On Residencies

By far the most rewarding thing about my time at Fellowship Memphis was the residency program.  By far.  The time spent with these young twenty something’s in airports, over meals and in our preaching cohort brought me infinitely times more satisfaction than any sermon I preached.  Their continued calls and opening queries like, “Now how would you,” brings me great joy. 

I’m also encouraged to see a movement of churches wanting to develop their own residency programs, and invest in the next generation of leaders.  Whatever label we put to these programs- residencies, internships, apprenticeships- it’s really the great commission, and Jesus has to be pleased. For all that is wrong with the church today, the growing tide of these minor league farm systems is a ray of sunshine on otherwise cloudy days.

But I’m a little concerned that I, along with a host of other well meaning pastors, maybe serving as accomplices to a crime.  I’m having more and more exit conversations with guys in their mid twenties who’ve graduated from our program, and want some coaching on how to look for and land a job.  The deeper we get into conversation the more I realize these men are not only looking for the perfect job, but have an overly inflated view of what they bring to the table.  As one young man said to me, “If I’m not teaching at least half the time, and serving at the highest levels of the church, I just don’t think that’s the best stewardship of me.”  Really?  Exactly who are you?  Let me get this straight: You’ve spent the last few years coasting off the sweat equity and leadership capital of others. You’re still very green in your preaching gifts, where for the most part every, “That was a good sermon,” by a congregational member should’ve been followed by, “…for a resident.” And your last entry in the notes section in your EverNote app on how to plant or lead a church was dated two weeks ago.  And you need to be teaching a lot and leading at the highest levels?  Now this young man’s example maybe a bit extreme, but in general I am finding a low grade entitlement simmering among more and more residents.

My passion for a residency program stems from my own experience.  I served for three years under Bishop Kenneth Ulmer in Inglewood, California.  I did everything from wash his car, pick up his clothes from the cleaners, shuttle visiting preachers back and forth from the airport and serve as his assistant on trips. Working for a bishop was one of the most redemptive things in my development.  How can I say this?  There’s no egalitarian view of leadership and authority in the traditional African American church, and for a twenty-something emerging leader and preacher, this was priceless.  

One of the worst things that could happen to any leader is to give them too much too soon.  Every leader I admire has spent a prolonged season in the wilderness of ambiguity.  Joseph spent years in obscurity where he was mistreated and neglected.  God didn’t just anoint David on a Wednesday and allow him to assume the throne that Thursday.  No, David waited fifteen years, hiding out in caves and on the run, fearing at times for his life.  Even Paul spent years in obscurity.  On and on we can go.  

We shouldn’t be thrilled to land a resident in our program as if they are some great commodity who will bring instantaneous value to our church.  They need to be ecstatic to serve with us.  And in hindsight I’m realizing that one of the most damaging things you can do to a young woman or man’s development is to give them too much exposure.  Let them spend a prolonged season setting up and tearing down for service.  Have them run copies, hand out worship guides and fill communion cups.  A few decades later, after they figure out exactly who they are, they’ll thank you.  

This summer I was at the Global Leadership Summit where I heard Patrick Lencioni speak on servant-leadership.  Mid message he paused and said, “We need to stop using the phrase ‘servant-leadership’, as if there’s any other kind”.  That’s what we’re looking to produce- people who lead from the posture of service, not men and women who think they need to be leading at the highest levels while the ink hadn’t dried on their degree.  Let’s be sure to build into our residency programs not only opportunities for emerging leaders to hone their craft, but to serve.