Stephen Lewis

  Stephen Lewis


Each nonprofit organization must ask, “How do we become the best stewards that we can with our limited resources, to make the greatest impact in the world?” Larger organizations can take risks and experiment with trial and error, while smaller organizations and nonprofits must leverage leading practices from other sectors to steward well and advance their missions innovatively.

Leveraging leading practices from other sectors largely serves to build the capacity of an organization’s most important asset: human capital.

At the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE), we build the capacity of the staff in a human-centered design to advance our initiatives. Drawing on the work of IDEO, human-centered design focuses on listening from the perspective of your organization’s constituents, hearing what they need, and designing solutions for those needs. We use this approach to identify what faith communities need to cultivate the next generation of church leaders, to determine what actions would be most useful and viable in making an impact, and to design the necessary resources to advance our work with partners supporting young adults in exploring their purpose, passion and calling.

We leverage best practices outside our field from IDEO, MIT, the Presencing Institute, and others working on organizational and social processes, in hopes of becoming better stewards of the resources entrusted to us for our mission. Social entrepreneurs successful at creating better products and services address the needs of the people they desire to impact. They think integratively and draw connections between questions and problems they want to address, prototype ideas, get feedback from the people to be impacted, and then build and scale products and services that best address those needs. FTE adopted similar practices to respond to a changing landscape and advance its mission.

For six decades, our mission has focused on cultivating new generations of diverse young people to be wise, faithful, and courageous leaders for the church and academy, and helping young leaders see these as viable places to make a real impact in the world. This does not just happen. In every generation, young adults must be inspired and compelled to pursue their calling to lead and serve communities of faith, particularly in ways that are relevant to the larger community. We have learned from others and invested in new ideas and practices in our efforts to inspire a new generation to shape a more hopeful future.

Bridging the Divide

Nine years after World War II, religious leaders became concerned that the next generation was not pursuing leadership within Christian ministry. A group of Ivy League theological educators and church men and women met and established FTE to identify and attract a new generation of diverse Christian ministers and educators. More than sixty years later, we are still at it.

FTE’s work is uniquely situated between denominations, congregations, and seminaries, positioning us to bridge divides and work across all three contexts. We bring together, in ecumenical ways, a diverse representation of the church and church-related organizations, theological schools, and an intergenerational group of people committed to leadership informed by faith. Thus, FTE convenes a diverse group of leaders that you would not normally see in any one of these individual institutions.

We place a high value on hosting conversations with diverse groups of people that really matter. This past summer, FTE held a national forum on Christian leadership that looked, in part, at why an active faith matters, in addition to racial tension and fears that come with increasing diversity within the church, academy and society. Since these conversations do not typically happen between people across different silos, we modeled how institutions and their leaders can have new conversations about what really matters. Together we explored what they hoped for within their communities, what kinds of leaders are needed today, and what role religious leaders and their institutions can have in shaping a way forward.

We have discovered that when we bring together young people from diverse contexts, theological traditions and perspectives, and commitments (some want to serve the church or academy, while others just want to live a faithful life of service), and allow them to lead important conversations and catalyze inspiring visions, the barriers that often divide their elders gradually fall away and they begin participating in a different kind of conversation about the present and future – and religious leaders want to support and join these courageous young leaders.

Stepping Outside of Our Tribes

We work too often within our own tribes and silos. The complexity and range of issues we face demand that we step outside and find new ways to work together on a shared future. Solutions can only be born out of a collective wisdom that is possible when diverse groups of people work together.

Millennials are modeling and leading the way. In FTE gatherings, we see young adults with different experiences and perspectives talking with each other, exchanging ideas, and learning from one another in conversations about their leadership, place in the church and role in shaping the future. Resisting the labels (conservative, liberal, evangelical, mainline, etc.) their elders and others have used to describe themselves, young adults in FTE events are thinking in more broad and diverse ways about what matters to them and how they plan to live out their values to create the world they want to see.

As a result, these young leaders are paving the way for their elders and inviting them into new conversations about their shared hopes and dreams for the future.

Shaping a New Generation of Leaders

FTE is helping emerging leaders see a broad spectrum of ways they can live out their calling and inspiring them to make a real difference in the world through Christian ministry. While the nature and purpose of church is changing, new forms of Christian ministry are emerging, Millennials are less affiliated with religious institutions (according to PewResearch), and young adults are thinking creatively and innovatively about what religious communities can be. They are experimenting and developing new kinds of communities within and beyond existing church structures and using social media to connect and network their fledging communities.

FTE creates space for these young leaders to dream and converse with like-minded peers asking similar questions and imagining ways to live out their ministry. We expose them to different ways to practice ministry, and help them discern their next steps toward their purpose.

Rethinking Traditions

Some denominations have invested millions of dollars into new kinds of worshiping communities and ways Christian leaders define and address how young Christians congregate and journey throughout life. By focusing on how Christians have congregated in the past, we will miss how they are congregating now and into the future.

As an example, a colleague shared that a youth minister of a mega-church was concerned that young people were not coming to church for youth groups anymore. Instead, they were gathering in each other’s homes. This is a case where church leaders have to rethink their traditional patterns of doing business.

If the church wants to address the needs of a new generation, innovative thinking and a human-centered design approach would be instructive. Instead of assuming that young people will always come to church for youth group, church leaders could spend more time listening to young adults and their parents about what they need, observing where young adults are congregating and discussing God and spirituality with their peers, and designing new missional outreach ministries to address their young adults’ needs.

The solution might involve moving ministries from the church to young adults’ homes and other places they hang out. It might involve equipping church leaders to take ministry beyond the walls of the church and use spiritual practices in communities young adults have developed and are congregating.

While this might be scary for some people, these are exciting times. I look forward to how the next generation will lead us into the future, particularly in ways we may not be able to fully recognize now.


Stephen Lewis is president of the Forum for Theological Exploration, focusing on cultivating a new generation of Christian leaders. He was educated in business administration, banking and finance, and has more than fifteen years’ experience in corporate and nonprofit leadership, strategic planning, program development and group facilitation. Stephen is an ordained minister, a member of the Center for Courage & Renewal’s Board of Directors, and served on Duke Divinity School’s Board of Visitors.


This article is reprinted from Issue #5 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!

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