How to Find, Train and Build a Great Small Church Leadership Team

human pyramidThe #1 calling of a pastor is not to do the work of the ministry. And it’s not to fill people’s heads with bible information.

According to no less an authority than the Apostle Paul, it is “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Ephesians 4:12).

Believers want to be discipled – despite what it may look like at times. They always have, they always will. This generation is no exception.

When we put those truths together, it adds up to good news for Small Churches. Let’s find willing hearts. Train disciples. And build teams.

No, not every person we disciple will develop into a church leader. Not all of them are supposed to. Many of them won’t even stay in our church, but will be called to minister at other churches or (even better) in their neighborhoods. But some will be called to lead in their local church. And they can make great church leadership teams.

That’s what we’ve done in our Small Church. We don’t hire from the outside. We train from the inside. We fell into it because we couldn’t afford to pay “professionals”, but now we’d do it even if we could afford it.

No, it isn’t easy. I’ve been pastoring my current church for almost 22 years and it’s only been in the last 10 years or so that we feel like we’re doing it well.

My hope is that you can learn from our mistakes, so it won’t take you nearly as long to do this well. 

This is the second post in a three-part series. Click here for the first post, Great Small Church Leadership Teams Aren’t Hired, They’re Built, or here for the third post, Some Advantages and Challenges of Building Your Own Small Church Leadership Team.

Start Discipling Before You Have Someone to Disciple

The hardest part of training believers to be leaders is finding willing disciples. So, if you’re looking out at a small group of passive believers every Sunday, here’s my first piece of advice to get the leadership training going.

Preach and teach with a “go and do” mindset, not a “sit and listen” attitude.

No, don’t try to guilt people into action. That never works. But always give people something they can take home and apply in their personal lives and in their Christian growth.

I’m naturally a teacher, not a preacher or a trainer. My default is to fill people with bible knowledge so they leave church with a full set of notes, but no idea what to do with those notes. Over the years, I’ve learned to teach and preach trough the filter of “how can they apply this to their real lives today?”

When we teach head knowledge, we attract sit-and-learn students. When we teach active discipleship, we attract “go and do” disciples.


Look for Diamonds In the Rough

When I came to my current church, I was told I had to do one thing if I accepted the position. Keep the Youth Pastor on.

The church had lost their old Youth Pastor in a nasty church split a few months before that. One of the college students, named Gary Garcia, had stepped into the vacuum and started leading. He was green. Very green. But he was one of theirs. And they wanted to see him blossom.

So I took him to lunch and we talked. For hours. At the end of lunch, I thought, This can work. He’s got great ideas and lots of enthusiasm. Besides, the average Youth Pastor lasts about seven months, so how bad could it be?

That was 22 years ago. We’re still working together.

What looked like an obligation was actually an opportunity.

Later, I found out that the church had interviewed two other potential pastors. Each had been told the same thing about keeping the Youth Pastor, but I was the only pastoral candidate who even said “hello” to Gary, let alone had a long talk over lunch. Because of that, they missed the opportunity of a lifetime. Not just to work at this amazing church, but to work with, train and ultimately see the blossoming of one of the best Youth Pastors in the world.


Start With One

Two people are a team. If you’ve been working alone, having one other team member doubles your capacity. Don’t despise small beginnings.

Besides, you’ll never get better advertising for others to start being discipled than that one person whose life you invested in and changed.


Get Them Leading Others Right Away

The first two days of training a new leader should look something like this:

Day 1 – Start Learning
Day 2 – Start Leading

Jesus didn’t wait until his disciples passed their first year final exams before they started leading others. When Philip was called by Jesus, he immediately found Nathanael and led him to Jesus.

Always remember we’re training leaders, not just followers. The only way for them to do that well is to start leading as soon as possible.


Take People With You – Literally

The Apostle Paul was, next to Jesus, the greatest trainer of church leaders in history. He started as a student of Barnabas. Then, very quickly, he became the leader. After that, unless he was being snuck out of town in fear for his life, he always travelled with at least one other person.

