Why The “Leadership Movement” Is Leaving Your Church Leaderless

Leadership is one of the most over-used and overwrought topics in Christian ministry today. Yet for all the books, blogs and conferences, there are two staggering realities we must come to grips with:

First, while most churches believe they have leadership development programs, in actuality they have programs that recruit and train volunteers. A volunteer is someone who executes someone else’s vision. A leader is someone with a vision of his or her own.

In truth, there are often only a few leaders in the average church, and everyone else is simply executing their vision. It’s the “genius with a thousand helpers” paradigm Jim Collins uses to describe organizations that are good, but never become great. This is the leadership movement widely espoused in the church today.

Let’s be very clear: A volunteer pipeline is not the same thing as a pipeline that multiplies leaders. These are two different things. You need both. Currently, most churches have only one.

I come across thousands of church leaders each year – and while I’d certainly not put everyone in these two broad categories, when it comes to the topic of church leadership many fall into one of two camps:

1. People who want to multiply Christian leaders, but don’t really know how to get them.

2. People who believe their vision is big enough for everyone and don’t want more leaders. They really just want volunteers.

Helping the first lot is easy enough. Being a disciple means being a learner of all the things Jesus was – and Jesus could multiply leaders. Scripture outlines truly practical and replicatable models for church leadership you can learn to put into practice in your context to begin identifying, training, and releasing kingdom leaders to do God’s work in the world. I’ve done it and I’ve seen other people do it all over the world. It can be done and done with incredible results.

But then there’s that second group – those who, in their more honest moments, would seek not Kingdom leaders but clock punchers to execute the vision of one. I have to wonder if that’s actually where most Christian leaders land.

Why wouldn’t most pastors want more leaders in their church communities?

I think there are probably many answers to this question (don’t know how to train them, afraid of releasing and relinquishing some control, unsure how to manage resources against their person agenda, etc). But I suspect the big answer is this: At the end of the day, what most pastors want (and have been trained to want!) is minions to execute the most important vision of all. Their own. In doing this, they effectively kill people’s ability to get a vision of their own.

Nevermind that this approach is antithetical to the Gospel.

Christian leadership is about listening for vision from God within community and then being given the authority and power to execute that vision – to take new Kingdom ground. That’s the birthright of every Christian – to hear the voice of their Father. But in the way we do leadership, suddenly it’s like we are pre-Reformation where only the select and the elite who are given this privilege. And let’s be clear: Our ego has a lot to do with this.

Now I’m not suggesting we shift to a paradigm full of chiefs and no Indians. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t times where we leverage our collective abilities to deliver on a central vision. I’m saying that there are many places in your community where the Kingdom needs to be advanced. And if you want to take that territory, you’re going to need more than just a cadre of volunteers. You have to learn to operate in a model that releases leaders to take those fronts, or you’re going to stand still. You may think your vision is big enough to all those cracks and crevices, but I’m telling you – it’s not.

Of course churches need broad, over-arching vision to be cast. There’s an art to casting vision that allows room for others within that vision. And strict volunteerism isn’t that.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about a hypothetical scenario in which Peter, James, Lydia, Priscilla and Paul walked into your staff meeting, asking to be put to work in your church. Not sure what to do, we assign some of the greatest missional leaders the world has ever seen to be a small group leader, lead usher and bass player at the Sunday morning gig. (You can read the whole post by clicking here). As if this is the best way to utilize these kind of leaders!

Here’s a second staggering reality:

I don’t think we’d know what to do with missional leaders if a bunch of them were given to us. Our vision for church has been so captured by the place and space of the four walls of Sunday mornings that we’ve bought into the belief that it’s the only place where leadership lies.

Are our development programs about releasing leaders to the missional frontier? Or, more likely, are they about recruiting volunteers to keep the machine of the church running? To be sure, we should attend to the organization of the church, for it is a significant thing when the scattered church gathers. But as the Church stares precipitous decline in the face – as we look to re-embrace the missio Dei – we must learn again the art that Jesus exhibited: the task of multiplying missional leaders and releasing them into the cracks and crevices of society where there is little-to-no Gospel presence.

I’ve heard many church leaders say, “We want to be known more for our sending capacity than our seating capacity.” I’ve met very few who truly embrace that reality and know how to do it. I can’t help but think sometimes that all the talk of Christian leadership in churches is a bit like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You’re expending energy – maybe even accomplishing something – but it’s not changing the overall trajectory of where this ship is headed.

What we are talking about is a new kind of skill-set for leaders.

That’s what the future of the church requires. It’s what the past reveals to us as well.

What does the church of today and the future need?

* Leaders who are disciples first and foremost.

* Lots of leaders within any given church community who are allowed, encouraged, trained and empowered to hear from the Lord for a vision for impacting the world – outside the four walls of the church building – and given the authority and the power to do something with this vision.

* Leaders who know how to train and release everyday, normal, unpaid people into their Kingdom destiny. In other words, the skill to multiply leaders. Leaders who can lead by first making disciples themselves.

In my opinion, this is where the church of the future lies. My worry is that, in the culture of the genius with a thousand helpers, the prevailing culture of the upkeep of the machine will keep us from the real task of true Biblical leadership development and release.

This blog post is reposted with permission of 3DM and part of a 5-week series related to Mike Breen’s book, Multiplying Missional Leaders: from half-hearted volunteers to a mobilized Kingdom force. You can check out the paperback version here, or the e-book version here.