Growing Elders to Lead

By Jim Estep

The leaders you want won’t sprout overnight, like weeds in a garden. Here’s how to develop strategies to nurture the crop of new leaders you need.

The phone call is all too familiar. An elder begins the conversation stating the obvious, “We need new elders! All our elders are getting older, and no one is stepping up to serve.”

08_Estep_JN1I listen, perhaps ask about the church and the strengths of the current leadership; but eventually the inescapable question must be asked, “What have you been intentionally doing to bring up the next generation of leaders in your church?”

Then comes the silence. Asking for the question to be repeated. A few comments about Sunday school or small groups. But eventually the caller admits, “We’ve not really done anything.”

Such a moment shines a light on the root of the problem. We cannot reap because we have not sown. It is like the farmer or gardener standing in a barren field in October and realizing he should have worked harder in April.

All too often, churches approach leadership development like they are trying to grow weeds or toadstools: assuming it’s something that just happens on its own; they expect leaders will sprout overnight without any effort or attention.

The problem is the church doesn’t need weeds or toadstools for leaders, but a crop of individuals primed to assume the mantle of leadership. To do this, the church needs to critically engage four questions that must be answered about leadership development in today’s church:

Preparing

What is the ethos of your congregation? 

Is the ground suitable for planting? Does your congregation have an intentional disciple-making culture? 

The seedbed for growing new leaders is the congregation’s environment. Far too many times, when someone accepts Christ as Savior, here’s what happens. Their picture is taken and put on the wall, and they are handed a membership packet and a box of offering envelopes. That’s it.

Lowering expectations of what it means to be the church lowers the likelihood of suitable candidates for leadership later. The congregation should have higher expectations. Here’s how to communicate that:

• Actively engage in outreach and advancing the evangelistic mission of the church.

• Provide practical Christian living instruction based on Scripture and sound theology through an active discipleship ministry.

These strategies produce individuals who are growing in their faith and more likely to become leaders later.

Some congregations ask new members to make a basic commitment to worship one hour per week, study one hour per week, and serve one hour per week. This is the starting point from which they continue to grow.

Sowing

Who is responsible for recognizing and connecting with potential leaders? 

What are you intentionally doing to select good seed, people with real potential for leadership? 

Don’t get ahead of yourself! This is not approaching someone about becoming a leader; it is far too early for that. Just as a farmer or gardener must select his seed and later sow it, current leaders must be on the lookout for the seeds of leadership; not full-grown leaders, but those who possess leadership potential. They are the seeds who will later grow into healthy leaders.

What are you looking for? What kind of person is a “good seed”? Does your church intentionally scout those who have leadership potential? Several benchmarks can indicate that an individual has the qualities of a prospective leader:

• Christian Example: This person seems to express genuine concern and sets a good example for a maturing faith in Christ, though perhaps he is not yet a fully mature individual. The key here is that the person is already a Christian and has already exhibited the right trajectory in his spiritual walk to one day mature fully in Christ.

• Consistent Participation: Is the person regularly present at church? This may seem so basic that it doesn’t deserve mention, but that’s the point; it is often assumed and overlooked.

The old cliché that “half of leadership is showing up” is accurate. We can recognize a potential leader because he is consistently present for worship services and other opportunities, such as adult Bible studies or small groups.

• Active Service: The prospect is already actively serving in some capacity in the church, already showing a commitment to the work of the ministry. Even if it is not a leadership role (yet), recognizing potential leaders from among those who are already serving in the congregation is crucial to the future of leadership.

• Relationally Responsive: We lead people and manage things. People who try to manage people treat them like things. Not good. A potential leader is recognized as someone who has positive relationships, one who can work with others and work through differences positively. This demonstrates an emotional maturity on the part of the potential leader. This will be essential in the future to form teamwork and lead others.

• Peer Recognition: What do others see in them? Their reputation within the congregation and the community is a rudimentary issue for a leader, and one of biblical importance as well, such as “blamelessness” and “above reproach.”

For an example of a possible leader, consider Bob. He has been attending worship for three years and has been an active member of a small group. He responds affirmatively when asked to do something. When he does work with others, he seems to get along with them, and others seem to turn to him for advice or insight on what is being done. He also seems very aware of the needs of his family and those around him at church.

Too perfect? Agreed. But if someone had just three of these qualities, their place as a potential, prospective leader would be secure. However, this doesn’t make them a leader! They are a potential, prospective leader.

Cultivating

What are you doing intentionally to cultivate individuals toward leadership? 

You now have the “seeds” and time to plant and nurture them to growth. They are not leaders yet, but they are “planted” in the right soil for growth.

Now you can invite the prospective, potential leader to participate in some special opportunities designed to cultivate their leadership abilities. These activities will lead them toward sensing a call to assume responsibility and serve in the congregation.

• Group Study: Have them join a study with leaders and other potential leaders. The group could study a book on church health, Christian leadership, or a biblical text like the Pastoral Epistles or Philippians (the only New Testament book actually addressed to the elders and deacons).

• Mentoring: A current leader can spend some time with a potential leader or two, sharing about life, faith, leadership, ministry. The mentor pours his life into the potential leader, developing a relationship with him that can foster spiritual growth and personal reflection. (Of course, coffee always helps.)

• Supervision: An elder could invite one or two of the prospective leaders to join him when actively engaged in ministry, like on-the-job training.

If elders call on the sick, evangelistic prospects, or visitors, they can take prospective leaders with them. The same is true for any act of service in the congregation and community.

The prospective leader will learn firsthand that leadership is more than meetings while he gains confidence in his own abilities.

• Self-study: Ultimately, leaders must be self-motivated students of God’s Word, leadership, ministry, and anything conducive to serving the church. But do we resource individuals to this end? Potential leaders could be given a subscription to a Christian magazine or provided with books and digital resources, such as blogs and ministry websites, for their own use at their own pace.

Why do all this? Because a seed needs more than just good soil. Cultivation is the attention given the seed to provide for its growth. Individuals who have demonstrated the necessary qualities of a potential leader need to be nurtured, equipped, trained, and motivated to serve. In time, they grow. They develop the basic skills, reflect a mature disposition, and possess the core knowledge necessary to become a leader.

Harvesting

Now you have leaders! How will you invite them into leadership? 

You are not approaching an unsuspecting person in the pew about becoming a leader, a person who almost always recoils and declines the offer. Rather, you are approaching someone who has been cultivated for leadership, one who has grown into the role.

Approaching the individual about assuming a leadership role in the church becomes a natural next step, not a leap into leadership. It is something the person is ready to consider and accept, if they haven’t already inquired about it.

Yes, it is a long process; one requiring patience, planning, and intentionality. It is a commitment to the next generation of leaders paid by the current generation of leaders; it is our investment in their future.

However, in the end, when it is time to reap the results, you have real produce, not weeds and toadstools. Start prepping, start sowing, start cultivating, and be prepared to harvest!

Dr. Jim Estep is professor of Christian education at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.

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