Using the Gradual Release Model to Develop Next Generation Leadership

One of the core values of any intergenerational church should be developing new leaders. While all generations are valued and important, perceived value must be shifted during the development of new talent and leadership. Often seasoned leadership must take a “back seat” to let emerging leaders develop the necessary skills and traits to be able to lead forward. However, each person (the “teacher” and the “student’) still have valuable roles, albeit at times different generations will be more visible than others.

Because we value all our generations in worship so much, we regularly schedule time for our children and youth to share their gifts and talents in worship leadership. It’s an intentional process. We don’t just teach them music performance, but also the importance of modeling worship behavior for congregational participation. For our students that show great musical potential and feel the call of God to vocational ministry, we work hard to invest in them specifically. We accomplish this by using the “Gradual Release Model,” developed by Pearson and Gallagher in 1983. This model (seen below) does exactly what the term suggests, it allows the “student” to assume responsibility as they get more opportunities to serve. Ultimately, it is our prayer is that the Lord will call some from our church to vocational music ministry and because they’ve been leading throughout their lives, they will already be equipped to lead elsewhere.

Obviously, the role of the “teacher” changes as the students are developed. This “passing the torch” approach is not without its difficulties. Obviously, the budding leadership still needs guidance along the way, especially if something the emerging leader does something that might be perceived as a mistake or cause embarrassment to themselves or others.

Here’s a practical example of how we are using the Gradual Release Model. One of my personal piano students has a desire to use her gifts further in accompanying for choirs and worship services. Currently, we’re using the model with her and using our Youth Choir to give her a safe place to test her wings. Our pianist for the Youth Choir is an excellent mentor herself. This fall, we had my student sit in on rehearsals and watch our pianist at work. During rehearsals they would discuss important things such as playing parts, anticipating director’s movements/gestures, playing techniques for a choir, etc. (Focused Instruction). By Christmas they had moved to Guided Instruction, both sitting at the bench, working together. They even played a four-hand accompaniment to one of our songs for Christmas. Since January, they’ve entered the Collaborative Learning phase. Our student has learned the parts and accompaniment to one of our songs and she is taking “lead” in the rehearsal on that tune. Our pianist is sitting with her and helping make sure she doesn’t miss anything and is successful, but it’s basically the student playing for me. By the end of the Spring, I hope that we’ve moved her more and more to her to the Independent playing phase where she becomes our pianist for the Youth Choir by this fall.

This process helps the student be successful, but also keeps the pianist and me on our toes as we strive to make clear what we need from our student. It’s a gratifying process, especially if the student is quite good and practices before rehearsals! The value we place on investing in next generations will be evident as we develop new leaders who will “carry the torch” after we are unable to.

Moving OVER, but not OUT

I wish we sang something in my church that I know.
I don’t know any of the new songs and no one around me does either.
I wish we would sing some/more hymns…you know, something with lyrics that don’t repeat 700 times?
We want the young people to participate, but we don’t want them to play too loudly.
We want the young people to participate, but we don’t want them to take our solos, spots on instruments, etc. 

Have you ever heard phrases like this? I’m sure I could fill much space with comments from our older generations. I’m not deceived, even as a Gen Xer, I’m officially an “older generation!” Let’s face it; we’re all prone to preferences. We all long for the music and worship atmosphere that feels safe/holy/familiar. Certainly, none of us “older” saints wants to feel irrelevant, either! I’d probably still think I was cool except my teenage sons remind me daily that I’m not. Truthfully, I never was, but I digress…

From a worship setting standpoint, I believe worship settings should err to the “younger look” while still maintaining an older presence. Here’s what I mean: I’m not advocating a particularly musical style. I’ll say it again, the local church musical style should reflect the context and demographics of the church and surrounding area more so than just what’s popular. That’s why we do old and new, because that’s who we are as a suburban, intergenerational church. BUT, the platform should include YOUNG and OLD worship leaders. There should be intentional opportunities for the young to learn from the older worship leaders (vocal and instrumental). Further, this intentionality goes beyond just platform presence, it should reflect the musical interests of our emerging generations, as well as tried and true. Sing to the Lord a new song (Psalm 96) AND The great hymnody of the faith.

Scripture is clear; it is the responsibility of the older generation to teach the younger generations, but doesn’t mention anything about music style, right? Nevertheless, the opening of Psalm 78 paints a beautiful picture of the what it DOES mean to investing in the young:

2I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
    but tell to the coming generation
    the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done.

He established a testimony in Jacob
    and appointed a law in Israel,
    which he commanded our fathers
    to teach to their children,
that the next generation might know them,
    the children yet unborn,
    and arise and tell them to their children…

The other day, I read an interesting portion of a book that really brought this home to me. The author referenced Numbers 8:25 as he reminded the reader than the Levites were to stop working at age fifty, but should switch their role as “leader” to assisting, empowering, inspiring, etc. While I hope I’m still “working in the service of the Lord at age 50,” it does bring home an interesting point…once we’ve reach a certain age, hopefully wiser as well, we need to mentor the next generation(s) to do the work of the Lord. Will their work be different than our work? Absolutely! But, we aren’t trying to create musical clones of ourselves, we are to teach/invest in their lives spiritually and, if you’re a worship leader like me, perhaps incredible musicianship rather than a particular style. At some point, my friends, each of us will realize that it’s time for us to move over and hand the “baton” to someone else. Don’t lose heart, you aren’t washed up, you’re role has just shifted to being a helper to the next generations.