MAKING ROOM AT THE TOP: Why Young Eagles Don’t Stay

In high school, I noticed a strange phenomenon. The freshmen got smaller every year. It was really weird.

When my friends and I walked onto campus for the first day of our freshman year we were legit high schoolers, admittedly a little intimidated by the seniors, but plenty cool in our own right.

Not so with the punks that came in the next year. Something must have happened at the middle school to stunt their growth. None of the new ninth graders were anywhere near as big, smart, or mature as we had been the year before. And by the time I was a senior, the middle school was pumping out mental, physical, and emotional midgets.

As I said, it was really strange.


Of course, that’s not what was happening. The freshmen weren’t getting smaller, stupider, and less mature; we were getting older, more mature, and arrogant.

Fortunately for each incoming crop of freshmen, the seniors keep graduating, giving last year’s freshmen, sophomores, and juniors an opportunity to spread their wings and fly. And sure enough, they always ended up flying a lot higher than the seniors would have guessed.

Unfortunately, in the church, it’s a different story. The seniors never graduate (at least not until they’ve become literal seniors and start dying off). They hog the leadership table, shutting out the next generation. It’s one of the main reasons why most churches stop growing and lose their evangelistic touch (and cultural relevance) around the twenty year mark.


Ironically, most churches are started by young eagles. But soon after getting their nest built, nicely appointed, and fully furnished, they start to marginalize the next batch of young eagles, asking them to sit at the kid’s table and wait for their turn at middle-aged leadership.

To counteract that natural tendency, I’ve made it a personal priority to make sure that our young eagles have a place at our leadership table. I see it as my role to enhance their influence within our church, making sure that they are supported, protected, and listened to.

But I have to admit, it’s not always appreciated, especially by middle-aged eagles who think that tenure should be the primary determiner of influence.

I understand their reluctance. Young eagles can make a mess in the cage. They’re impatient. They lack the wisdom that comes with experience. In short, they make the same dumb mistakes that the old eagles made when they first started out.

But that’s not the real reason that most churches and leadership teams push young eagles out of the nest. The real reason is that leadership is a zero sum game. One person’s emerging influence is always another person’s waning influence. And that makes making room for the young eagles a hard sell, especially to those who already have a place at the table.

Again, I understand. Like most leaders, I love the idea of servant leadership and putting others first – as long as no one actually cuts in front of me or starts treating me like I’m a servant.

But it has to be done or we’ll fall victim to the predictable twenty year death cycle when most churches stop growing, evangelizing, and making a mark.

When a church grows old, gray, and culturally out of touch – far more interested in protecting the past than creating the future – and starts to wonder, “What happened to all the young people and families that used to hang around here?” it’s a sign that the young eagles have been shut out for a long time.


I’d be a liar if I said that protecting and promoting young eagles can be done pain free. I find that it’s far easier in theory than practice. I don’t like giving up my personal power, prestige, or preferences any more than the next guy. It’s kind of a drag.

But young eagles are born to fly. It’s their nature. It’s how God made them. If they can’t fly high in our church, they’ll bolt and fly elsewhere. And sadly, when they do, they’ll take most of the life, vitality, and the future of our church with them.


So, honestly now, how are you and your church responding to young eagles? Are they written off, tolerated, or celebrated? Are they encouraged to fly, or asked to clip their wings? I guarantee you; your answer will determine your church’s future.

So, tell me, what do you think about the way we tend to treat young eagles?