The spiritual life and progress of a church depends largely upon the quality of its leaders. Even with an outstanding minister, leaders who don’t share his faith and vision can seriously hinder the work.
But, equally, a minister without vision or who isn’t a ‘team-player’ can frustrate progress. Therefore, a team of leaders need to be constantly self-critical and spiritually alert to changing needs within the church, as well as to fresh gospel opportunities in their community.
Are church leaders keeping ahead of the game? Are they leading the church to grasp fresh challenges? Elderships today are often too small and not representative of the congregation.
Years ago, most churches had a minister and large diaconate, with a spread of gifts and experience, and a good relationship with the congregation. Today, a small eldership can virtually control everything. It may not interact closely with the deacons to get a wider perspective, nor relate closely to the needs of the congregation.
A small eldership may lack fresh input, stimulation and challenge, and, as it gets older, may not see the urgent need to develop younger men for leadership. Or, if it does, may not know what to do about it.
It may also lose understanding of the fast-changing secular world and how to reach it with the gospel. Meanwhile, the church becomes increasingly frustrated and, deprived of fresh stimulation and spiritual dynamism from the top, also becomes distanced from the perishing world around.
Developing the next generation of church leaders is, therefore, essential. But Reformed churches, in particular, have been poor at proactively mentoring and developing leaders, compared, for example, with Reformed Anglicans, Pentecostals and Charismatics.
Rather, many Reformed churches have just waited, hoping that eventually new leaders will emerge, or worse, hoping that suitable leaders will move into the area and join the church.
In this situation, where nobody is being specifically developed, men with ‘natural’ leadership gifts are more likely to come to the attention of elders and church members. Such are usually professional men who stand out, confident men with experience of leadership and decision-making at work.
They may or may not be the best equipped spiritually to lead a church, but, as the most ‘naturally gifted’, they stand out and are brought into leadership. If all church leaders are similar to this — professional, well-educated men — the team may become unbalanced, because it reflects only part of the congregation and overlooks spiritually mature people with a lower profile in society whose potential is never developed.
So what are the qualifications for elders and deacons? And what kind of men should we be looking for as future church leaders?
In Scripture, the qualifications are almost entirely character, not gifts, both for elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1). And often those in the Bible who emerged as great leaders were at first self-effacing and full of self-doubt.
We see Moses needing Aaron to speak for him; Timothy, who was timid, needing a lot of encouragement from Paul; and Paul himself crying, ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’
Of course, God uses natural leadership gifts — and thank God for gifted professional men! But true, godly character is the first essential qualification in a potential leader. It is also important that his wife has a similar godly character, as spelled out in 1 Timothy 3:11, so that she can help, not hinder his work.
The quality we are to look for is potential, not full maturity. Churches often expect potential leaders to be as mature and experienced as the existing leaders — who may have held their office for 30 years — and, if the church can’t find men of that maturity, they don’t appoint anybody.
As a result, the existing leaders get older, without any younger men to replace them. Churches forget that those established leaders began as young, inexperienced men, who have grown in stature over many years and probably made many mistakes as they matured.
So new leaders should be men of godly character, who have the potential to grow in spiritual wisdom and stature, but aren’t necessarily yet ‘finished articles’.
Preferably, churches need men of different ages, background and life-experience, so that the leadership reflects the whole church. If Reformed churches are led by just professional men, they become geared towards stable, middle-class people and the preaching can become mainly cerebral.
Because of this, many Reformed churches are in danger of losing contact with ordinary working people and dysfunctional families, and struggle to know how to evangelise and disciple these groups.
A greater variety in church leadership can help churches engage more effectively with a greater breadth of people and draw them in.
Certainly, new leaders must be godly, humble, teachable team-players, zealous for the gospel and the well-being of the flock, but not ‘yes-men’, and not clones of the present leaders.
They should be men who will bring some freshness and stimulation, but who must be free from personal ambition or a desire to push their own agenda. They must commit to being part of a united team that can lead the whole church in spiritual unity.
Pontefract Congregational Evangelical Church, where I was minister for 40 years, achieved this by ministers and elders putting themselves into subjection to each other, so that no one could be a ‘maverick’ and cause division.
So leaders of all churches must face their God-given responsibility to develop and train up future leaders. The Bible illustrates how the Lord holds leaders responsible for developing and maturing all their people. Colossians 1:28 says, ‘We proclaim [Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ’.
Ephesians 4:11-12 says, ‘It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’.
In the light of this, church leaders must try to create a culture of investing in people for the future, a mind-set of growing, training, developing, mentoring and delegating that pervades the whole church. This will require serious commitment and firm resolve, including an ability to move out of safe comfort zones and, where necessary, embrace radical change.
There are different helps to achieving these goals. First, leaders could occasionally meet without an agenda and look at the spread of work and workers in the church, and ask: Do such people as Sunday school teachers and youth leaders have understudys in training? Are they mentoring future replacements?
Are there people with potential who are being overlooked and not being encouraged into service? What more can we do to invest in those whose latent talents have not yet been discovered?
Are we overlooking those whose work patterns make it difficult for them to attend mid-week prayer meetings, Bible study and house groups? Are we almost dismissing them as unspiritual and uncommitted and not worth investing time in? And are we even loading them with guilt?
Are we realising that today many not only work horrendous hours under massive pressure, but are often working away from home? What can we do to develop these people? We may have to invest in them in a more flexible but targeted way.
We could, for example, look at being more flexible, perhaps with house groups — holding some on different evenings of the week or at different times of the day, so as to cater for different work patterns and ages.
It is the responsibility of church leaders to try to develop the potential in every believer and create a culture where this is happening quite naturally throughout the church. Leaders must focus on developing each group of people.
To be concluded