Turn Them Loose

By Dan Scates

“No one is helping. No one else is carrying the load. No one is leading. No one is committed. No one seems to own anything. I feel alone and overwhelmed.” Now what?

Church planting taxes every leadership skill and exposes every motive of the heart. After three decades of church planting experience, one thing I have learned: Each church plant is unique, yet the challenges they face are similar.

Distinctive to each plant is the planter’s ability, church location, target audience, ministry priorities, and available resources. On the other hand, the challenges faced by each new church are predictable.

It is surprising to discover the wide variety of responses planters give about leadership development. It takes persistent probing to get an accurate number of actual leaders, ministry teams, and small groups. Quite often you will find the groups and teams are led by the planter or his staff. After all, it is difficult to find and deploy effective leaders when starting from scratch.

Unfortunately, most common strategies do not produce volunteer leaders who propel the church forward. Studying a leadership book at 6 a.m. on Tuesdays may provide learning, but it won’t make a person a leader. Focusing on character development is necessary to qualify leaders, but being qualified does not mean a person is leading. Assigning tasks with a job description may create some activity, but not leaders who own this ministry with you. How do you produce volunteer leaders who shoulder the load and actually lead?


First Steps

First, identify the actual building blocks of your church. I would not recommend making the worship service the main building block of the church. It is expensive to duplicate and slow to multiply. The actual building blocks of the new church are the volunteer-led small groups and ministry teams functioning both in the church and the community.

If you can figure out how to develop volunteer leaders who will actually lead each group and team, then you can build the church. If you can figure out how to multiply those leaders, then you can build the church.

Second, write a clear description of a leader. There are hurdles to giving away leadership responsibility. What if they teach something weird, take their group in the wrong direction, or don’t reach out and fulfill mission?

Some planters try to solve these issues by leading the groups and teams themselves or controlling what the volunteer leaders teach and do. Turning leaders loose to lead is rare.

If someone else cooperated with you, shouldered the load, and owned ministry, then what would they actually do? Can you turn your complaints about leaders into action items? What four things done by every small group and every ministry team leader will help propel this church forward and fulfill the mission?


What Should They Do?

A clear description is critical to recruit, identify, develop, evaluate, reassign, and model leadership. Here are examples from church planters who answered the question, “What do you want a leader to do?”

1. Lead their ministry with our vision in mind; reproduce themselves with an apprentice; pastor the people with love and care; connect with outsiders.

2. Gather a group of people; build connection with God and each other; reach others for Christ; coach and apprentice.

3. Worship God; reach out in mission; build community; serve others.

Here is the Scates description for leaders. It is transferable to every leadership level: planters, staff, and group and team leaders.

1. Meet God. How do you lead with, not just for, God?

2. Reach a City. How do you connect with new people and impact culture? How will you focus your church, ministry team, or small group on outsiders with whom you will serve, love, and share the good news?

3. Shape a Community. How do you create vision and motivate people? How will you build leaders, groups, and teams? How do you help people find their place?

4. Grow Personally. What kind of leader do you need to be for the next season? What are your gifts, life purpose, and most effective roles?

What do you want the leaders in your church to do?


Establish Accountability

Third, create a simple system of accountability and development. Once you have a leadership description, then you can create on-the-job development. The staff should personally meet with each small group and ministry team leader and hold each one accountable to the leadership description.

Notice you are not telling the leaders what to do or how to do it. Instead you are asking them what they are doing with regard to each aspect of the description. For example: How are you doing with meeting God? What is your group or team doing to connect, serve, and share with people outside of Christ? Whom are you targeting? What kinds of gifts and abilities are on display in your group or team? What are you reading lately?

The people who are actually leading a group or a team make up your leadership team. They alone receive the leadership development and training. Have coffee with potential and apprentice leaders, but their next step is to gather a group of people into a ministry team or small group. Now they can be part of the leadership team and receive on-the-job development.

There is no substitute for consistent and ongoing personal meetings to help leaders deliver on the leadership description. You are turning them loose to lead, yet providing accountability. This will keep them focused and balanced, fulfill the mission, and build co-owners. They, in turn, will impact the people in their spheres of influence, as well as those you are all trying to reach.

In time, when the new church needs to step out from under the umbrella of the management team and put into place an internal leadership team, you will have developed proven leaders who have demonstrated their loyalty and character.

What system do you have that provides leadership accountability and development?


Theirs, Not Just Yours

Fourth, make your church their church. In a recent coaching conversation, one leader shared what happened as his leadership team discussed what to do for three weeks while the school they worshipped in was unavailable. The leaders created significant plans of outreach and service tied to these unique weekends.

The church planter was excited because the leaders demonstrated buy-in with the vision and provided excellent solutions, but sad that he had not brought the ideas himself. What did he learn? He discovered that leading merely out of his own ability will limit the church.

How are you doing with discovering that this is not only your church, but also their church?

Wow, other leaders are helping to propel this church forward! There are committed people shouldering the load and owning ministry! It’s great to have a team serving together to build Christ’s church.


Dan Scates is a certified coach working with six church planting organizations nationwide. He also ministers with LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado. You may contact him or order Recalculating workbooks at www.scatescoaching.net.


A Book for Young Churches

Editor’s note: Recalculating: 8 Directional Changes New Churches Face is designed to help young churches grow into healthy, growing congregations. While the book is targeted to church planters in the second to fourth year in the life of a new church, these practical suggestions, excerpted from the book, can help in any church environment.

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