Leadership Development GraphicGetting Christians Up From Their Pews: Growing Lay Leadership in the Church

By Marta W. Aldrich

(UMCom) -- "Whom shall I send and who shall go for us?"

That haunting question from Isaiah 6 echoes in churches everywhere as pastors and staff longingly prod, plead and wait for lay leadership to emerge.

Unfortunately, Isaiah"s answer of "Here I am; send me!" is heard all too infrequently, often sending a struggling minority of overworked leaders spiraling toward disillusionment and burnout, sometimes leading them even to abandon the church.

Inability to replenish the lay leadership is easily one of the top reasons churches wither and die, as well as "the major thing that burns out church shepherds," says Dr. Bob Whitesel, a lecturer, author and consultant on church growth and evangelism. "The church is like a large ship," he says, "and this is the fracture below the surface that is draining the energy out of its people."

The church is like a large ship ... and this (inability to replenish the lay leadership) is the fracture below the surface that is draining the energy out of its people.

In his book "Growth by Accident, Death by Planning: How NOT to Kill a Growing Congregation" (Abingdon Press, 2004), Whitesel identifies leadership training and prayer as the most common practices that lead to church growth. "One thing leadership training does is acquaint people with what's required for a task," he says. "Once they understand what's involved, they will usually say, `That`s not so hard. I can do that.`

Oddly, as a church grows, a tendency is to move leadership training to the back burner " which contributes to a plateau in growth and eventually a reversal, Whitesel says.

He urges an ongoing leadership training program and suggests starting with an "Introduction to Leadership" course " one evening a week over 10 weeks " to let people explore their gifts and learn about church needs. Large churches can develop their own courses using leaders from local organizations, businesses and other vibrant churches. Smaller churches can ban together from within their district or judicatory for such programs.

But it"s best, says Whitesel, for the pastor not to lead such workshops. "If the church has more than 100 members, it`s probably beyond the pastor`s skill " and many lay people will view the pastor as having an agenda," he says. Holding such workshops at the church " not at a retreat center or elsewhere " usually increases attendance. And always promote it as a "no strings attached" opportunity. Wait and see what gifts and opportunities resonate within each individual.

"We shouldn"t be prodding and pleading," says Whitesel. "We should be informing and training."

Moses understood the value of producing a new leader. He worked to position Joshua to take the mantle of leadership guiding God"s people into the Promised Land. Jesus trained the 12 disciples to continue and expand his ministries. The Book of Acts is filled with examples of "best practices" as the church began to sprout and grow. Today"s church continues the quest for leadership.

If the pastor does not define where a congregation should go, then it usually doesn`t go anywhere. The lay leadership won`t pick it up. There`s an unspoken belief this is the pastor"s role.
There are different kinds of leaders. The "natural" ones are easy to spot and gravitate naturally toward challenges and positions of responsibility. "Situational leaders" step up if a need presents itself but no leader emerges. But it is the "undeveloped leader" that falls in the majority. They may have a gift, but often they don"t realize it and sometimes even deny it when made aware of their potential. They shy away from leadership roles or prefer not to rock the boat. But it is this group that represents the greatest untapped leadership potential within the church and society. And it is this group that responds best when reminded of God"s lengthy list of unlikely recruits that includes Abraham, Moses, David, the 12 disciples and the Apostle Paul.

"I don"t believe leadership is born. I believe leadership is built," says Gary Minor, a life-long United Methodist and leadership coach to corporations, government entities and organizations.

In the church, he says, the leadership is already in place and just waiting for permission to surface. Most members already have developed leadership skills and talents " whether in business, school, various boards and foundations, local charities, Little League, scouting, their homeowners association or any number of civic organizations.

The first step is to communicate clearly what the needs are. Be clear on exactly how your congregation operates. Some rely on people to step forward and volunteer for leadership roles. Some ask people individually. "If you grew up in a wait-to-be-asked congregation, then start attending a volunteer-type congregation, it can be frustrating if you don"t know this church does it differently," Minor says.

The senior pastor also must clearly and frequently articulate the vision of the church. "As the senior pastor goes, so goes the congregation," says Minor. "If the pastor does not define where a congregation should go, then it usually doesn"t go anywhere. The lay leadership won"t pick it up. There"s an unspoken belief this is the pastor"s role."

Surveys that assess gifts and talents work well " as long as a church follows up and actually uses them. Matching needs and gifts is key.

There`s a sense that all Christians have a calling to leadership. There"s a calling from God but also a calling from the church.
"I like to think of leadership in the church in terms of calling," says the Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr., director of the G. Douglass Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. "There"s a sense that all Christians have a calling to leadership. There"s a calling from God but also a calling from the church."

Weems suggests several ways to develop lay leaders. Programs of spiritual growth such as the Disciple Bible study encourage personal reflection and nudge Christians toward service. "When people listen to their heart and where they believe God is leading them, it`s logical for them to take the next step on their spiritual journey and become more involved," he says.

Pastors and other church leaders also must search for clues as they interact with members " for instance, someone who became animated when a subject arose or asked a particularly probing question about a program during a meeting. "It becomes a way of thinking, a way of listening with a spiritual ear," says Weems, who calls the process "being open to the burning bushes God puts in front of us all the time."

The Rev. Lyle E. Schaller, a respected author on church development, warns the United Methodist Church has some inherent structural hurdles to building lay leadership at the church level. Denominational emphasis on funding and other things falls flat with churchgoers and distracts pastors from more urgent church-level tasks.

"We need new and younger leadership " particularly those comfortable with change and doing things differently," he says. "People are seeking to serve in churches that feed their spiritual hunger. Their motivation is not funding the denomination."

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Marta Aldrich is a free-lance writer based in Franklin, Tenn.

This feature was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.

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