A few days ago, I read a Facebook post from a rural pastor who braggadociously reported he had worked 90-hour weeks for more than twenty years of pastoral ministry. His reason for this pace was simple, “There are just no leaders or people in the church I trust to do what I do.” The pastor’s statement is a sad state of affairs and a portrayal of pastoral arrogance. Nevertheless, it does lead to an important question. Is the rural church devoid of quality and trustworthy leaders?
I am a bi-vocational rural pastor leading a once struggling church to turnaround. Like many of you, my time is stretched between two jobs, family responsibilities, and a host of other obligations. I am not complaining – I love what I do! This time crunch, however, demands I steward the human resources God has given me by identifying and equipping volunteer or lay-leaders. I have come to recognize the valuable role lay-leaders fill in bringing a church from death to life. I have discovered developing effective lay-leaders is a critical indicator in a churches ability to move from stagnation to growth.
Terry Hunt declares the most significant challenge facing churches today is a lack of trained lay-leaders. Gordon Penfold insists that even the most capable pastor cannot produce church growth alone. He or she must have the help of capable and willing laity. Turning around a church is impossible without mobilizing the people in the pew for God’s mission. Pastorally, that means, the role of the lay-leader must be raised to one of co-laborer who takes on significant ministry responsibility and authority.
Bi-vocational pastors must be laser-focused on identifying potential leaders in whom they will invest their limited time. Matthew Costner’s 2017 study entitled, Defining Characteristics of Laity among Turnaround Churches in the Carolinas, discovered four qualities of what he calls “high capacity” lay-leaders. I will draw on Bradley’s work and outline three key traits to look for in those with whom to share ministry?
- They Possess a Heart Level Understanding of God’s Mission.
Jesus delineates the mission of God in Matthew 28:19-20. His mission for us is to go, make disciples, baptize, teach, and trust in His abiding presence. All church vision begins with this mission – there is not another mission to accomplish. Churches that drift from the mission of God are now or will soon experience stagnation, decline, and eventual death. If lay-leaders do not possess a heart level understanding of the mission of God, they will substitute the mission with something else – usually, a personal non-Kingdom agenda disguised in religious vernacular
I use the phrase “heart-level” intentionally. Ask almost any church member, “What is the Great Commission,” and they will point to or quote Matthew 28:19-20. That is a “head-level” understanding of God’s mission. That’s not bad, but it is only the beginning. The Great Commission is not a passive statement to be codified, celebrated with plaques and banners, and then largely ignored.
By saying “heart-level” understanding, I mean that the potential lay-leader is participating in the Great Commission in some tangible way. Potential lay-leaders share their faith freely and find ways to disciple believers through teaching and encouragement. How this occurs may take on many different forms. If you want to change the culture of your congregation from insider to outsider focus – then put your attention on those who are actively participating in the Great Commission and let them lead.
- They Possess an Understanding of the Nature of Change
Effective lay-leaders understand that growth requires change. I know, nobody likes change, right? Well, I am not sure that age-old philosophy, used to describe and defend every church problem, holds water. There are those in your congregation who are willing to come alongside you and support sensible and incremental change. Unfortunately, pastors get sidetracked by the loudest voices and mistakenly believe they are the majority. They are not! They’re just loud!
In a plateauing or declining church, there is an inclination to circle the wagons and retreat into survival mode. Pastors must look for those uncomfortable with mere survival. They are there, I promise. So, what traits are you looking for?
Look for those individuals that Bradley describes as all in! They have championed changed by showing up and lending a hand. They have supported change by their financial generosity. They have disengaged from those who are apparently trying to push personal agenda’s on the church. They do what it takes to build unity.
- They Possess the Heart of a Servant
This trait is the foundation upon which the other two lie. In my doctoral research, I tried to discover a single definition of “servant leadership.” Guess what! I couldn’t find one. Instead, I found a few hundred. I did, however, settle on the definition offered by Woody Rimes (2011: 20):
“[…] servant leadership [is] an understanding and practice of leadership that placed the good of those led over the interest of the leader. Servant leadership promoted the valuing and development of people, the building of community, the practice of authenticity, the providing of leadership for those being led, and the sharing of power and status for the good of everyone.”
Potential lay-leaders who help pastors lead the church from plateau or decline possess an attitude described as “it’s not about me!” They understand serving is not a religious duty but a vehicle for improving the lives of others around them. More importantly, they act upon their understanding. Their actions, for various reasons of dysfunction in the declining church, may not be happening in the walls of the church. Their servant’s heart looks for places to express itself when it cannot do so in the church. Pastor, look for those who are serving outside the walls. Who is taking advantage of opportunities in your community? Equip them to do it better and then point to them as examples for others to follow.
OK, I can hear some of the objections going through your minds. I will address one that seems to keep coming across my mind.
The traits outlined above effectively reduce the pool of potential leaders.
I know that in the small rural church leadership requirements often begin with “are they breathing.” I get that – I am guilty of that same mistake. I think we can do better.
To cause our stagnating churches to flourish, we must first pray and then change our leadership culture. The pastor alone cannot bring about cultural change. He or she must identify and develop lay-leaders who can come alongside. More importantly, pastors must be willing to give-away significant ministry and authority to these leaders.
Here it is in a nutshell. I heard someone say, “Whatever is permitted, is promoted.” Every leadership role filled sets the standard and expectations for future leaders. If you and I permit those who have little care for the well-being of others, the kingdom, or the cause of Christ, then we promote that type of leader as the standard for our church.
So, unless you want to continue working 90-hour weeks for the rest of your life – take the necessary time to identify the kinds of leaders described above. Ask the Lord to give you the courage to honestly assess your current leadership culture and make changes that will have lasting Kingdom impact.
Danny Davis has served the Lord in a variety of ministerial roles over the past two decades. Davis currently serves as Lead Pastor of Life Point Church, a rural church located in Odessa, MO. He also serves as Professor of Applied Theology at SUM Bible College and Theological Seminary.