Healthy Church Systems Part 10: The Leadership Skeleton

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Healthy Church Systems Part 10: The Leadership Skeleton

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I know of a church that has a congregation of over 500 attenders, but only one pastor on staff. Looking in from the outside, you might wonder how one person can possibly handle the demands of so many. But if you take an inside look and see, you would discover that this church has a masterful leadership system. Much of the ministry work is being done by leaders he has trained and empowered. What he has is a “Jethro” system of leadership, based on the model found in Exodus 18.

Many of you already know the backstory to this model that Moses’ father-in-law explained to him. Probably the biggest aspect of any church being able to increase capacity is their plan for an expandable leadership “skeleton.” The Jethro model is one way of visualizing this skeleton. In it you have small ministry leaders, who are leaders of people (i.e. leaders of 10), large ministry and development leaders, who function as leaders of leaders (i.e. leaders of 50) and those who operate as either lay or vocational staff, leading the church (i.e. leaders of 100). Leaders of 1000 only come into play when the church begins to make the transition from a church of 500 to a church of 1000+. These leaders function as visionaries and provide focal point leadership to other top leaders. Below is a visual idea of what a Jethro model should look like in your church.

Leadership_SkeletonLeadership is the main frame on which the church is hung. Without such a skeleton, even the best DNA of the church’s vision will not be enough to sustain the church in reaching its potential. While I will cover this more fully when I write about leadership development, most churches lack capacity because the few leaders the church has cannot possibly provide enough leadership to develop the church to its fullest potential, to the disappointment of those who desire the church to thrive.

Why do you need a leadership skeleton? First, you need one because as you go forward, you must delegate responsibility to emerging leaders of 50 or you will be swamped with too many direct reports. Trying to maintain a flat organization with everyone coming to you as the leader will eventually eat up all your time and kill you or the church’s momentum towards growth.

Second, having a skeleton means that you are planning to exercise quality control over important ministries. This also contributes to increasing capacity. Quality control is different from micro-managing. Micro-managing means an overseer is really running the ministry instead of its leader. Quality control is making sure a ministry stays on course according to its intended purpose and in harmony with the church’s vision. A leadership skeleton assures that no ministry leader of 10 or leader of 50 lacks someone who knows what they are to do and is in close view of their ministry work for the church.

Third, this approach to leadership provides a pathway to grow in ministry. Faithfulness and fruitfulness at the leader of 10 level will make that person available to advance in responsibility if he or she desires that opportunity. This leadership skeleton also provides a natural pathway towards mentoring every level of leaders. The expectation is the leader at the next level will be the mentor for the leaders under his or her responsibility.

Your church needs all levels of leaders. The Jethro leadership system is based on the rule of thumb that you will need one leader for every ten attenders and one leader over every five leaders. These are estimates but the truth is, the more leaders you have, the better you can keep the church’s small groups, ministries and missions (Growth Systems) from drifting away from the vision. Keep in mind that one of the functions of leadership is to create more leaders so that the work of the church can expand. A second function of leadership is to resolve challenges facing the church in following its vision. These two factors make up the core of the leadership system and can be addressed through a good leadership skeleton.

One place I find the greatest need for this in churches is in their growth systems. A growing small group, ministry or mission has a voracious appetite for leaders. And churches throw as many leaders into these systems as they have, but not always wisely. I once chatted with a staff person who planned to go from eight small groups to thirty the next year. When I quizzed him about oversight of these new groups, he was confident that he alone could oversee them all. I explained that what he was creating was a jellyfish—one of the largest animals that exist without a skeleton. The result, I predicted, was that within the year, he would see some of these groups stray away from the objectives the church had set out. Unfortunately, I was right.

On the other hand, I have been in large churches where just walking through ministry areas I have spotted leaders of 50 who provided the oversight over leaders of 10. They consistently provide the glue that strengthens the church’s work and allows it to grow naturally.

I will continue to expand on leadership in the next several articles, including how to develop your leadership as well as leadership training systems.


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