What does it take to develop leaders in your church?
To say this church plant was unlikely would be an understatement. We had our family, one other family, and five people in their seventies. Sitting on a folding chair in the living room, I realized, If we are going to have a church, we have to develop the leaders we have right now.
One Sunday morning Irene, one of those in her seventies, set up the Communion table. I noticed that she then went around to make sure everything else was in order—and people did whatever she asked them to do.
Afterward I asked her, “Irene, have you ever considered that you have leadership gifts?”
“Absolutely not!” she said. “I am just an ordinary woman, housewife, and mother.”
“But you lead our Communion setup ministry.”
Irene was not persuaded. “That’s not a leadership gift,” she told me. “That’s just service.”
But if I didn’t convince Irene that she was a leader, she didn’t convince me that she wasn’t, and I kept her in mind.
Some months later, our young church received a visit from a bishop in Rwanda, John Rucyahana. He told the church how he dreamed of starting an orphanage and school for children whose parents had been slaughtered in the genocide. We decided we had to help. Could we hold a banquet to raise funds?
Irene agreed to help put on the banquet.
When she visited a possible caterer and told her what the event was for, the caterer decided to donate most of the food. Irene talked with a banquet hall, and they gave her a deep discount. So did the tech people. No one could tell Irene no. On the banquet night, over 200 people came, and enough money was raised to build the school and its first dormitory.
I teased her afterward: “Irene, that was amazing! Maybe you are a leader?”
She laughed, for she finally had to acknowledge the truth. She started coming to my leadership-training meetings. Each May, Irene led the banquet again. Now we could see photos of kids who had lived on the streets and never brushed their teeth flashing broad, white smiles. Boys who had been malnourished, their arms and legs painfully thin, now ran and jumped across the courtyard on strong legs. Girls who’d come dressed in rags showed off their neat school uniforms and barrettes.
Then Irene went to be with the Lord. Only when Sonrise Orphanage named a dorm after her did I find out that the banquet she’d led had singlehandedly covered one third of the school’s operating costs.
Why does leader training matter so much—especially when we’re busy with a thousand other things? Because for any change to happen, there needs to be a leader. And for any God-honoring change to happen, there needs to be a God-honoring leader like Irene.
Looking around our churches, though, you and I may feel, We don’t have enough leaders! But we may miss someone like Irene, not recognizing the leadership within her or not knowing how to develop her leadership.
After training leaders for 30 years in small churches, midsize churches, and very large churches, I’ve learned that the essentials remain the same. Here are three secrets of developing your next leader.
Secret #1: Many people won’t accept they have a leadership gift—but they will accept they have a leadership style.
I used to think, Everyone knows when they have the gift of leadership. But why did I think that, when it took me years to discover my own leadership gift?
My family didn’t see or call out the leadership gifts in me. In high school, though, I joined a backpacking group, and our leader, Mr. Brown, put me in charge of the year-end banquet for 150 people. That went well, and I got a first glimpse that I could lead. Fast-forward 35 years, and I was serving as executive pastor in a large church, serving as a second-chair leader to the senior pastor, overseeing a staff of 29, and making decisions that affected the church, the budget, and people’s lives. Often I would leave the church office shaking my head. God, you took an insecure child who was paralyzed by decision making, and you healed her and blessed her so that every day she makes major decisions as a leader.
Now I start with the assumption, This person may not accept that he or she has a gift of leadership. It’s not enough for me to teach—as I do—that leadership is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 12:8). Because while I’m teaching that, some are thinking, Leadership is just for the few, the proud, the Marines. That’s not me.
For example, I invited Janie to my leadership-training program at church, and she agreed to try it. On her application form, she was honest. The application asked, “On a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high), where is your leadership now?” Janie marked her leadership at 3.
What helped Janie accept her leadership—and what has helped scores of other people I’ve worked with—is asking, “Did you know there are different styles of leadership? What’s your particular style?” Most have never thought about that question, and it unlocks something for them.
I point developing leaders to Bill Hybels’s helpful article, “Finding Your Leadership Style,” which lays out 10 styles, ranging from directional to shepherding to bridge-building. People finally say, “Well, okay, if that’s a style of leadership, then I guess I have that style.”
When people start to embrace their God-given leadership, wonderful things happen. Janie, for example, began leading part of our women’s ministry and also took on more leadership at her work.
