Tools for Creating a Culture of Leadership Development
by Lisa Cannon Green
Midway through leadership training at The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas, Rex Hamilton woke up one morning and realized he could breathe.
Months of saturating himself in God’s Word had eased his longstanding anxiety. Studying with a small group helped him confront sin and unbelief. Within two years, the former high school basketball coach was on staff at the Texas church, overseeing leadership training for others.
“I experienced the gospel in a new and deeper way than I ever had,” he says. “It opened my eyes and empowered me to want to go out and serve the Lord.”
Today, hundreds sign up every year for the nine-month leadership course that changed Hamilton’s life. But at thousands of other churches across America, building future leaders is a hit-or-miss effort that leaves the ministry at risk, church growth experts say.
“When I ask pastors, ‘What’s your leadership development strategy for your church?’ I only get two answers,” says church leadership consultant Mac Lake. “One answer is, ‘Well, Mac, we don’t have one.’ And the other answer is, ‘Well, ours is organic’—which means they don’t have one.”
Only 29 percent of Protestant pastors say their churches have staff development plans, Lifeway Research found, even though the vast majority believe it’s important to equip church leaders. Training for volunteers typically happens once a year or less, and informal mentoring is the most common style. Even among the largest churches, most have no leadership development plan.
Too often, churches without plans to develop new leaders stymie their own growth, Lake says. They hire leaders, and then lose momentum when those staffers leave. They place volunteers in ill-fitting roles because no one else is ready. The pastor is overloaded trying to handle everything alone.
“The pastor becomes the bottleneck,” says Daniel Im, church multiplication specialist for Lifeway Christian Resources.
Building a pipeline
Rick Duncan recalls being that bottleneck decades ago, struggling to grow his northeast Ohio church beyond 200 members when more than 100,000 unchurched people lived within five miles. His epiphany came at a seminar when he realized the barrier was his lack of leaders.
“Even if I’m totally devoted to it, I’m only going to make a few disciples,” he says. “So I have to equip other people to also make disciples.”
Now he manages leadership development for Cuyahoga Valley Church and is working to train leaders at other area churches. The training is built on the concept of a leadership pipeline, the idea that people become leaders in stages and gain essential skills at each turn. First, they learn to lead themselves, then to lead others. Eventually some will lead other leaders, lead departments, or lead an entire organization.
Most churches are good at the initial stage, teaching new believers to live like Christ, but they falter at guiding believers into leadership, Duncan and Lake agree. And that stunts spiritual growth because the Great Commission calls all believers to be leaders as they make disciples of others.
“We have to take people beyond living like Jesus and teach them how to lead like Jesus,” Lake says.
The leadership pipeline terminology comes from a business management book, but church consultant Brad Bridges says churches aren’t borrowing a corporate concept.
“I’d say all corporate leader development was really modeled after what we see in Scripture,” says Bridges, vice president of the Malphurs Group. “The church is trying to restore to itself what the corporate world learned from God.”
A strong leadership development program will teach a blend of topics, from decision-making and collaboration to ministry skills such as evangelizing and leading Bible study. Theology and spiritual growth will also be part of the mix. Leadership training should go hand-in-hand with discipleship. Beyond that, programs can look very different from one church to the next—and that’s as it should be, Duncan says, because plans work best when they fit the personality of a church.
At Duncan’s church in Ohio, a leader and three learners huddle every other week for about six months. Between meetings, learners have reading materials and videos to study, but Duncan says the key is their interaction with the group leader.
“They need to spend time with someone who has grown as a leader more than they have,” he says.
At Christ Fellowship in Miami, leadership development is built on an apprenticeship model, says Deanna Spallone, training and development director. With nearly 3,000 volunteers, the church equips its people by finding top-notch training materials, making that content available to leaders, and then relying on those leaders to coach and train their teams.
“To send out campuses and church plants, we need people in our pipeline to be equipped and ready,” she says.
Austin Stone Community Church uses a more structured approach, with nine months of classroom training that follows the school schedule. About 250-300 people meet weekly in an auditorium, then break into small groups—a leader and three or four learners with similar goals. Participants are expected to memorize Scripture and study for exams. The program has more applicants than it can accommodate.
Whatever the approach, leaders agree people need field experience and feedback in addition to their study materials.
Churches tend to focus solely on knowledge, Im says: “Hey, you want to be a leader? This is what you need to know. Read this.” But that’s not enough.
“Individuals need to actually be in the ministry, be on the ground doing it, and they learn through that,” he says. “They also need feedback, which is the coaching piece.”
Lake calls those three elements “the triad of development—knowledge, experience, and coaching. When those three things overlap, that’s when transformation can truly take place in the life of a leader.”
An orderly transition
Duncan, a former pro baseball player, says leadership development has been a home run for his Cleveland-area church—not only in growing young leaders but also in passing the baton to a new lead pastor. He had seen what happens when a pastor dies without a successor. It wasn’t good.
“So I began to study Scripture and it seemed like there was a pretty orderly transition between Moses and Joshua and Elijah and Elisha, and I’m thinking, Why can’t we do this on purpose?”
He spent two years training Chad Allen to take his place at the helm of the church Duncan founded in 1987. “He had never been a senior pastor, and his church was about half the size of our church. So I poured into his life over a two-year period to help equip him to lead our organization.”
And then Duncan stayed on board—supporting the new leader, working with church planters, and cementing the loyalty of longtime members.
Nearly three years later, he’s pleased with the transition. Cuyahoga Valley Church is exploring the launch of a satellite campus in the future, and people from all corners of the ministry are involved in shaping the church’s leadership development process.
To Duncan, that broad involvement is critical. If one person develops a plan and presents it to others, “They’ll go, ‘Eh, this looks pretty good—go for it, brother,’ and there’s not ownership. You want widespread ownership in this.”
Widespread ownership leads to a shift in culture—a change in which leaders begin to multiply because leadership is embraced and expected. Ultimately, Lake says, that’s the goal. Getting there demands patience. It’s messy. But in the long run, it works.
“If you really care about the long-term health and vitality of your church,” he says, “you’re going to focus on building a culture of leadership development.”
LISA CANNON GREEN (@LisaCCGreen) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.