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6 Leadership Lessons I've Learned from Millennials

As I'm learning from Millennials, I'm finding hope for the future.

We talk a lot about Millennials. It often involves a lot of eye-rolling.

The stereotype is nicely summed up by the title of a 2013 Time Magazine article: “The Me Me Me Generation.” This thought is not limited to secular circles, either. Earlier this year, Watermark Church created a song (which then went viral online) called “Gotta Love Millennials.” (I’m choosing to believe that they’re not making fun of Millennials but are making fun of how we make fun of Millennials. Either way, it’s a good summary of how Millennials are seen.)

The song makes references to coffee, facial hair, big dreams, unemployment, selfies, yoga pants, Instagram, dreams (again), essential oils, living at home, sensitivity to criticism, and undeserved confidence. Then the cheery ditty, sung to the melody of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" turns somber with the lyrics: “In a couple of years we will have to pass the torch, In a couple of years they will be in charge and one will be our president! Please pray for Millennials!”

Millennials Have Something to Teach Us

At ministry conferences, predominantly attended by leaders in their 40s and 50s, I hear a lot of anxiety, driving us to study Millennials the way we did The New Age Movement in the 80’s or Postmodernity in the 90’s. I’m guessing it’s got something to do with the 2010 Pew study that showed Millennials leaving the church in droves. It found that one-in-four members of the Millennial generation are unaffiliated with any particular faith, which is, undoubtedly, sobering. But the way I see it, Millennials are often leaving church for good reasons and it would serve us well to listen to their concerns. So instead of laughing at them or pandering to stereotypes of what might draw them to our churches, it’s time to learn something from them. As I do, I’m finding hope for the future.

My life in a university context means I’m totally surrounded by Millennials. My husband’s role as a Bible college professor and my own role leading a campus ministry church at a big state university has meant that for 19 years we have lived and worked with emerging adults. I’m watching something new at work in this particular cohort of American young adults—positive trends in which women, in particular, have a large part.

It’s a strange thing to say you’ve learned how to lead from people who would call you their leader. As a female lead pastor I know the value of leading with vulnerability. But it’s one thing to decide it’s healthy and another thing entirely to know how to do it—or to do it with courage. I’m approaching vulnerability from a generation that has had stability. Like many my age, control and comfort have been my homeland while instability and vulnerability feel like a foreign land.

But for Millennial leaders—namely, young women leaders—this is the land they’ve always known. Uncertainty is their homeland. They’ve learned how to navigate it, how to laugh at themselves when they mess up, how to let themselves be seen. As they discover what it means to be human, to need one another, to see the potential in limitation, they’re leading their male counterparts. Will we let them lead us?

Here’s what I’m learning from the Millennial women leaders in my life:

1. Millennial Women are Redefining Leadership

Although they’ve grown up watching a polished kind of leadership, that model doesn’t feel right to them as emerging leaders. That kind of leadership made them question their own ability to lead, so now they’re experimenting with how transparency and vulnerability could look, inviting others in behind the scenes of their doubt and wrestling and trusting that God’s strength can be shown in weakness.

2. Millennial Women Value Substance and Authenticity

These young women aren’t fooled by superficiality, and they work to be who they claim to be. They long for substance and honesty, even if it’s uncomfortable. They understand that the world is complicated, and they’re learning that God is found in the mess.

3. Millennial Women Both Study and Create Culture

Although they may have been raised in Christian families which protected them from secular culture, they’re unafraid of it, always looking for signs of life and hope in it. They see movies, fashion, magazines, music, and social media as places to find clues of how God is at work in the world. Beyond simply observing culture, they have their own part in creating it, often choosing to communicate in clever, funny, and self-effacing ways.

4. Millennial Women are Interested in Justice and Compassion

In their lifetimes, many of these women have watched their schools, neighborhoods, and TV shows become more diverse, so they’re comfortable with difference. This generation’s access to the Internet has exposed them to experiences very different from their own, and these insights inform their moral choices which extends to what they eat and wear, where they live and shop. They have a sense of themselves, but are also open to others (which includes navigating the larger than normal generation gap between themselves and their parents).

5. Millennial Women have Creative and Service-Oriented Approaches to Work

Since this generation can’t expect to walk straight out of college and into a career, many young women are finding creative ways to reimagine work, setting aside the traditional “career as personal brand” approach and seeing their life’s work as a way to serve. This may mean they’re willing to cobble together a few different jobs to make it work. Others create jobs for themselves—like creating an app or starting an Etsy store—and continue to fit some volunteering in there, too.

6. Millennial Women are Pioneering New Gender Roles

Since this generation has seen their mothers’ (and perhaps grandmothers’) generation stepping into new roles, they’ve had a chance to learn from both the positive and negative examples of pioneering women. So Millennial women are often less reactionary than previous generations of women and are finding healing from stereotypes. They often don’t feel the need for exclusive women’s ministries but are comfortable in mixed groups and long to find healing between men and women.

For Millennials, the way the world is heading is the only world they know—a more global, connected, diverse, risky place. Many of us in middle age look on it with uncertainty because we remember a more predictable time. But we have much to learn from these young women who look on it with hope. The things Millennials are dealing with are not passing trends but seismic cultural shifts taking place—changes that affect education, work, immigration, the family, the economy, and the institutional church, to name just a few. As much as we might lament some of these realities, Millennials are not afraid. So I’m following their lead on how to navigate a changing world with creativity and hope.

Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of The Vulnerable Pastor.

October17, 2016 at 11:44 AM

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