I have a confession: As a church planter, I've sometimes made it my goal to help people discover my plan for their lives. In my zeal to see the kingdom advanced and God's people equipped for ministry, I've succumbed to the temptation to use people rather than develop them.
Instead of looking for the marks of servanthood and leadership, sadly I've been content with finding warm bodies and giving them a job to do. In the short term, this strategy may work, but I've found that observing gifts in the body of Christ, shepherding them and releasing them in ministry is a more biblical--and more effective--process.
In planting a new church, there are inevitably more jobs to fill than there are people to fill them. At the same time, the pastor feels the pressure of creating the momentum and expectation that will attract people to the fledgling congregation. For me, the predictable result was threefold: (1) I got people to do tasks that needed to be done; (2) the church looked good, but (3) people got burned out and eventually faded from the radar.
Faced with this reality, I had to ask myself a tough question: Am I using people or developing people? I realized that at the end of the journey, the Lord isn't going to ask me if I had a beautiful-sounding choir, lots of Sunday school teachers, competent parking attendants, a well-trained secretary who protects my time or a full complement of elders whose pictures are displayed admiringly in the entryway. He's going to ask, "Did you shepherd My sheep the best you could?"
When I finally heard this loud and clear, I got on my knees. "Father, forgive me, and teach me what I need to do to better serve Your lambs."
But where does a pastor find potential servant-leaders? What are the positive identifiers for "kingdom people"--those whose hearts are fully committed to finding their purpose in God and seeking a place for that purpose to come to fruition? The following are five characteristics I've identified in the people whom God has given me to shepherd into ministry leadership:
THE RIGHT FUEL
Every pastor I know wants to work with people who have a heart for God and a willingness to serve the kingdom. How do you and your leadership team find, train and release these people? To answer that question, you must first look at what fuel motivates your own ministry. Do you need to compel people to serve for a short-term job, or does your shepherding style call them from the woodwork to a lifetime of ministry?
I've known leaders whose fuel for ministry is numbers. If they drew a big crowd, then they felt like they were doing God's will. If they didn't, they felt like failures. I've discovered that when your identity as a shepherd is determined by how many sheep are in the pasture, you will burn out and burn others out as well.
When your fuel is to serve, develop and disciple, you become a better leader and invariably elongate the tenure of people staying around. God will take care of the numbers if you are faithful with the little.
Identifier No. 1: Long-term investors. Search your heart first when you are looking for people to serve alongside of you. If your reasons are to simply get holes plugged or fill seats, you'll need to purify your motives. Rather than being satisfied merely with high numbers in the pews or those who are committed to your ministry alone, look for those who demonstrate potential for a long-term investment of ministry in the kingdom.
When you're in close proximity with people on a regular basis, you begin to see their warts. Does someone under your care tend to blow up in anger if things don't go well? Does that good-looking youth pastor take a second glance when he sees a lady while driving to lunch? You'll never know unless you put yourself in their lives on a consistent basis. This is what I call "soft-side accountability."
Most of us have been exposed to the "hard side" of accountability--human control over behavior without emphasizing the heart of the problem: humble submission to Christ. I've seen churches in which leaders had ultimate authority over where people work, whom they court and marry, what books they read, what music they listen to, and so on. This is ungodly control, not godly accountability.
Admittedly, as leaders we're in the fruit business--we want those under our care to begin to live the fruit of the Spirit. But because of the human disease of sin, if someone is left without a caring shepherd, this fruit falls useless and rots.
While heavy-handed control will not bring the kind of fruit we're looking for, a lackadaisical attitude toward spiritual immaturity or sin is just as dangerous. Those who have chosen to be under our supervision must be willing to submit to more aggressive shepherding than those on the periphery of our ministry.
On one occasion, I said to Doug, whom I was training for ministry leadership of our internship program: "You're doing so well in this ministry! I see how those interns under your care feel like you're on their team. But one thing I've noticed is that you tend to grow impatient with your volunteer secretary. This will diminish your fruitfulness in her life." We then discussed how God is able to build more patience in our lives.
My goal for Doug and the others God has placed around me is to develop an accountability relationship with them--one in which I can be used by God to gently inspire them to seek such a close walk with God that they are being led by the Spirit, molded by the Spirit and changed into the image of Christ.
Identifier No. 2: Open to discipline. When someone is open to allowing God to use you to help them become more like Christ through the Word, friendship and soft-side accountability, you'll want to invest in their lives long-term.
