Raising Up Leaders In The Church (Disciple Before You Delegate)

Look for servants first. Find the people who are already helping before they’re asked.

If you want a church to grow, do you need to become less of a hands-on pastor and more of a manager?

That’s what I’m constantly told. But it’s not entirely true. At least not for most congregations of a typical size.

One of the dangers of promoting big- to megachurch as the standard, is that we’ve led a generation of ministers to believe that delegating leadership means not being accessible to your congregation. And that such a lack of accessibility is an ideal to strive for. It’s not.

Every pastor needs to delegate the work of the church to as many people as possible, no matter what size the church is. It’s a vital element in developing a healthy church and discipling the congregation. And it’s something that most small church pastors admit we aren’t doing as well as we could – certainly not as well as we’d like to.

But we don’t need to become managers in order for our church to grow. That’s actually backwards.

Take Moses, for instance. He didn’t become the leader of a massive number of people because he developed an administrative leadership style. He adapted to an administrative leadership style because he found himself leading a massive number of people.

The Jethro Model

The go-to Bible passage for the idea of delegation is the story of Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro, in Exodus 18.

When Jethro saw how much time Moses spent judging every petty dispute among as many as 2 million ex-slaves, he suggested a system of under-shepherds for groups of 1,000, 100, 50 and 10. This way, only the most difficult cases came to Moses.

This is still applicable to small churches, because it’s more about capability and character than numerical capacity.

Capability: No One Can Do It All

When looking at the Jethro leadership system, we tend to concentrate on the numbers. But that’s not where Jethro started, and neither should we. Let’s look at the passage. It starts with Jethro watching Moses, his son-in-law, serving as the only judge for the entire nation.

The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. (Exodus 18:13)

That’s right. Moses spent the entire day, from sunup to sundown, moderating all the disputes for the entire nation.

So what was Jethro’s response?

Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good.” (Exodus 18:17)

I love this simple, understated sentence. Why was this not good? For starters, Jethro was watching the husband of his daughter and the father of his grandchildren doing nothing but moderating the disputes for everyone else, leaving very little time to care for the people Jethro loved the most.

Also, as we see in scripture, Jethro recognized that while Moses was the God-ordained leader and would make the main decisions, making every decision for everyone was beyond human capacity.

You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. (Exodus 18:18-19)

So, what did Jethro suggest? Divide the task among others? Yes. But first, he recommended an essential step that many of us miss.

Character: Disciple Before You Delegate

The first step Jethro gives Moses is this:

Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. (Exodus 18:20)

“Teach them” and “show them”. This is the essence of mentoring and the core of discipleship. You can’t delegate a task to someone until you’ve taught them and shown them how to do it first. Jethro knew this.

Then, who did Jethro tell Moses to assign these tasks to? Those who had previous leadership or business experience? No.

But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. (Exodus 18:21)

Jethro tells Moses the under-shepherds must be capable, but their capability is defined by their character. They must “fear God’, be “trustworthy” and “hate dishonest gain.” In God’s economy, character always supersedes competence.

Look For Servants

So how do we spot the people of character among us? Look for servants first. Find the people who are already helping before they’ve been asked.

In most cases, they may not be official leaders or seeking to become a leader. This is a huge reason to value passion and willingness over experience and status when looking for leaders in the church.

Start with a servant. It’s easier to teach a servant to lead than to teach a leader to serve.

Capability Levels

So how do we decide who should be at what level of leadership? Here’s the standard I use.

Level 10: Someone who can recruit a team when needed

After you’ve identified someone with character and a servant’s heart, don’t try to determine if they can lead the entire church, or even an entire department. Simply give them some tasks that require a couple helpers and ask them to recruit the helpers themselves. If they do that, you have a Level 10 Leader. If not? Nothing is lost, because you still have a servant.

Level 50: Can anticipate future needs and plan for them

While the Level 10 Leader can recruit an on-the-spot team, Level 50 leaders can do more complex advance planning. These are the folks who will put together a monthly task list, follow up on volunteers, and be on the lookout for new team members. People enjoy working with Level 50 leaders and appreciate their ability to plan ahead.

Level 100: Can run an entire church department with very little oversight

After you’ve found and trained a Level 50 leader, keep training them to see if they can become a Level 100 leader, overseeing an entire church department for the long term. If you already have a department leader, the Level 50 leader will likely become their trusted assistant, gaining experience and knowledge along the way.

Level 1,000: Can lead the church in the pastor’s absence

Yes, pastor, one of your main tasks is to train your replacement. Or, at the very least, someone who can step in while you and the family take the ocassional weekend off.

I’m fully aware that in many churches — especially those that are very small, and/or aging — this seems impossible. In bivocational and multi-point situations, even the lead pastor may only be a part-time Level 1,000 leader. But in my experience this is possible in far more churches than we think.

The Goal: Pastoring People Better

Far too many churches are not raising up leaders, first because they don’t think about it, but secondly, because they look for a 1,000 Level leader instead of starting with a servant and training them from Level 10.

Every church needs to train, then release church members in ministry. But equipping disciples does not have to be at the cost of the pastor no longer being accessible to congregation members, especially in a smaller church.

A pastor’s goal should never be to manage the crowd better, but to pastor the people better.

(Photo by Mike Cardus | Flickr)


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