In difficult times, churches have a tendency to clap shut their shutters, hide their money under mattresses, and delay anything that might be innovative and new – especially if it costs more than a nickle. Okay, so I exaggerate. A little. But the reality is that when the economy or the political winds turn fierce, churches tend to put on their most conservative faces and practices, and I don’ t mean theologically (though I guess some of that too). Amidst those practices, the church often defaults to it’s oldest and wisest leaders for direction for almost everything. Decisions are made carefully, thoughtfully, and conservatively lest the actions make the situation even worse than it is.

And yet, these are the very best times to test the mettle and buff the rough edges from new and future leaders. It’s been said that no one learns to be great by success – only in failure. And though the possibility of adding failure to the already tough times seems counterintuitive, the risk is well worth the potential, especially when there’s so much to gain. Since most churches have been in a decade slump in terms of attendance, membership, and finances, the risk level of empowering new leadership seems relatively low. What do we really have to lose? What most churches are doing now hasn’t been working for awhile.

One regularly expressed concerns is that it’s difficult to raise up new leaders. Although this may be a legitimate concern, often the reality is that new leaders are unwilling to step up because they do not expect to have the space to lead as God leads them. Indeed, some potential leaders have tried to lead, only to have current leaders step up to micromanage the project, to criticize the way the project is being handled, or to complain that they weren’t consulted, invited, or honored. When this kind of treatment happens once, the word spreads quickly … when it happens repeatedly, it becomes virtually impossible to raise up new leaders.

Letting go of leadership is difficult. There are power issues involved. Personal feelings are involved. Tradition is involved. No matter what, getting current leaders to step back enough to allow new leadership is difficult, and yet that is what’s called for – especially in these times. If you’re committed to raising up new leaders, here is a brief bullet list of how to effectively hand over the reigns while limiting the risks of catastrophic failure.

  1. Don’t give the new leader a job description, give them mission and vision statements that include expected outcomes. For a new Christian Education Team Leader, a mission and vision might look like this. Mission: “To teach, train, equip, and empower all ages and stages of disciples and would-be disciples of Jesus.” Vision: “Seventy percent of all adults and 100 percent of children and youth participating in some form of effective faith formation opportunities.”
  2. Ensure the lines of responsibility are clear. Each new leader of a program or ministry should have a staff member (paid or unpaid) to whom they are responsible for results.
  3. Insist that new leaders lead, not just do. If they cannot raise up followers, they are not leaders. All leaders must develop a team in order to accomplish the ministry task.
  4. Allow the new leader to develop their own plans. So long as the plan fits into the mission and vision of the church, reflects the congregational values, and does not violate the beliefs and expected behaviors, then the leader should be allowed to strategize, plan, set goals, and implement as needed. However, the use of resources must be coordinated with their staff liaison/church office.
  5. The staff liaison should be in conversation with the new leader regularly, and at least monthly for a mentoring and check-in appointment. This meeting should be an encouragement meeting that keeps the motivation high and supports the work of the new leader. Help the leader set reasonable and measurable goals.
  6. Above all, do not allow former leaders to rain on the new leader’s parade. The staff liaison should help provide a safety shield around the new leader if necessary.
  7. Hold the new leader accountable for results, especially the results that they have set themselves (in #5 above).
  8. Remember that failure is a learning opportunity – and is only a failure if the new leader doesn’t pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start again.

In times like these, the need for our brightest and most innovative is required. By helping new leaders to take the reigns, the church can make the most of this leadership training school paradise.