Most church staff have been trained for ministry with a single formula that is guaranteed to create pain and ultimately fail. My training included a process of assured destruction only to see it play out. Then I’d rinse and repeat it over and over again.
What is this magic formula? Just this: When we have a leadership vacancy in our church, we convince ourselves that we need to find the most talented person possible and then we blindly elevate these superstar leaders to positions of influence.
We endow them with power and authority to carry out our vision among other leaders. But we hand them this authority with little training, coaching, or discipleship. We are shocked when they go sideways and create division and conflict and disrupt the direction of the entire movement.
So, we rinse. And repeat.
Church staff hiring challenges
I understand the thought behind this strategy. In fact, for many years I ripped this page out of the playbook and followed it verbatim. However, the problem and peril is that the bright shining star personality that attracts our attention is almost never the type of servant leader Jesus would have chosen.
After repeated cycles of church leadership pain and suffering I finally asked myself, “Is this what Jesus would have done?” I took some time to re-study the Gospels and never once found Jesus pursing the most talented, high viz, high-octane leaders. He offered a simple invitation to “follow me.” He extended that invitation to a rather large group of available peasants, many of whom were from a remote fishing village. These people were left behind in every sense of the word.
Jesus spent a season watching. Then he enlisted 12 men into an extended graduate-level course in discipleship. Jesus established a closed group process He never offered an invitation to anyone else to join his 501-level training.
How to find healthy church staff members
Jesus started with a group of servants and looked for leadership qualities among that group. Our push back is, “I don’t have the luxury of time to develop leaders. You are a fast-moving train, I have to find the best and brightest today… how much will it cost me?”
We convince ourselves that our situation is more urgent than what Jesus faced. Pastors have the press of weekly services, people to please, crowds to keep, and it won’t wait for this sluggish process. We have a church to run. Jesus only had to redeem all of humanity and launch a movement that would last until the end of human existence. I, on the other hand, have a much more pressing agenda. Church has to happen every seven days.
Searching for the most talented church staff members
Because of the pressure, we become enamored with shortcuts. We reach for shiny objects that seem to promise immediate results, instead of trusting the process that Jesus gave us. This is the primary reason churches may be growing numerically but we are not seeing real discipleship multiplication. When we elevate talented persons to positions of influence, instead of discipling humble leaders, we always get sterile service, not transforming life change. The unleashed power of God isn’t required to accomplish most of what happens in churches.
The source of a transformed life
That power of God is essential if we hope to launch churches that will, “prevail against the gates of Hell,” as Jesus promised. The Father is and always will be the one who creates life changing movements.
Our role as leaders is to make space for people to connect with, and hear God—nothing more, nothing less. Consider Paul’s breathtakingly radical depiction of this kind of leadership: “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”
Church staff energy for the past 30 years was spent on creating leaders, and leadership pipelines. That’s not inherently bad. In fact, leaders are necessary. But the question is, “What kinds of leaders are flowing through that pipeline?”
If we confuse the fact that Jesus alone is Lord, we will create leaders who will be at war with the mission Jesus gave us.
Servant leadership and church staff
Fifty years ago, Robert Greenleaf declared in his groundbreaking book “Servant Leadership,” that the correct formula is to disciple, “servants who learn to lead, not leaders who learn to serve.” That distinction sets trail signs for us to follow. Like pioneers emblazoned on the Oregon Trail warning wagon drivers to choose carefully the rut they follow. Not all ruts were equal. Some would lead to great pain and peril. Others would provide a smoother ride to the destination you intend.
Selecting leaders for what you think they can do quickly to serve the institution will ultimately result in great pain and turmoil. You will not arrive at the destination you anticipated. You’ve chosen leaders who only know how to lead. We once thought such leaders could always add “servanthood” to their tool box. I’ve found that humility and servanthood is a rare commodity. Especially in the highly talented and gifted. Jesus chose servants. Then looked for the leaders among those who had servant qualities.
Gen “Z” is looking for authenticity in leadership
Greenleaf makes this point emphatically, writing more than 50 years ago in the upheaval of the civil rights movement. He predicted that next generation followers “will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions filled with shallow, program driven leaders. Rather, freely respond to leaders who are chosen because they exhibit servant leadership qualities. These leaders are proven and trusted first as servants then as leaders.”
Jesus himself describes these types of leaders throughout his ministry. Jesus’ vision for his followers was that they become a new kind of servant leader. He states in Mark 10:42-45, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them…Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant… even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”
Leadership isn’t about talent
The Jesus pattern provides leadership possibilities to every disciple. Not just those few who are talented in ways that others admire. Perhaps we see so little engagement in our churches because we don’t offer Christians an accessible leadership entry point. If being a Christian leader means to command a stage with a microphone, then we have reduced the pool of people who can lead to the number of people who own a pearly white smile and a good stage presence.
The reason the American church is nothing like the New Testament church is due to this central leadership principle. The notion that only those comfortable “up front” can lead does everything to hinder a movement that will change the world.
At the center of discipleship is the truth that we are to help people hear their calling. Then understand themselves to be servants of Jesus among people who are lost or poor and in need of the transforming kingdom of God.
Hiring church staff? Start with servants not high-octane leaders
Reflect on how the church was born. Jesus told his shell-shocked followers to go to Jerusalem and wait. This is an odd directive. He had selected and poured himself into humble disciple-able leaders. Jesus never gave them a program of activities. The Messiah simply said, “As you go, make disciples.” He also told them not to do anything until they allowed the Holy Spirit to fall upon them and empower.
Brian Sanders says, “This must remain the first hope and patient pursuit of all who would be a part of the kingdom. What then is the work of church community servants and leaders if not to serve the Word and wish of God as revealed in the place of the Spirit’s empowering?”
I guarantee that leaders in your church long for those in positions of authority to discover this principle. The idea of starting with servants, not leaders, is not just an idea at the heart of the Gospel; it is something the people of God crave.