POTENTIAL VS. PROFICIENCY
Anne was an English major fresh out of college when she came to me looking for a place to help. Because the church was growing, we were constantly getting asked to provide written materials to other churches. We desperately needed an in-house staff writer, but couldn't afford to pay someone to do it.
Anne showed signs of literary potential, so we allowed her to volunteer for a time while she worked an outside job. Within a year Anne had proven that she not only could use her heart for words to benefit our ongoing ministry, but she also improved her skills with each passing month. Without being asked, she began to edit sermons and have them posted on our Web site.
We encouraged Anne to get involved in an area where she had a good chance of succeeding, and she combined her potential with "above and beyond" action. If your ultimate goal is to produce fruit, then plant prospective leaders in a place where they can potentially bear the most fruit for a long period of time.
Identifier No. 3: Positive potential. As you're involved with people in your church, you'll see flashes of what they can become. Look for the potential in people as much as proficiency. Partnering with the Lord to mold a heart while allowing them time to develop a skill often yields a loyalty no paycheck or benefits can buy.
CLOSE AS A SHADOW
Identifying kingdom people is a process, not an event. You won't find them at a job fair or on a well-worded 100-question test. Fortunately, our church is the size that nearly every task or job not only has someone we've identified as proficient and moldable, but also someone worthy of being "shadowed."
A shadow is that person with potential who follows another not only in a task, but who is also committed to producing fruitfulness in their own lives. The first step an apprentice takes is to look. The mentor first says, "I do; you watch." Second, "We do together." And, finally, "You do; I applaud."
The ultimate goal is to build someone into ministry--not just for he or she to complete an assigned task, but for the person to grow in character as a disciple. Jesus chose 12 men and gave them the challenge to "Come, follow Me." He chose them so "they might be with Him." His goal for His disciples was that they'd "bear fruit ... fruit that remained" (see John 15:16).
In the midst of His ministry, Jesus taught them the character that ministry required. For instance, the Sermon on the Mount was not merely a philosophical discussion of ethics. It came within the context of doing things for the kingdom--healing, deliverance and miracles. Through combining "teaching" with "doing," Jesus created what trainers call "a hot climate for growth."
He waited for the right situation before He taught the lesson. We do something similar when we have our leaders take someone into the task of ministry while exemplifying the heart needed to do ministry effectively, long-term.
Identifier No. 4: Willing learner. A potential leader must be open to entering the learning process--watching and absorbing knowledge from those more experienced. Allow the willing soul to shadow someone else for a time before simply turning the person loose on a task. You'll be able to test the metal of their heart first before putting them into a role that may not maximize their God-given gifts.
THE 'BAILING' POINT
More than anything else, what tests the character of anyone in ministry is how they respond when trouble occurs. Do they persevere amid the trial, or do they bail at the first sight of conflict? I've discovered that once people get into a habit of bailing out on ministry, they will do it again and again. The ministry isn't the biggest loser; it is the character of the person who abandoned ship when the waves got rough.
In your selection process of finding kingdom people, be thorough as you ask questions about their previous ministry experience. I'm not saying to reject anyone who has gone from job to job (whether full time or volunteer), but let them know that this is a trait that eventually needs to stop.
It's true, of course, that there are certain rare times when opposition or trial means God may be changing someone's assignment. Most of the time, however, trouble is allowed into our lives to reveal character flaws. That's why I work hard during the shadowing process to help someone see what potential problems may lie ahead. I want them to be ready to look tribulation in the eye and not back down.
We live in a time when the faithful often see problems as a sign God must want them to move on to greener pastures. I believe God thinks just the opposite. Trial is most often the refining part of ministry that prepares someone for a greater work. Prepare someone for it and you'll likely have benefited this person at a deep soul level; you will have helped strengthen his or her character.
Identifier No. 5: High bailing point. Look for people who have a willingness to work even when their labors do not immediately bear fruit, who draw strength from the Spirit in the midst of trials and who persevere in the face of disappointment.
Pastors who long to find and equip leaders for long-term kingdom work must fight the urge to fill needed positions with the most convenient warm bodies. Looking for these kingdom people is key, but we must ensure that each leader's position is a Spirit-led match made in heaven and not a knee-jerk response made in haste. The end result is that we will give people in our flocks a love for ministry that will multiply for decades of kingdom service.