Growing Leaders in a Young Church: Interior and Exterior

By Steve Cuss

I used to believe that a good-hearted pastor with a strong work ethic and a vision from God could lead a thriving local church. Four years into my own journey, four churches around us have closed their doors. In order to thrive, I’ve learned to focus on the interior life of the leader and the exterior structure of the church.

Your Interior Life

Baptize your calendar!—I’m convinced my calendar is a pagan—possibly even a devil worshiper. It can run my life ragged if I’m not careful, keeping me so consumed with details that I neglect my fundamental calling. Several years ago, I decided to baptize my calendar and make it serve my soul health by scheduling retreat times.

Three times per year I get away for a night or two of extended prayer, study, and planning. One day per month I block a workday for reading, hiking, prayer, and study. Daily, I schedule time to connect with God through a classic discipline: silence, prayer, fasting, reading, or contemplation. Without these disciplines, I would have nothing to say on Sunday and would no longer be in the ministry.

Prayerfully ask God to dethrone your idols.—Tim Keller says, “An idol is any good thing in your life that you make into an ultimate thing.”

We all have idols—here are some of mine as they relate to ministry: I need people’s approval. I need to be understood and admired. I need people to think I am amazing, which in church circles means I need to appear humble, yet highly gifted. My fantasy is to hear people mutter with astonishment, “What is this new teaching?” while I’m preaching. My other fantasy is to be awarded the humility award and then turn it down in front of everyone. Pathological? I think so too, but these also are signs of flourishing idols in my life.

Fortunately, I’m a lead pastor, so on a regular basis I am misunderstood, judged, criticized, and blamed for things I’ve often not done. Of course I’ve made mistakes, wounded people, spoken out of anger too, but oftentimes I bear the brunt of people’s expectations and it puts direct pressure on my idolatry.

Ministry dethrones idols. Thank God. Dethroning makes me into a healthier follower of Christ, which in turn forms me into a better leader. It is a painful and necessary component of my leadership health.

The Exterior Structure

People are our finest resource—it isn’t just a cliché, it is bedrock truth in our church. How do you identify and invite people into leadership, and what systems do you put in place to allow people to move into leadership?

Create a leadership factory.—Ours is the set-up/tear-down team. Discovery is portable and every Sunday we arrive at 7 am, madly set up against a ticking clock, host two worship gatherings, then tear it all down and try to be home by 1:30 pm.

There is nothing glamorous about this. It is grunt work and it has to be done, so we’ve made this team our leadership factory. The single biggest trait of a Discovery leader is a servant’s heart.

Who is willing to do the grunt work? Who has an idea for a ministry? Who shares a valid criticism about a needed change? Who keeps asking to lead? Who serves quietly without fuss? We invite these people to join the set-up/tear-down team with the rest of us. Leaders with the right heart always come, while the rest stay home. We end up with a focused pool of Philippians 2 style leaders.

Build structural health.—Discovery operates with six elders plus me, overseeing and shepherding the congregation. After several years of having the same people on the team, we slowly implemented a rolling structure. Now team members each serve a three-year term, with two members rolling off each year and two new members coming on. This rhythm gives our hard-working leaders a needed rest and allows newer leaders to step in, allowing for rest, fresh ideas, and diversity of leadership.

Your fringe may actually be your core.—Our church went through a two-year period where we were overwhelmingly 30-something with very young children. It was somewhat inevitable when Discovery hired me—a 30-something with very young children.

We’ve since grown much more diverse in age, economic status, and even ethnic background, but the unspoken myth has remained: you have to be 30-something and married with kids to fit in at Discovery. No one says it out loud, but several believe it.

Our tendency is to think of our core through the lens of demographics, but at Discovery we think of our core through the lens of vision. Who gets it? Who lives it? Who promotes it? Those people are our leadership core, regardless of age, zip code, income, or skin color. Because of this simple principle, we have a leadership that reflects the total diversity of our church and subtly reminds us what we’re really about.

Beware of self-appointed advisers.—These folks usually come in two forms: the idea guy and the critic. Sometimes they are well meaning, sometimes toxic, and sometimes they are willing to execute an idea into reality. At first blush you can’t distinguish who is who, but time will always separate them for you.

The very best ideas are offered by the people willing to execute them. Joyce Hugg once wrote, “For an idea to come true takes more work than you would ever dream or might be able to even stand” (from her poem, “Stuff You Should Know”). Our churches do not need ideas as much as idea implementers, and our best leaders understand this. We unashamedly invite people to put flesh on ideas by serving. Then we watch to see who will enter the very hard work of execution and who would rather just advise.

As for the critic, our church has an overabundance of troubleshooters in it. These guys are brilliant and get paid to fix systems in their company. They bring their troubleshooting ways to church and freely and frequently offer advice to improve/change/fix things. Obviously this can be tough to stomach (see my idol list above), but often this critical approach is a legitimate pathway into leadership.

Don’t be afraid of strong critics, but as with the “idea guy,” we need to sift out the windbags to find the man or woman willing to roll up their sleeves and serve. I’ve actually had people say to me, “I no longer bring my criticism to you because you always try to recruit me.” I’ll take criticism all day long from my leaders in the trenches, because ultimately we want to be better at what we do. But I’ve become deaf to critics who won’t serve and I give them very little leadership weight.

Steve Cuss is lead pastor with Discovery Christian Church in Broomfield, Colorado. Steve and his wife, Lisa, have three children.

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