Secret #2: Leadership training is as much about soul care as it is about skills.
Many churches, when doing leadership training, don’t cover soul care. That’s for a separate Bible study. But to be a Christian leader, your soul needs to grow at the same rate as your skills, or even faster. I tell developing leaders, “Leadership involves caring for your soul; this is not optional or extra credit.”
I’m constantly surprised by the number of leaders who do not intentionally care for their soul. Once when teaching at a pastors’ conference, I asked the 20 pastors in the room, “How many of you have taken a day for prayer in the past year?” Only one person raised his hand.
At my church, I asked each staff member to complete an annual “Soul Care Plan,” planning how they were going to care for their relationships, physical health, and life with God. (Most people list way too much on their plan; I have them cut their plan in half, but follow through on the remaining half.) To care for your leadership soul takes building practices into the rhythm of your life. For example, we asked every full-time pastor to take a prayer day every month—on the clock.
Bill Hybels put it so well in “The Art of Self-Leadership”: “Nobody—I mean nobody—can do this work for you.” Most people around you in a church will not come and say, “You are working too hard,” or “You seem irritable and lacking joy.” It’s no wonder Christian leaders can become ministry-aholics. Two years ago, I went for the monthly meeting with my mentor, and she picked up something I was ignoring: “You are dangerously tired, Karen,” she told me. “You must stop right now and take a three-day prayer retreat.”
“I don’t have time!” I protested. “I’ve got too much going on.”
“You don’t have time not to,” she insisted. Only when I stopped for that retreat did I realize how deeply I was depleted. I had lost the ability to see clearly. That intervention saved me from burnout and preserved my leadership gift.
In my leadership coaching, when I ask, “How are you caring for your soul?” usually people feel guilty. They know they should be doing something, but they live fast-paced lives. Also, they have a certain idea of quiet time. Often as we talk, I learn that their idea has become a box with no room to move or breathe. “God has created you in a certain way to connect with him,” I explain, and help them discover their sacred pathway. One leader, for example, admitted, “I pray best when I walk my dog.” She walks a mile or two every day, which gives her built-in time for prayer. I assured her, “That counts.”
Secret #3: Leaders don’t do it all.
If they do it all, they’re not a leader. They’re a doer.
Yet it’s surprisingly hard to get developing leaders to do less so they can lead more. Why?
Passion. Leaders have passion and skills; they love to jump in and make things happen. One worship leader explained, “I love leading worship, so why would I get others to lead it?”
Patterns. When the church was small, they could lead the men’s ministry by themselves, so they continue to do that.
Pride. One leader told me, “I could run every ministry in this church.”
Partial misunderstanding. The phrase “servant leadership” has been misunderstood as, “If I’m a leader, I should do all the serving.” Instead, it means, “I will lead, but with the humility of a servant. I will submit my pride to God.”
The reality, though, in any organization, is that I’m not going to be able to do it all. Desperation can lead us to develop others.
In one church, besides the pastor, I was the only staff member, and I was part-time. I thought, We need a men’s ministry. I can’t exactly lead a men’s ministry. So I recruited someone who could. Then the pastor wanted us to have a food pantry. I loved that idea, but I realized, I can’t do everything, so I need to find someone who can lead a food pantry. I did.
After a while, I noticed a pattern to the times that recruiting was successful.
I prayed. Jesus spent all night in prayer before he chose his disciples. The best leaders came when I took my time and grounded my decision in prayer.
I determined what I needed. Before I started recruiting, I defined the role and wrote a ministry job description. One important distinction is whether you need to recruit a leader (for example, to lead a small group) or a doer (for example, an usher).
I asked for help. I asked other key leaders who they thought would be a good fit for the role I needed to fill.
I recruited based not on need but on giftedness. Once I wrote the ministry job description, I determined, “What gifts does this role require?” As I got to know new members in the church, I would ask, “What are your spiritual gifts?” and if they didn’t know, I encouraged them to take a spiritual-gifts inventory.
I asked boldly. I might say something like this: “I’m excited about the vision for this ministry of _____. A key part of that vision is having someone with the gifts of ______. I’ve been praying for God to send us someone, and I think you’d be great at doing this. Would you pray about it and consider becoming part of our ministry team?”
I tell developing leaders, “You are there to recruit and equip. Great leaders produce other leaders. Start looking for your replacement.” As John Maxwell says, “There is no success without a successor.”