It is always a blessing for pastors to receive words of encouragement from people in the congregation. When I was a children’s pastor, those words often came from two places: parents of kids in my ministry, and people who were scared of children and therefore in awe that anyone would have the patience or know-how to lead such a rambunctious group of miniature people. The feedback I got from both groups was and is always treasured, but there’s one little pet peeve of mine often woven between the words of praise. People frequently said things to me like, “What you are doing is so important. Those kids are tomorrow’s church!” and “I just love how you’re teaching our kids. They’re the leaders of the future!”

I know these types of comments are offered in love, and I absolutely appreciate the sentiment behind them. I just wish I could change one teeny, tiny, little, bitty, giant, gargantuan, mega-huge part of those statements. Not tomorrow. Not the future. Today. Children are today. They’re not practicing until they’ll someday be “real” leaders. They’re not practicing until they’ll someday become “real” Christians. They’re not training to be tomorrow’s church. Children are leaders, Christians, and part of the church today.

Children are leaders, Christians, and part of the church today.

When we put our kids in leadership roles right now—while they’re still kids—they won’t recognize those roles as secondary or token. They will take them seriously. When I challenge my six-year-old to help my two-year-old wash her hair, or teach her how to pick up Legos, or help her know how to use a rake in the backyard, she recognizes these as opportunities to serve. She doesn’t articulate this knowledge in so many words, but I know from her resolve and her demeanor that she values her role of leadership.

If I told my daughter that she wasn’t really a leader—but she might be, someday!—suddenly her role in leading her sister would become less important to her. She would not value that role as actual leadership if she were told it was just practice.

Kids are both willing and capable of leading in the church. Their leadership just looks different depending on how old they are and what sort of training they’ve received. Can a preschooler teach a baby how to hold a cup? Can a first grader read a book to a preschooler? Can a preteen help a first grader pay attention during service? These acts of service are real leadership!

It is important to give children organic opportunities to lead, both at home and in church. Recognize them as leaders. Compliment the way they serve their peers or younger kids.

For older kids, you might even be ready to move from organic-only opportunities to a place of formal leadership training and implementation. I’ve heard stories from lots of churches who are creating unique space for their preteens to serve as leaders to other kids in their children’s ministries.

Leaders come in all heights. They might even be three feet tall. Consider the leadership capabilities of even the youngest among you. Think about more than how they can be nurtured for future opportunities; consider instead how they are willing and able to lead now. After all, the best leaders tomorrow are often the ones who are allowed and encouraged to lead today.