A pastor of a church which had been at over 500 asked me to help him understand why his congregation was declining. They were culturally relevant in how they sowed the gospel in their community and had many good things happening. As we explored the Healthy Church Systems Matrix together, the pastor recalled how, in the first years of the church, he had filled his house to overflowing with young leaders in whom he was investing. And for reasons of ministry growth and time pressures, one day he simply stopped. That day he woke up to the long-term impact of his decision.
The difference between churches that grow and those that are plateaued or declining is the attention the leadership gives to raising up more leaders. No church can continue to grow without increasing its pool of leaders, because it is having more leaders, not more people, that fuels retention of growth. New leaders are the glue for new people who need to connect with your congregation. These new leaders offer relational connections and provide necessary shepherding to people who would otherwise slip out the back door, feeling like no one cared. Having new leaders trained and willing to take charge over such vital ministry is essential to healthy church growth and church multiplication.
But many churches have no intentional leadership training process. There are several reasons for this. Often, it is because the pastor has never been part of a church that had a leadership training process, so he has no idea he needs one or, if he does, what it should look like. Another reason is that all the ‘needed’ leadership slots are filled. What I mean is that all existing ministries have leaders and, maybe, there are a couple of available leaders on leave. Why train more leaders?
Often, these churches have no clear plan to expand their Growth Systems so that more people can be served. Expansion of ministry is only initiated by an intrepid person who comes to the existing leadership with an offer to lead a new Bible study or needed ministry. The fact that the person offering is already showing leadership reaffirms these churches’ veiled assumption that when there is a need, God will raise up a leader. So they think they do not need an intentional process.
One of the most common reasons a church may not have a leadership training process is usually generational—the leadership is mostly owned by one generation who are not thinking properly about the future. They see that the church has good leadership with all the slots filled with people like themselves. If they need a new leader, it will usually be someone who affirms their generational values. They see the next generation coming, but they feel no urgency to develop leaders among them. They may believe that real leaders rise up naturally. More often it is because they fear the future and the changes that those of the next generation are advocating. Being the gatekeepers into the church’s leadership is their way of protecting the church from what they consider unbiblical and unspiritual. If it must happen, then keep those ideas in the youth group and away from the adult Christians!
The outcome of this thinking often compromises the future of their church. As the leaders age, the vitality that marked earlier phases of the church’s outreach drains away. People get tired and gear back the level of time and effort they put into the vision of the church. The time comes when the vision that guided that generation no longer seems to fuel passion for Jesus’ call to make new disciples. And so the next generations—not every person, but significant slices—begin to drift away, perhaps to other fellowships or nowhere.
I have lived long enough to witness this aspect of church life in churches of various sizes. I know of a church that began struggling for its life after years of being a large church. The senior leaders who had dominated the church’s direction were passing off the scene through aging and death, leaving the congregation with a questionable future. The added sadness to this situation was that within a short distance was a newer church whose leadership was made up of the children and grandchildren of the generation who had dominated the church’s leadership. Instead of training and empowering the next generation, they effectively encouraged them to practice their leadership gifts in Jesus’ kingdom somewhere else.
Look at your leadership and answer the following evaluation points honestly:
How many leaders does the church have who are from the same generation? Do not think of this as questioning the value and integrity of senior leaders. They will continue to matter. Instead, think of the church’s future. If the larger percentage of leaders come from the same generation (75% or more), you have the opportunity to guide the current leaders to develop the next generation now as an alternative to a long-term process of dying as a congregation.
How long have these leaders served in their ministry? Leading in Jesus’ kingdom has no retirement plan, but there can be a collective mindset that resists healthy change the longer leaders serve together. I once was the only ‘new guy’ on a leadership team that had been together almost ten years. Their opposition to any idea that was not theirs was phenomenal and was killing the ministry they were leading.
How many are mentoring a younger leader to step into their place? Leaders who are not investing in those who might be their coworkers or even their replacement, are not doing their job. “Commit what you learned from me to trustworthy men who will teach others.” is how Paul instructed Timothy. The ongoing mentoring of the next generation of leaders is a marker by which the health of a congregation can be evaluated.
Over the years, how many young adults have left the church to lead in another church in the community? I hear reports all the time from pastors who lament that several promising young leaders left their church to help plant a new church or minister in another congregation. They wondered why they did not stay and minister in their home congregation. It is hard to know the full answer to that question, but it does remind us that if we do not know how to open up leadership to the next generation, they will not sit quietly and wait. If your church has a growing age gap between the generations (lots of people in their forties to sixties and plenty of teenagers or school age children, but fewer and fewer 20- and 30-somethings), then pay attention. Find out why they are leaving and where they are going. This kind of information can help you rethink the status quo.
Next time I will talk about how to build a healthy leadership training process.