way. Leadership fluctuates day-to-day as one person may be the leader on a certain project, but a follower on a different task. Distributed leadership looks less like a hierarchical pyramid and more like a fluid, team-based circle. Think of the difference between a board room where one person is standing at the front of the room or the head of the table versus one where everyone is sitting around the table together.

In my own work life, I have personally benefited from a distributed leadership model. Although there is a clear leadership hierarchy within the building, in my specific department we tend to work collaboratively while focusing on the outward mission and purpose of our organization. For instance, my boss will often come out from his private office and work in the open cubicle area alongside his staff. Being in this shared space makes it easier to receive and give input from each other as we make decisions as a team. As another example, on large projects, we may be assigned specific tasks, but they are not always chosen because of our positions or titles. Instead, they are delegated based on our current workloads, preferences, and passions.This distributed leadership style makes me feel that my voice actually matters, regardless of my title or rank.

Distributed leadership also values the end goal of furthering the vision of the organization. Many times, large companies get hung up on the details of protocols, procedures, and policies. They are in danger of losing the forest for the trees and ultimately neglecting their greater purpose. For me, it seems that the days when I am the most frustrated or feel the greatest lack of purpose in my job are those days when I am engaged in menial tasks by myself that do not contribute to to our mission in a significant way. In contrast, the days when I feel the most energy and excitement about my job are the days when I am a part of a team that is helping all the pieces come together in order to contribute to the larger picture and purpose. When distributed leadership is employed, not only do I feel personally fulfilled in my job, but I also sense that I am positively contributing to a greater goal.

A distributed leadership model would help churches adapt as Millennials are growing older and moving into leadership roles in their congregations. Regardless of whether your church is more episcopalian or congregational in its structure, distributed leadership could be applied within the various committees, boards, or leadership teams.

You can begin to discern whether distributed leadership is applied in your church by asking questions like these: Are the same people always in charge of events or fundraisers? Is there opportunity to allow new voices to lead a project? Are roles and positions in the church granted by standards such as longevity in the congregation or tithing records, or are they based on people’s passions and creativity? Do members of your congregation get to speak into what happens during your worship gatherings, or are all decisions made from the top-down? Are larger committees or boards broken into smaller teams for planning and decision-making? Within your pastoral team, are there certain staff members who have a greater say in the vision-casting for the church? Are there times when everyone can give input into the future direction of the church, such as through a congregational survey or town hall meeting?

If your answers to these questions consistently favor a top-down, hierarchical model of leadership with decisions being made by a small number of people, it may be time to incorporate distributed leadership within your church.

Whether it is in their workplace or their faith community, Millennials are not content with simply being a cog in a large and incomprehensible machine; they want to be able to view the larger picture and see how their work is directly contributing to achieving the stated mission of the group. Even if they do not have the prestige of an elected position or a certain leadership title, they want their input to be valued and their perspectives to be taken into account.

Similarly, Millennials will find themselves frustrated by church leadership that “majors in the minors” and places a great deal of energy, time, and resources on menial tasks that do not directly relate to the church’s values or purpose statement. The color of the carpet, the decorations on the communion table, or how the pastor dresses matters less to them than whether finances are being maintained with integrity or what compassionate ministry programs are being offered to the community. If Millennials do not feel that their church is accomplishing its mission, they will quickly find a church where their goals and passions are more aligned with the church’s actions.

For the past few years, studies have consistently shown that one of Millennials’ greatest goals for their careers is to find a job that gives them purpose. The same is true for Millennials in the church: they long for meaning and fulfillment within their congregation. They want to be able to contribute to a greater purpose. They want to invest themselves in a worthy cause. They want to know that their involvement matters. Distributed leadership may be a key in allowing Millennials to participate in their churches in meaningful and significant ways.