Nicene Church Planting (Part 2): On the Leaders You Want and the Leaders You’ve Got

There was a trend in the church that troubled those gathered for the Council of Nicaea, and they addressed it in Canon II. There were many men who had been ordained very shortly after their conversion to Christianity and thus lacked the spiritual maturity to fulfill their roles well. Sometimes this had been done “from necessity” because there was no one else to fill that role. Other times people had chosen to rush the process anyway. Either way the end result was the same—people serving in roles in the church they were not equipped or qualified to fulfill with any level or excellence or even competence.

When I was in Bible College I heard a story from Orval Butcher, who was planting Skyline Wesleyan Church in Lemon Grove, California. He said that one of his evangelism strategies was to have non-Christian attenders teach the Sunday School classes. On the one hand, he knew that this would require these lost folks to engage with Gospel truth each week as a part of their preparation while on the other hand he needed Sunday School teachers—and that’s who he had.

Church planting is filled with these kinds of tensions—between seeing the ideal leaders you would like and deploying the actual leaders you’ve got. There are things that need to happen, positions to be filled, responsibilities that need to be carried and you can’t do it all. Seriously–don’t do it all.

You will do what Canon II addresses: You put some people into positions in years 1-3 that you wouldn’t put there until years 4-6 if things were different. It’s part of the church planting deal. We’ve all done it. You will survive it. But the tough questions don’t go away. For example, at year 5, what do you do with the person you put into a stretch leadership position in year 2? For some, serving in leadership was a tool for their discipleship and they will have grown into the position. For others, there remains a skills and/or gifts deficit and they just aren’t the person for the position at the current stage. How do you move ahead with a person who has been loyal—even grown—but is now unable to advance the mission? The usual pastoral advice of speaking the truth in love and helping them find the right place of service for their gifts and ultimately the place where they will be the most fulfilled and effective certainly applies.

But let the awkwardness challenge you to do things differently. Here are two tips I’ve found helpful in this process.

1. Ask people to help out “this time.”

Not sure how someone will do playing on the worship team? Don’t ask them to join the team. Don’t ask if you can put them on the schedule. Let them know you’re looking for a bass player this Sunday (or another scheduled date) and ask them if they can help out at that particular time. Not sure if someone has the magic combination of social and organizational skills it takes to oversee the hospitality ministry? Don’t slap them into the leadership role and hope it works. Let them know you could use some help running things for a specific month and ask them if they could help you out “this time.” If it turns out they are great at it then ask them to help out a few other “this times” and then decide if they are the right fit for the ongoing role or not.

2. Set term limits.

Assuming they have done well with a few “this times,” the next great tool is term limits. When you recruit people, recruit them for a set length of time—a semester (school schedules are natural blocks of time for people) or 6 months, but not more than a year. Let them know up front that at the end of that term we will have an open and honest discussion about how they feel it’s going and how you feel it’s going. Let them know the importance of cross training in church planting and giving people options to serve. Finally, let them know there will be an opt-out for either of you if it’s not the right fit.

Most folks will actually appreciate this, and it will help them not to feel like they will be trapped in a perpetual commitment. It can also help them not to develop an unhealthy sense of ownership (“Don’t touch my ministry!”) of that specific area. If you get to the end of the term and they’ve hit it out of the park, then invite them to another term.

3. Champion all levels of service.

Suppose you get to the end of a term limit and they haven’t excelled and you think you have a better candidate waiting in the wings. It is appropriate to thank them, give them all the affirmation you can, and let them know you want to give someone else a shot at this ministry for the next term. This process is made easier if you have set a culture where all levels and opportunities of service are championed. Rick Warren says that everyone is a “10” in some area. If all areas are championed, then transitioning someone to another area is not as big a challenge.

Church planting is a reality check. The goal of having the right people in the right place does not mix with the reality of the people you actually. You will inevitably move people from one position to another as the church grows and matures. Doing nothing until you have all the right people in the ideal places is impractical and impossible. So the best thing you can do is get people into positions of service but make sure that fluidity of roles is part of the leadership culture of your church so that people do not feel blindsided, slighted, or sidelined when adjustments are necessary.

What are some approaches you’ve found helpful when moving people out of positions that just aren’t the right fit for them anymore? Where do you draw the lines of what is required of volunteers in a church plant—where does one need to be spiritually to pour coffee or teach children or play drums?

Receive the latest church planting resources and opportunities