Learning to Lead

dv1922002By James Riley Estep,  Jr.

It’s a complaint commonly heard in some churches: “We’re having trouble finding men to serve as elders,” or “Younger men aren’t stepping forward to serve as elders!”

Leadership is oftentimes more caught than taught. Solomon wrote, “Iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). He understood what we now understand—leaders form other leaders. 

Recruiting and equipping elders in the church is not just a matter of programming, and the solution is not as simple as starting a leadership class. Leaders are formed over a lifelong process of experience, training, nurturing, and intentional relationship with one another.

What can a church do to form men into future leaders? Perhaps a better way to emphasize the interpersonal nature of leadership formation is: What can we do as elders to facilitate relationship with men demonstrating leadership potential? Congregations that are recognized for effective leadership formation create a climate wherein potential leaders are identified, engaged, and eventually emerge as elders within the congregation. Such congregations use a fourfold methodology of engagement not only with potential leaders, but with existing leaders as a means of continual equipping.


1. Mentoring

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ,” wrote Paul (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul followed this method to help train up Timothy, whom he referred to as “my true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2). Mentoring is personal. It is befriending someone, pouring your life into someone else’s life, as well as listening and encouraging them. This often takes place rather informally, usually one-on-one or in a very small group, perhaps a triad. These meetings help build personal accountability, engage the process of discipleship, and nurture a relationship that will be important once the individual is asked to serve as an elder.

What may begin by meeting for coffee can develop into a dialogue in which both people share life and listen and learn from one another. A potential leader’s strengths become apparent in such settings, and he can be encouraged to make use of them within the congregation.

Have you identified potential leaders and asked them to spend time one-on-one with you? Have you asked someone to dialogue with you about leadership in the church?


2. Group Study

Don’t picture a traditional classroom with seats facing forward and an elder standing behind a lectern. No, a group study might feature a round table and a facilitator who helps foster discussion and dialogue. It might take place at a retreat. It is an opportunity to spend significant time in study, prayer, and building relationships between elders or between elders and potential leaders.

Consider being able to study through the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) or Philippians, the only New Testament book to specify elders as among its intended recipients. Studying together through a Bible book or through a book on leadership or ministry might benefit the congregation, and also encourage someone to become a leader.

When was the last time the elders at your church studied something together? What does your congregation study for elder development?


3. Supervision

We might also refer to this as on-the-job-training. How did you learn to ride a bike? By imitating others until you could do it yourself. How do you teach someone to evangelize, disciple, teach, and shepherd? You invite them to accompany you while actively doing ministry. After watching, you ask them to assist you, and then to try it on their own, giving them constructive feedback. Eventually they will be doing it themselves and taking others with them. This improves the confidence in potential elders that they have the “right stuff” to lead and serve the congregation.

How active are you in ministry at your church? Who was the last person you invited to serve alongside with you?


4. Self-Directed

Congregations that equip elders or potential elders as leaders also require them to study on their own and become lifelong learners. Developing as a leader and shepherd of the church requires a personal commitment. I encourage elders to apply the 1-1-1-1 principle: read one book per month, attend at least one leadership conference per year, subscribe to one Christian magazine or journal, and visit one healthy congregation per year. These activities challenge the status quo, and prevent hardening of the leader’s mind, assumptions, and disposition. See www.e2elders.org for possible resources.

What was the last book or magazine you read to improve your leadership and/or ministry abilities? What place or places have you visited in the last year, church or otherwise, that improved your leadership and/or ministry capabilities?

Leaders are not formed by accident. Become the iron that sharpens iron, an elder who can sharpen others toward leadership.


James Riley Estep Jr. serves as dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University and is cofounder of e2: effective elders (www.e2elders.org).

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1 Comment

  1. Gabriel
    November 13, 2013 at 1:18 am

    Thanks gentlemen for your guidance. Applying this with my younger guys and sharing this with a group of 40 Pastors tomorrow for raising up young leaders. … To God be the glory

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