We've all experienced it: Someone comes up to you after the Sunday morning worship service, their face flushed with excitement. They have passion and experience for such-and-such ministry, and are ready to plug in and run with things. When can I start?
You also know the response: the rush of adrenaline, the affirmation that someone believes in the vision this much, of being energized by their enthusiasm and wanting to tap into it. When can you start?
But hold on for a minute, or a day, or even several months. Can you?
As church leaders, we are often desperate to fill the gaps in ministry. We often feel discouraged by a lack of "buy-in" or enthusiasm. We see so much that can and should be done, and we feel alone in our efforts. Then we meet someone who is so eager.
We love eager. But in our haste to embrace eager, we often forget to look for mature. And we forget the Apostle Paul's exhortation to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:22: "Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands … "
I will confess, I sometimes have been too hasty to lay hands on an eager soul, to pronounce them ready and anoint them to leadership simply because I felt the ministry—no, I—needed them at that moment.
But in the end, sacrificing maturity for eagerness is never a wise move. In fact, doing so can often result in more harm than good: to your leadership credibility, to the organization, and especially to the eager party.
Leaders who are too quick to lay on hands demonstrate their own form of eagerness at the expense of maturity. Putting the immature in leadership prematurely can have long-term negative consequences, both operationally and spiritually, to the ministry and the people it serves. And too much responsibility too soon does not necessarily make a leader more mature, it can have the opposite effect of making someone jaded or burned out.
Keep in mind that maturity has absolutely nothing to do with age. Age does not equal maturity. Neither does life experience. I have known 22-year-old Christians who are more mature than 50-year-olds who have known Christ for longer than the younger leader has been alive. And there are successful business people who have no business in spiritual leadership roles in the church.
The qualifications for leadership that Paul gives in 1 Timothy 3 do not apply just to ministry settings, they apply to the person's lifestyle. And they have very little to do with the skills we usually associate with leadership.
So how can you tell the difference between eager and mature? I believe that maturity is manifested both in longitude and latitude. In other words, it is observed over time, and in a wide range of contexts. What is the person's life like outside of ministry? Do they demonstrate motivation for spiritual growth, and are they taking action on that motivation? Do they hunger to learn? And are they willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish the work at hand, without any sense of entitlement?
I knew a man who aspired to a leadership role at his church, but was unwilling to clean toilets with his small group as part of a kindness project in the community. When it came to a leadership role, he was eager for the authority, but did not demonstrate the passionate servanthood that is one of the distinguishing marks of a mature leader.
All leaders must be servants. But, not all servants are capable leaders. The key is to recognize the difference between eager servants and mature leaders.
This not to say that there isn't a place for the eager. Quite the contrary, eagerness (even by non-Christians!) can and should absolutely be channeled into appropriate service roles. Then, if they show the desire and the potential, the eager should be intentionally developed toward maturity and accompanying leadership roles. But oversight roles should be reserved for those who have visibly demonstrated that growth and maturity.