It was one of the best days I’d ever had in ministry. I was walking on clouds. All of my hard work, hours of leading, giving, investing, listening, coaching, and directing came to fruition. There was a wash of relief over me. I didn’t lay awake at night wondering how things would succeed or what would happen. Quite the opposite in fact, I knew things would be fine. They would be better than fine actually. I was so happy and excited I don’t think you could pull the smile from off of my face.
No, it wasn’t the day I graduated from seminary. It wasn’t the day I started a new ministry or planted a church or launched a regional training center. It wasn’t even the day my first book was published.
It was the day I quit my job.
Now, lest you think I was quitting a position that was emotionally horrific and destructive it was quite the opposite. I was quitting a fantastic position. For several years I had been working with a large church as the junior high pastor. Week-in and week-out I had the joy of teaching these students the Bible, loving them and their families, doing fun and crazy student ministry things, going on mission trips, and enjoying the grace of God in watch teens grow up in the Lord. It was a great job at a great church. So why was I so happy to quit?
I was happy to quit because I realized there were strong, capable, gifted, godly leaders developed who could continue the work pastoring those junior high students and their families without me. I was thrilled because the intern I worked long and hard with was ready and able to step into my role and move the mission forward without the ministry missing a step. I could move on to doing other things that would allow the church to cover new ground and grow in new ways while not neglecting the shepherding work that had already been established.
I learned that “growing a garden” is one of the most enjoyable and fruitful things that you can do in planting a church. In fact, I might be so bold as to say that unless you are working to train up and develop leaders in your church plant you probably aren’t being faithful to the biblical calling you have as a planter.
Paul exhorts Timothy, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
For church-planting ministry there has to be an eye towards growing a garden of faithful leaders who will be able to pass on what they have been taught so that the stream of gospel growth goes forward. Leadership training and development is one of the greatest joys in ministry. It’s also one of the most essential works of the ministry.
What does that look like in the context of a church plant? Let me suggest a practical ways to develop leaders within your context.
1. Sow For What You Want To Reap
I want to warn you about assuming this point or placing it on the back burner of how you develop leaders. Whether we intend it or not sometimes the thing we long to develop in others is the thing that is missed most. They get caught up in our technique, our style, our delivery, and sometimes our appearance. By our practice alone the people that we are developing can assume that what they see externally is the focal point of what we want to develop in them.
But developing leaders is more than just replicating clones of ourselves who do ministry like we do ministry or who give sermons the way we give sermons. The development of leaders is the development of a culture, and to develop a culture we have to think with the end in mind.
My hope is that you want to develop a gospel culture in a place. I hope that your leadership development is fundamentally about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ for us. That his good news of liberation from sin, Satan, and death by mean of his life, death, and resurrection stand at the core of what you do. I long to see people that would come and encounter the grace and love and hope and transformation of Christ through the work of church planting.
If that’s the goal then you must begin sowing that sort of culture in the leadership that you seek to develop. They must know, see, and experience a gospel-saturated leader. Their development must be means of development in the gospel. It should not be a development merely in technique or style but in the reality of what it means to be a dead person brought to life by the grace of Jesus.
Sure it’s possible to develop leaders that will emulate your style or approach or technique. Just be sure that you will reap the kind of leaders that you sow for. If you want theological strong, gospel-saturated, wise, missionary-minded leaders, then sow for that.
2. Water Frequently
Leadership development is never done in a vacuum. You can’t just toss a text book at a guy and say, “Read up on this and then we will plop you in ministry here.” He might assimilate information, but he won’t grow as a leader.
Developing leaders requires investment on your part. You have to nourish and help them as if you were watering your garden on a regular basis. It requires life-on-life relationship. Where will the struggle as a leader? Having them read a book and then regurgitating the information back to you won’t cut it. You have to see them in the field. What’s their predominate gifting? You won’t know unless you’re laboring alongside them. Where are they anxious, struggling or worried? You can’t know that if you aren’t with them.
All of this to say you, as the planting leader, have to be the one to nourish them as well. Don’t leave this work up to others. Come along side those you long to develop, give them access far beyond what you would give others, let them see the way you’ve walked through the hardship of ministry and family and life. Nourish them with encouragement, affirmation, and involvement. Give them roles that are just above their head and then cheer them on when they succeed. As a leader do all you can to nourish and water the leaders you are hoping to develop.
3. Give Up Control
So much of growing a garden is out of the gardeners control. They can sow, water, weed, fertilize, and cultivate. But that doesn’t automatically mean that growth will happen. Growth is in the hands of God.
So it is with leadership development. You can spend years pouring into others and never see the development that you desired in their life. On the other hand, you can put in a few weeks and find someone ready to take your job already in hand.
The point I want to make is that you have to give up the control-complex that often surrounds church planting.
Leadership development requires losing control of the timeline. It means that you have to be patient with people, continue to pour in the nourishment of God’s Word and wise counsel, but it will take time. A two-year program might not be long enough to develop some leaders. Matter of fact a four-year program might not do it either. The point is sometimes you have to give up controlling the “when” of leadership development.
It also means you have to give up control of the role that you hold firmly in your hands. If you’ve developed leaders well there will be others that will be better suited for some (if not all) of the tasks you have. Give up control of those tasks. If God gives growth to another leader who is a superior preacher, let the man preach! If a better counselor, administrator, servant, or even entrepreneurial church-planter arises from your garden then give up control of them and deploy them further for the sake of the gospel.
Survival Is About Development
Surviving in church planting isn’t about getting off the launch pad. It’s about getting a church to the next generation. It’s about the hand-off of what has been entrusted to you being entrusted to faithful leaders who will in turn hand-off the gospel to faithful leaders. Church planting isn’t successful if it doesn’t endure past the first generation. This is why leadership development is so essential. It’s also why leadership development is so enjoyable.
As I have watched over the years nothing is more enjoyable and exciting to me in ministry than seeing the people I’ve spent time grow into the leadership roles I’ve held. It’s let me grow into new spaces, and it’s allowed the gospel to move forward in the church in new and vibrant ways. Go and grow a garden!
Jeremy Writebol(@jwritebol) has been training leaders in the church for over thirteen years. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present (GCD Books, 2014) and writes at jwritebol.net. He lives and works in Plymouth, MI as the Campus Pastor of Woodside Bible Church.
Used with permission from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s publication The Church Planting Survival Guide. For more information visit www.mbts.edu or to obtain a copy contact The Center for Church Planting at 800-944-MBTS (6287).