By Ashok Nachnani, Elder
When is the right time to think about leadership development in your church? I would imagine all of us would agree in principle that it’s never too early. But time and resource constraints often mean that we don’t give it serious consideration until we’re faced with an imminent need. Perhaps an unexpected elder or deacon vacancy comes up with no clear Plan B, or a burst of ministry challenges with few “go-to” members to step in and fill the need.
Because of realities like this, it’s important for church leaders to set their eyes towards replacing themselves and training up the next generation of leaders. But how? We can take our cues from the best developers of church leaders there has ever been: Jesus and Paul.
1. The Examples of Jesus & Paul
Our Savior spent much of his earthly ministry intentionally pouring into twelve men in a variety of ways, for example:
Teaching (e.g., Matt 5–7);
Patiently answering questions (e.g., Luke 5:33–39);
Modeling prayer (e.g. Matt 6:9–13) and service (e.g. Mark 6:30–44);
Handing out training assignments (Mark 6:7–13);
Admonishing (e.g., Luke 9:46–48)
Jesus clearly had in mind the day that he knew was coming—the day he would lay down his life as a ransom for many—when he wouldn’t physically be with the Twelve anymore, and when they would be called to lead the church themselves by the power of the Spirit.
The Apostle Paul provides a similar example for us. In imitating Christ, his ministry pattern was to plant churches and leave behind leaders who would cultivate them and see them grow, all while imploring those same leaders to find and raise up still other leaders that will bear the qualifications for leadership as seen in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1:5–16. And, it should be recognized that Paul’s instruction extended beyond the office of overseer to all the men and women in the church (see Titus 2:1–10; Col 3:16; 1 Thess 5:11), suggesting that all of us have a role in leading and caring for others, not just the elders.
2. Practical Steps
The following are some practical steps that can be taken for developing leaders in your local church. Some of the steps focus more directly on the office of elder, while others address leadership more generally.
a. Agree on the critical traits of an elder: Ephesians 4:11–13 tells us that elders are a gift from the Lord for the good of the church. It should be your church’s prayer that the Lord would raise up as many men as possible who will satisfy the qualifications for the office of elder set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9. In this process at FBC Durham, the elders have discussed in great depth what it would look like for a man to demonstrate these traits, and then we boiled that discussion down to a single-page document: “Critical Traits of an Elder.”
This exercise was tremendously clarifying for all of us, and the one-page output has served as a useful tool in one-on-one discipleship, serving as a guide for how—by God’s grace—we hope to see men in the church grow. My regular challenge to the men I meet with echoes the one I heard when I was a new Christian: “Aspire to be worthy of being called as an elder, regardless of whether it ever happens.” Think about it: what’s the downside of growing in these areas?
b. Have focused discussion and prayer during elders’ meetings about leadership development: Having our “Critical Traits” document has enabled us to take the next step in having very helpful, focused discussion about a number of men in our church, and it has led to some of our sweetest and richest prayer times as a group. It’s been incredibly encouraging to share stories of different ways that God is using men in our church to bless others in the body and beyond. It has also helped us be more purposeful with the time we spend with certain guys who demonstrate both a desire to grow and the potential to assume greater responsibilities in the church.
c. Make more effective use of ministry opportunities: By starting our leadership development discussion among the elders, it has helped us begin to think about the overall pipeline of potential leaders in the church, and it has given us some context for a broader discussion. Who is showing general leadership skills? Who are our current and potential teachers? How can we create more teaching and leadership opportunities through our small group ministry? Who are our best role models for hospitality, evangelism, prayer, and etc.?
d. Develop a formal leadership training program. There are many ways this can be done. The elders of FBC Durham reached out to a few like-minded churches to find out how they are formally developing leaders in their church body. The approach we are taking has been to leverage some 9Marks materials, have monthly group meetings with a handful of men who have expressed a desire to grow spiritually as leaders, and have periodic one-on-one meetings between each of these men and one of our elders. The goal is to help each of these men grow in godliness—thus building our pipeline of leaders.
I love how Thabiti Anyabwile introduces his book, Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons: “A church without godly leaders is an endangered church. And a church that does not train leaders is an unfaithful church. God gives leaders to his churches for the maturity, unity, and soundness of each local congregation. Without godly, faithful, replicating leadership, churches suffer deeply.” Amen.
That’s why it’s important for the local church to consider how they might, by God’s grace, raise and train up future leaders, and why it’s never too early to get started.