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Developing congregational leaders

Members of Benton First United Methodist Church 150 boxes and bags of health kit supplies. Photo by Sue Engle. Courtesy of UMNS.
Members of Benton First United Methodist Church 150 boxes and bags of health kit supplies. Photo by Sue Engle. Courtesy of UMNS.

Strong congregations require strong leaders, yet many churches do not prioritize leadership development within their ministries.

Discipleship = Leadership

Christian leadership development is an extension of disciple making. Only good disciples make good church leaders. As Discipleship Ministries General Secretary the Rev. Junius Dotson points out, a good disciple is driven by love of God, committed to following Christ and bound in fellowship with other Christians. Discipleship Ministries’ See All the People Campaign has adaptable intentional discipleship models available that can assist churches in their disciple making.

In their article “4 Ways to Multiply Disciples the Way Jesus Did” the Rev. Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird describe the Christian model for leadership development Christ left the church. Jesus started with 12 disciples with whom he spent most of his time, preparing them to take on the mantle of leadership. Two important characteristics of Jesus’ model according to Ferguson and Bird were his emphasis on relationship-building and decision to concentrate on fully developing a tiny handful of leaders, rather than the massive crowds who came to see him. Jesus placed quality of leadership over quantity.

After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, his disciples multiplied their number through evangelism and disciple making. As their numbers grew, they delegated responsibilities to new converts according to their talents and abilities. Some continued to preach and evangelize, while others took charge of charitable missions. Whatever their responsibilities, each new member learned the teachings of Christ from their leaders and were united in their mission to make new disciples. According to Ferguson and Bird the original disciples knew when to “hand off authority” to others the way Christ did to them.

Start with the leaders you have

Existing churches – even those relatively new – have people who chair committees and lead classes, small groups and specialized ministry programs like vacation Bible school, outreach and worship planning. When implementing development of new leaders, it is important for congregations to include these existing leaders. Those who feel left out or sidelined can become sources of resistance and obstacles to developing new leaders. At the same time, make sure these existing leaders have the proper traits. Rebekah Simon-Peter, founder of Creating a Culture of Renewal, distinguishes good leaders from good managers.

“A manager helps an organization survive. A leader innovates so it thrives,” writes Simon-Peters in an article in Ministry Matters. “A manager dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. A leader generates a brand new vocabulary. A manager makes sure everything is in order. A leader envisions a brand new order. Managers tend to people and processes. Leaders build up new people and craft new processes.”

Potential leaders should have these Christ-like traits:

  • They have a heart centered toward love of God and neighbor while being committed to reaching new people and raising up new leaders. The Rev. Tony Hunt states that this love and commitment will manifest itself in active participation in worship, generous stewardship to the church and good relationships with other church members.
  • They need to be tuned into the congregation and well acquainted with most of its members. If they spend all their time with a particular clique, they will lack a good perspective on the culture and spiritual needs of the congregation. Encourage them to be more outgoing and inclusive in their relationships.
  • They need to be good mentors who are able to see and bring out the best in others. The Rev. Joel Snider states that emotional intelligence is an essential characteristic of good mentors. Great Plains Annual Conference has a video on fostering Christ-like emotional intelligence among church leaders.
  • Like Jesus with the 12, they need to be open to trusting others with responsibilities and passing the torch to the next generation. Help them learn to let go and entrust others with more responsibilities.

Multiply church leadership

When a church has leaders who are committed to developing their successors, it needs to entrust them to find and mentor others within the church to whom they can pass the torch when the time is right. The Rev. Kay Kotan of the Arkansas Annual Conference recommends this five-step model:

  1. I do. You watch. We talk.
  2. I do. You help. We talk.
  3. You do. I help. We talk.
  4. You do. I watch. We talk.
  5. You do. Someone else watches. You talk. I move on ….

Using this model, new leaders gradually assume the tasks of the mentors in a nurturing environment. They can make mistakes and receive helpful feedback. This model will look slightly different depending on the circumstance. For instance,  small group leaders mentoring someone might start by having the developing  leaders watch them lead a couple of sessions and then co-lead the group with them for a couple weeks before stepping aside completely to let the new leader take charge. The director of vacation Bible school for one summer might have the leader for the coming year assist and watch them throughout the entire process on order to have first-hand experience.

Taking a strong interest in every new member is one way churches can identify potential future leaders to mentor. Ann A. Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, recommends having each newcomer fill out an interest form and identify areas of ministry and programming that excite them. When a newcomer indicates interest in a ministry, it is the duty of the church and its leadership to follow up quickly and connect them right away with the programs and activities.

As new leaders emerge and take the reins, it is vital that they become the new mentors, seeking new potential leaders to coach. The church may want to offer onsite coach training or connect leaders with opportunities outside the church to learn coaching techniques. As the pool of available leaders and mentors expands, the overall ministries of the church will become more fruitful. Delegating responsibilities to new leaders will help prevent burn out among the existing leaders – and free them to take on new roles.

Pitfalls to avoid

  • Under-appreciating existing leaders: Make sure existing leaders do not feel forced out when they turn over certain responsibilities. Let them know they are valued and appreciated. One powerful way churches can illustrate this is through a ritual such as having outgoing leaders of specific programs and ministries pray over and bless those stepping into their former roles. It is also important that leaders always have new opportunities to grow. Help existing leaders see how God is calling them to do new things – and help identify what those new things may be.The Rev. Cynthia D. Weems has tips on how churches can celebrate and reward leadership.
  • Satisfying the need rather than the person: Many churches desperately need more leaders and volunteers, making it tempting to fill roles based on the need rather than the people available. The result is ministries with leaders lacking passion or the necessary skills. This can be a major source of stress for both the leader and the ministry. While it may be difficult at times to find the right person to lead, it is always worth the effort. The Lewis Center for Church Leadership in their article on "50 Ways to Multiply Your Church’s Leadership Capacity" also warns against put too much stock in a person's professional skills and not enough in their spiritual interests or need to be challenged.
  • Micromanaging: Jesus devoted plenty of time to preparing his disciples to lead. When the time was right, he trusted them to do the work. Likewise, pastors need to trust ministry leaders who have been mentored to carry on the development process. Micromanaging leadership development sends a message that the pastor does not trust their leaders. This does not mean pastors step aside entirely. The pastor should check in periodically with mentors and make sure the relationship with their trainees remains positive and productive. Make certain mentors know the pastor is always available for support.


Jesus left a model of leadership development through disciple making that has worked for 2,000 years. When churches have leaders committed to mentoring the next generation they can become more fruitful, more effective and more expansive in their witness.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer with the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

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