Growing Leaders in a Young Church: Infancy to Eldership

by Dave Smith

I walked into the mailroom at TCM International in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was January 31, 1994. In my mailbox was a letter from a church in Princeton, New Jersey. Ever the optimistic fund-raiser, I assumed it contained: (a) a very large check, (b) a commitment to support TCM until Jesus returns, or (c) both of the above.

Much to my surprise, it was a letter asking me to consider leading a church planting team to New England.

New England! My immediate reaction was that it was too cold, too far away, too expensive, too unfriendly. But 13 months later we were pulling a U-Haul trailer into Nashua, New Hampshire, in the middle of an ice storm.

The six years we spent helping plant CrossWay Christian Church were exhilarating and exhausting. Someone described church planting as being in a batting cage with a pitching machine gone wild. The challenge is to know when to duck and when to swing.

One ball I was determined to hit was the leadership ball. I don’t consider myself a leadership expert. I wasn’t one then, and I’m not now. But I had seen enough ineffective, carnal leaders in churches to know how important it is to develop effective spiritual leaders.


Praying for Leaders

I began by praying for leaders many months before I left for New England. I prayed that God would bring the right kind of believers to our church. I prayed they would have the kind of godly character described in Timothy and Titus. I prayed they would share the vision and values of the church God was calling us to plant in Nashua.

Until we could develop such leaders, I submitted to the leadership of an outside management team. I was extremely fortunate to be overseen by a dynamic and healthy group. Two of the members, Frank Reynolds and Dale Ohmart, were from Christian churches in New Hampshire. The others were from churches and ministries invested in the plant: Paul Williams of Orchard Group, Brent Foulke of Empire State Evangelizing, Jim Penhollow of East 91st Street Christian Church, and Don Hamilton and Paige Mathews of Keystone Church Planting Network.

This team established a healthy leadership culture. They both encouraged and challenged me. They asked the hard questions about time, money, staff, outreach, and facilities. They did not micromanage me. They gave me the freedom to do what God had called me to do. But I did not run unchecked.

I was not a lone horse galloping unrestrained across the prairie. Neither was I a plow horse, with a heavy saddle and a bit in my mouth, being told exactly what rows to go up and down. I was a stallion surrounded by other horses that cared about me. There were fences providing healthy boundaries. This type of leadership by the outside team set the template for how our own team would learn to lead.


Recruiting a Team

Once on the field, I began developing a launch team. I met with people in the community. I followed up on referrals. I was continually on the lookout for those who were faithful in little things, who would do whatever it took whenever it was needed, who lived as servants of Jesus.

God blessed us with a large birth. More than 500 people attended our grand opening on October 15, 1995. But with such a start, it did not take long for self-proclaimed, self-appointed elders to make themselves known.

“Hi! My name is Bob. I have been an elder at Brand X church. I believe God has sent me to be your elder too!” Many times I wanted to say, “Well, God forgot to tell me.” But instead I repeated the same mantra: “We are a new church. We have an outside management team for the first few years. Everyone here starts at the same place. We are looking for servants, for those who are faithful in little things, who do whatever/ whenever. What do you want to do?”

I cannot tell you how many times people like this did not want to do anything. They just wanted to govern and make decisions. When they learned I would not give in to their power trips, they went elsewhere. And honestly, I prayed God would take them from our midst. It got to be a joke among our staff, after God took one particularly troublesome character from New England to Missouri, and then to California. My staff begged me not to pray them to some other place.

A common mistake made by too many new churches is to appoint elders too soon. Often these men prove not to have the kind of character demanded of elders. If they do, they may not own the vision of the new church. I had seen enough new churches wrecked by premature leadership choices that I was determined not to give in to the pressure.

Thankfully, God brought us some incredible believers. These were people who did anything anytime it was needed. They parked cars, cleaned buildings, taught kids, and visited the sick. Over time some of them led small groups. It was not long before two men in particular stood out for their character and service.


Calling Out Leaders

I began to meet with them one-on-one. We talked about life and the church, and prayed and studied together. I continued to watch their leadership of small groups, their teaching, and their investment in people. I talked to my management team about them. The management team interviewed them.

Two years into the process we invited these two men onto the management team. We wanted our team to get to know them better. And we wanted these men to see the style of leadership we wanted to implement at CrossWay: not Capital “P” pastor, not senior minister as hireling, but rather leaders serving as partners in ministry, staff-led and elder-protected.

It worked extremely well. These two men grew comfortable weighing in on challenges and decisions. After all, they had the perspective of being an integral part of the local church called CrossWay, whereas the rest of the team did not. About year three we added a third local leader. With his addition, one of the outside members dropped off.

In October 1999, Crossway Christian Church celebrated her fourth birthday. From that point forward, we were a self-supporting, self-governing church. At our big dinner, the outside management team symbolically passed a baton to our internal leadership team consisting of these three men, my associate minister, and me. It was a significant milestone, and we were excited.

We still called ourselves a leadership team. I had learned from other new churches about the “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” leadership syndrome. In short, when many of these churches changed the name of the team from leadership team to elders, these leaders became different people. They began acting as they thought elders should act, which bore no resemblance to biblical eldership.

So as a leadership team, we began going through the book Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch (Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1997). We wanted to make sure as we grew together, we would grow into a biblical eldership. Around the time we were finishing the book, I left CrossWay to work with Orchard Group and East 91st Street Christian Church to help others plant churches. The man who followed me, Ron Kastens, continued working with this team. Eventually they were ordained as elders.

Elders Today

My associate minister decided not to serve as an elder, but remains with the church to this day. The third leader I chose served for a while but eventually left the eldership and the church. The first two men are still serving as elders at CrossWay. It is such a joy to visit the church and see the fruit of godly leadership. Now with its own facility, it continues to grow. There is joy and a sense of purpose in what they do.

Many of us plant churches because we want to reach lost people. That’s what really thrills us. Leadership development is seen as a necessary evil. But without such development, the church will never become all that God wants it to be.

I now serve as a professor of church planting with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. I live in Greater New York City, and students come to see what God is doing through new urban churches. I still work with Orchard Group. A few months ago I committed to help a new church on Long Island, where we now live. What will I seek to do? Among many things, help develop the leaders through whom God will work in the future. I can think of no more challenging and critical investment.


Dave Smith is professor of church planting at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and does development work with Orchard Group Church Planting.

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