Catch & Release Leadership Development

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I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to find yourself in a church or organization that is really, really good at leadership development. If you have, you’ll know that one of the marks of these kinds of organization is that they’re constantly losing talent. Churches and organizations that are truly effective in leadership development are constantly having to replace leaders — whether they’re a college football coaching staff, a business, a church or a non-profit organization.

Even though it can often be inconvenient and difficult to keep building and ending relationships, healthy churches and organizations are able to process this in terms of their role in the overall structure of whatever field they find themselves in and they recognize that fresh turnover in leadership is just a new chance for God to reveal Himself to your group. In church terms, you recognize that sometimes, when you have an exceptional volunteer or part-time leader, having them be picked up full-time by a larger fish (church) is simply a validation of what you’re doing and what God is doing through you. You then put your nose back to the grindstone and start training the next leader in line and raise them up the same way.

For churches, there’s an even deeper power at work here. Healthy leaders, churches and organizations recognize that, like our lives, the talent we’re blessed with is not our own, but simply a gift from God to be stewarded the best we’re able. If that means you have the world’s best intern for one summer only or that a larger church snatches up your too-gifted-for-your-setting pastor, you remember that God is the great Supplier and He sustains churches through much worse than personnel changes.

Unhealthy churches and organizations, on the other hand, hold on to talent with white knuckles — constantly scared to lose the people they have and scared that another leader with more giftedness might supplant the leader at the top. These organizations tend to be very secretive about their plans, tend to stunt the development of leaders intentionally and unintentionally (via structure, unspoken rules, tenure, etc.) and tend to spend lots of time playing passive aggressive politics and “playing not to lose” talent rather than “playing to win” now with what they’ve got.

In a similar way, unhealthy leaders tend to look at this backwards as well. They tend to fall into one of three traps: The Sinkhole Stopper believes that, upon their taking of a new job, absolutely everything at their church/organization will fall apart completely — they’re disappointed to return a few years later and see things working just fine (or better) without them. The Paranoid Parson is constantly scared that some other leader is going to be better than them and win the esteem of their church. They may even play the “seniority”, “more education” or “calling” cards to try to convince themselves and others of their rightful hold on power, simply out of fear that someone might replace them and halt all leadership development. And, finally, The Frantic Freddie manages his/her church work so poorly that they do no leadership development at all. Ever. Or they don’t see the value in it if the leader isn’t going to stay, which is why seminaries annually have to beg churches to take talented interns.

Since I know we’ve got both aspiring leaders and folks who train leaders reading this blog, let me offer a couple tips for both parties:

  • For Aspiring Leaders
    • As much as you possibly can, submit to training/mentoring in healthy environments, even if it means sacrificing short-term gains like geography, denominational affiliation and the #1 trip-up of most leadership development: financial compensation. I know you’re poor, I know you like where you live and I know you like your denomination, but if you’re going to take time to be molded as a leader, be molded by the BEST, rather than the most convenient for the here-and-now. And by all means, NEVER get training in a place where you are the smartest, most talented or most gifted leader. That doesn’t even make sense.
    • Remember the sacrifice that good leaders make to pour into you. If you’re going to move on, be honest and forthcoming about it. Always be truthful about your expectations and ambitions and give that church/organization everything you’ve got. Invest in them as repayment for their investing in you. Leadership developers often feel like Jesus did in Luke 17 — only about 10% seem thankful.
  • For Leader Developers
    • Invest deeply but hold loosely. If you’re going to develop leaders, do it with all your heart — be open and honest with them, plan-execute-process with them, don’t hold back honest feedback and encouragement. But also prepare yourself to let them go. Pre-forgive them for using you up & forgetfully moving on when greener pastures come. Always works well in theory, sometimes not so much in practice.
    • Set clear expectations together. Together with your aspiring leader, be intentional about EVERYTHING, especially at the outset. Write stuff down — whose responsibility is whose, how much is expected of each party, how long is this relationship supposed to last? Begin with the end in mind.
    • Pray for those leaders you develop to surpass you. Because of sin, I think there’s a fear in many of us who train young leaders that they will, in fact, do better than we do — like the Paranoid Parson — and replace/surpass us. But, those leadership developers I appreciate most are the kind of people who LONG to be surpassed, knowing the Church of Jesus Christ does not hinge on themselves.
    • Sacrificially Serve the Church. I know it can be difficult to take the time to invest in leaders that ultimately will not give you or your church anything. But it’s not about us — or our churches — it’s about the Kingdom.

- Is your church or organization a place where leaders are regularly produced and released to do ministry?
- Are you learning from the best or just the most available/best-paying?
- Pastors & denominational leaders, what sort of legacy of leaders have you left so far and what legacy to you plan to leave? 

This post orginally appeared on the YALT Momentum blog.

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