Ann Michel of the Lewis Center suggests ways churches can breathe life into stagnant leadership structures by employing simple organic approaches to leadership development. The key is understanding how formal and informal leadership systems can work together in a healthy leadership culture.
Has your congregation relied on the same group of leaders for decades? Some are burned out and in need of a rest. Others tenaciously cling to their roles long past their season of effectiveness. Yet somehow this same group of usual suspects is shuffled from one key leadership role to the next. How can you infuse new energy into a leadership pipeline that has run dry?
Formal and informal leadership development systems
In congregations with healthy cultures of leadership development, two systems operate in tandem — a formal leadership development system and an informal or organic leadership development system. A congregation’s formal leadership development system often centers around a nominating committee, training events, job descriptions, recruitment drives, and so forth. But in healthy, vital congregations, leaders are being nurtured in informal organic ways as well. For example, existing leaders who are relationally connected to others and attuned to their gifts invite potential new leaders to “come alongside” and learn through experience, on-the-job training, and informal mentoring.
In many established congregations, the wheels of the formal leadership structures keep turning. But without new energy coming into the system through organic leadership development, the nominating process is likely to either recycle the same old people into different roles or rush new people into leadership before they are ready. Formal leadership structures are necessary and important. But reliance on formal structures is rarely sufficient. Nevertheless, the instinct in many churches when confronting a leadership deficit is to offer leadership classes or send people to district training, while neglecting the equally important work of scouting and supporting new leadership candidates.
How can your church develop more leaders through organic or informal means?
1. Build relationships.
A vibrant culture of leadership development is fueled by the power of relationships. Pastors and other church leaders sow the seeds of leadership growth by simply devoting time to getting to know people and maintaining a network of relationships. Begin by making a list of people you think might have leadership potential. Include new people and people you’d just like to know better. Schedule time to sit down with them one-on-one. What makes them tick? What are they passionate about? Out of these relational encounters, you’ll begin to sense where someone might be interested in serving. If you’ve invested time in building a relationship, they’ll begin to feel trust and affinity toward you, making them more inclined to accept your invitation to serve.
2. Identify and name people’s gifts.
The advantage of getting to know people more deeply is that you become aware of their gifts and passions. There are formal mechanisms for assessing someone’s gifts, such as spiritual gift inventories or classes. But a more organic approach is to simply pay attention to the strengths someone exhibits. Kay Kotan calls this the “ICNU” approach — consistently look for evidence of people’s gifts and then saying to the person, “here is what I see in you.” When you take the time to notice someone’s gifts and interests, you can steer them toward opportunities that connect with their strengths and aptitudes. Then they can see that they have something unique to offer.
3. Encourage informal mentoring and on-the-job training.
We often are so eager to get new people to take on responsibilities that we hand a job off to them before they are equipped to handle it. Nothing could be more demoralizing to a new leader. One of the most effective ways to train and nurture new leaders is simply to invite them to come alongside an existing leader and learn by doing. This is precisely the approach Jesus used to empower his disciples. This approach can be a vehicle for a seasoned leader to show the ropes to someone new. But it can also facilitate mutual or reverse mentoring by putting newer and younger leaders with fresh perspectives into relationship with long-serving leaders.
4. Recognize the power of groups.
Ministry teams, Bible study groups, and fellowship groups often serve as “incubators” for emerging leaders. They are places where potential leaders witness how others put their faith into action, where they can reflect and learn and grow. If this dynamic isn’t present in your church’s existing groups, you can jump start the process by starting new groups for people who may have leadership potential. For example, invite a few folks to be part of a Bible study or discussion group led by the pastor or another leadership scout. The initial invitation is to be part of a group or study, not take on leadership. But often these encounters will reveal someone’s potential and pave the way for the next step.
5. Extend personal invitations.
A personal invitation is the best way to invite someone into leadership. Yet many churches rely on highly impersonal, and therefore ineffective, ways of asking people to serve, such as general announcements, newsletter articles, mass emails, and “dear friend” letters. A personal invitation is powerful because it can be framed around the individual’s gifts, aptitudes, and interests. “Ashley, I’ve noticed how much you care about children and what a great Sunday school teacher you are. I think you’d enjoy the challenge of taking on the leadership of the new afterschool tutoring program.” Instead of the ask being framed around your need to recruit a leader, it’s about how the opportunity can make a difference to the person you’re asking.
The beauty of these organic strategies is that they are so simple and natural that anyone with a heart for developing new leaders can employ them. And when they become part of a church’s culture that, used not just by the pastor but by leaders at work in various ministries throughout the church, they can multiply your leadership capacity and breathe new life into your church.
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- 4 Ways to Multiply Disciples the Way Jesus Did by Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird
- 5 Ways to Develop New Leaders by Marv Nelson