In the early 1980s, my wife Karla and I were living in the rural village of Sandema in northern Ghana, serving with the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy, and Bible Translation. Our goal was to help translate the Bible into Buli, the local language. Our first task was to understand the culture and learn the language. I found the latter extremely difficult, due to the tonal nature of Buli, which I never mastered.

Traditional home in Sandema

“You have it all wrong. It’s not what you do…”

As we were preparing to return to the U.S. for home leave after several years, we had little to show for our efforts. We met with our director, Salifu Mogre and shared how unready we felt to meet with our prayer and financial supporters. Salifu stopped us and said, “You have it all wrong. Think of all of the ways you have been helping others, especially by staffing various training courses.” Then he said something quite prophetic: “It’s not what you do, but what you enable others to do, that matters.” That word of advice has shaped all of our subsequent ministry: “It’s not what we do that matters, but what we enable others to do.”

That may be why I was so moved by a panel discussion at a meeting of the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission in South Africa in 2006.

“We don’t want to turn out like you.”

All five younger leaders on the panel, from Brazil, India, Ireland, Kenya and the U.S., expressed the same unmet desire: “We are hungry for relationships with older men and women, and for safe places to talk about painful experiences and unsafe topics.” In the words of Duncan Olumbe, one of the panel members, “What we would like is a safe environment for meaningful dialogue with one another and with God…”

“As younger leaders, someone has to [come alongside us]. If they don’t, we will be like shooting stars. We have great promise today, but in five years we will be gone, burned out.”

I had never met any of the men and women on the panel, but when I caught up with them later that day and asked each one: “Would you welcome an opportunity to follow up what you shared with a small group of older and younger leaders?” they all said “Yes” immediately, except one of the women. She cried instead. “People always come up and say, ‘Thank you very much for sharing.’ But no one ever says, ‘Can we talk more about what you just shared?’”

Ever since that event, when I attended regional or global mission gatherings, I would seek out the younger leaders who were present, which was often very few. My question to them was always the same: “Who is looking out for you and your development as a person and as a leader?” No matter what continent they were from, with rare exceptions, their answer was always the same: “No one.”

I remember one of my younger leader friends telling me, “We don’t want to turn out like you.” After he realized what he said, he quickly corrected himself. “I don’t mean you in particular. I mean the leaders that we know who are of your generation.” Rather than be angered by such an indictment, I encourage those of us who are older leaders to ask ourselves:

What are we modeling that he would need to make such a statement?

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