You know the old adage, 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. Honestly, sometimes that even feels generous. Those of us who have pastored churches know the feeling. There always seems to be more to get done than people willing to do it. In the midst of juggling the manifold tasks of leading a congregation, it is easy to let things fall out of sight. Easier still is overlooking opportunities to shepherd that may be hiding behind certain ministry paradigms.
I am convinced that a lack of leadership frequently has more to do with faulty ministry paradigms than an actual lack of able servants. Nowadays, it is en vogue to talk of leadership development and discipleship. Every pastor with an internet connection knows the importance of developing leaders. But how much time do we spend on identifying potential leaders?
The proactive task of identifying workers, future pastors, missionaries, and those the church will send to plant churches is an important role of pastoral ministry, and I believe it is often overlooked.
Butts in Seats vs. Feet on a Path
When it comes to leading a local congregation, one ministry paradigm is about filling seats. I do not mean the seats in the auditorium. Instead, I am referring to the seats around the committee table or that seat at the front of the Sunday school classroom. I am talking about the seats reserved for those who chaperone the youth trip or the recently vacated seat of the person who was running that particular program. And before you think I am just knocking on traditional, established churches, it is the seat of that new small group the trendy church plant in town wants to start. It is the vacant seat at the drums on stage. In short, a very common approach to leadership development is getting butts in seats so programs can happen.
In reality, this paradigm of leadership is not really about developing leaders at all, it was about plugging holes in a system that was already running (or for all you church planters, a system you are trying to get off the ground). The goal is system-oriented, not-person oriented. In actuality, the people are the resources that serve the system instead of the system being a tool to serve the people. In my estimation, the emphasis is on the wrong thing in this paradigm.
This is problematic for at least two reasons:
First, a ministry paradigm that is simply trying to plug holes will eventually turn to unqualified people. The focus quickly shifts to the minimum requirements necessary for someone to do the task. Filling leadership roles becomes begging people to take on a responsibility. The attitude toward the congregation is one of desperately asking people to just fill a spot. Before you know it, the guy behind that drum set may be up only because he can keep a beat regardless of his Christian witness.
Second, plugging holes leaves little room for thinking past the confines of the congregation and its own programs. If the focus is on maintaining what exists, or even on starting a fledgling new plant, it is easy to overlook the responsibility of every church to be about the business of sending. As JD Greear often says, “Jesus’ measure of the church is not seating capacity, but sending capacity.” Too many churches have fooled themselves into this idea that they need to get their own local ministry established before they can concern themselves with other aspects of the Great Commission. Ironically, this overlooks the fact that local mission is energized when we teach the global scope of our commission. When we throw our efforts into sending, it makes us better at the task right in front of us as well.
Instead of butts in seats, we need to be concerned with getting feet on a path. Too often, pastors (back then and today) overlook this crucial responsibility of shepherding. Jesus, the Great Shepherd, entrusts his sheep to under-shepherds for a reason. That stewardship is no less than the responsibility of growing these sheep up into mature, faithful servants. Instead of staring at the holes we leaders think need to be filled, we need to take a long look at the congregation that Christ has given us and ask how we can set their feet on a path of spiritual formation and service to Christ through the Great Commission. If God has given you a congregation of people, then he has given you future teachers, leaders, deacons, pastors, planters, and missionaries. Pastoral ministry is not merely putting butts in seats. It is placing feet on a path.
Identifying Leaders is a Pastoral Role
Has your church ever sent a missionary overseas from your own congregation? How about a pastor or church planter? Do you find yourself saying your church would do more if only people would step up into a role of responsibility?
Too often, church leadership is reactive when it comes to leadership development. We wait on someone to approach us and tell us that God is calling them to be a pastor or a missionary. Of course, that does happen sometimes, but more often we wait in vain. The vast majority of evangelical churches never send a single missionary overseas, despite the fact that it is now easier than ever.
I know of too many churches that cannot point to a person in the congregation that is on a path to planting or pastoring another church. Why? Because no one has stood up and said they want to do that. I believe most decent churches would gladly send a member to be a missionary if they asked. I am also convinced that most pastors and church leaders would be happy to help out a member who expressed a calling to pastor one day. But there is a very significant difference between being willing to help someone who approached them and proactively seeking out those in the congregation who should be on a path to leadership.
Identifying leaders is a pastoral role. How many people in our congregations need to have their feet placed on that path? In my own life, I am thankful for a minister at my church who approached me shortly after college and challenged me to something more. I remember myself then, and I never considered entering ministry. Now, looking back down the path I have walked, I thank God that someone placed my feet on it for me.
Perhaps this is one of those instances where we have not because we ask not. And I am not referring to those all-calls we place in the tail end of our sermons. Pastor or church leader, when was the last time you approached someone in person and challenged them to consider placing their feet on the path?
Of course, to do so requires knowing the people in our congregations personally. It means we must know their character and prayerfully ask that God gives us discernment regarding those we would approach. So my challenge to you, church leaders, is this: take some time this week to look at your congregation from a different angle. Which one is the next missionary? The next pastor? The next ministry leader? Then find a time to invite them to lunch.
Keelan Cook serves as Senior Church Consultant for Union Baptist Association and Instructor of North American Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of ministry focus include urban missiology, church planting, church revitalization, and unreached people groups.