The next time you find yourself heading off to do ministry – a hospital visit, dropping of food for the hungry, going to a meeting, etc. – ask yourself “why am I doing this alone?” Then find someone who can come along and do it with you.

There’s probably more real discipleship done on car rides to and from ministry than anywhere else – including church pulpits.


Work with Them, then Release Them

Two of the biggest mistakes many pastors make in training new leaders are 1) Not giving them enough to do, and 2) Making them your personal slave.

Mistake #1 creates bored people who quit, while mistake #2 creates frustrated people who quit. Then we wonder “where’s their commitment?!”

The best way to leverage people’s enthusiasm and make the most out of their desire to make a commitment is to work with them. Alongside them. Showing them. Training them.

The first few times they’re asked to clean the bathrooms or stack chairs, you should be doing it with them. Then hand it off to them, assess their work, thank them for what they got right and show them how to do it better the next time.


Be Patient – It Takes a Loooong Time

I have an awesome leadership team. Now. After 22 years.

Not all my teams have been awesome. For the bulk of the first decade, Gary and I often wondered aloud how long it would be just the two of us doing the hands-on everyday ministry.

But we didn’t give up. We learned from our mistakes. And we kept at it.


Keep a Consistent Vision

Mixed messages kill vision. The members of my leadership team have very different personalities and approaches to ministry. Very different. But we are in full agreement on the essentials. We are completely committed to the reality that Jesus uses the local church as his primary instrument to bring salvation to the world, and that our church is a vital part of that.

Because we agree on the essentials, our different styles and personalities don’t confuse those we’re training.


Adapt to People’s Learning Styles

No two people learn in the same way. I’m a book learner. Most of our interns are hands-on learners – that’s why they chose a Small-Church internship instead of (or in addition to) a college experience.

One of the first tasks of the mentor/teacher is to get to know the preferred learning style of the protégé/student. Then, we need to teach them by adapting to their preferred learning style, instead of insisting that they get in line with our preferred teaching style.

In discipleship, it’s the mentor’s responsibility to adapt the teaching style (but not the content) to the student, not vice versa.


Have Regular, but Short Meetings 

Restaurants have what they call “standups” at the start of each work shift. They’re short meetings that bring everyone up to speed on any issues, the daily specials, etc. They’re required, they’re daily, they’re helpful and they’re quick enough that – as the name suggests –  they’re done standing up.

That’s a good model to keep in mind for church leadership meetings. No, I don’t think they should be done standing up, but they should be required, regular, helpful and short.

We have weekly meetings. My staff will often schedule other appointments for one hour after the start of our meetings, because an hour-long meeting is a rarity. If they need to go longer, I let them know that in advance.

I design an agenda and we stick to it. And we only discuss topics which affect more than two people in the room. I won’t waste everyone’s time on an issue that can be discussed in a separate meeting between two people.

Doers don’t want to sit in meetings – and people who love to sit in meetings tend not to be doers. Church teams need doers.


Be Willing to Change With Them

Don’t treat people like cogs in a machine. Too many pastors have ben guilty of taking a potential leader, showing them how to do a ministry, but never asking them “how would you do it differently and/or better?”

Leaders want to lead. That means they have ideas that need to be considered and given a chance to see the light of day.

Every leader and future leader I’ve ever worked with has made me better. I’m grateful to every one of them for that.


Come back on Monday, August 25, for part 3 of this series, The Advantages and Challenges of Training Up Your Own Church Leadership Team


So what do you think? Have you harbored any wrong feelings or actions towards fellow ministers?

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(Human Pyramid photo from mrwynd • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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4 thoughts on “How to Find, Train and Build a Great Small Church Leadership Team”

  1. Great encouragement and Gary is one the best youth pastors in the world! I am blessed to know him personally and that he has come with his wife and team to our church to do ministry. He is amazing! I cannot think of a better example of a great team than what you two are doing by training others for ministry.

  2. Pingback: Leadership Roundup | Worship Links

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