One summer day, all of us kids jumped into the car for a ride into the cool mountains surrounding Tokyo. When we stopped for lunch, a man dressed in a traditional yukata, or "happy coat," caught my attention. He was selling tiny birds in bamboo cages.
"How much for one bird?" I asked.
"100 yen each," he called back in Japanese.
Such a deal! I handed the vendor a 100-yen coin and selected one of the bamboo cages containing a tiny finch. As I began to walk back to the car to show off my new purchase, the man called out after me.
"Sumimasen! (Excuse me!) Don't forget to bring the cage back when you're done!"
"Bring back the cage when I'm done?" I questioned. "I'm not planning to eat the thing. I just want to take it home as a pet."
"Oh no," he replied. "You don't understand. The bird and the cage are not for you to take home. The 100 yen is to take the bird to the edge of the valley and release it, so it can fly freely."
That was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. But I didn't have much of a choice in the matter. The man was keeping a close watch on me to make sure he retrieved his cage.
I walked over to the edge of the ravine overlooking the valley below. I opened the cage door and gave the bird a couple of nudges. Edging its way suspiciously toward the door of the cage, it suddenly launched into flight with a jubilant chorus of tweets and whistles.
I watched the bird fly over the valley and swirl its way back toward me as if to respectfully say, "Thank you." Then it soared so high I lost it in the sun. Within moments, the bird had disappeared.
I returned the cage to the vendor, who bowed in the gracious Japanese form. I didn't return home with a bird, but I did take with me something much greater. I learned a profound lesson that has remained with me to this day, and it later would forever change my perspective about serving people. That day I learned the precious lesson of being a dream releaser.
In every person's heart is a dream of what he or she can become for the Lord--a dream about them making a difference in the world, in their families and in their churches. But as with the Japanese finch, dreams need to be released.
God calls every leader to be a dream releaser. There is nothing more spectacular than seeing people's dreams released and being used for the glory of God. There's just no greater joy.
We all have dreams in our hearts just waiting to be released. These gifts, if mobilized and aligned toward a common, God-glorifying purpose, can transform any congregation into a powerful army for the Lord. That's why it's crucial for pastors to be dream releasers and to understand the dynamics of building a leadership team made up of servant-leaders.
BUILDING THE TEAM
You were not designed to do church alone. You are not a one-man band. No one is. It's no fun trying to play all the instruments yourself and sing, too.
Let me illustrate it this way. Imagine that I hold out a 1-square-foot piece of cardboard, and onto it I slowly empty a bucket of white sand. The sand will accumulate, and as it does, a pyramid of sand will form.
What will happen if I pour another bucket of sand onto the cardboard? The amount of sand will increase until the cardboard can hold no more. So what will happen to the excess sand if I keep pouring? It will overflow the edges and cascade onto the floor. The cardboard base can only hold so much. And if I keep pouring, it will eventually collapse.
So what do you have to do to hold more sand? The answer is simple: Expand the base.
The leadership in any church can be likened to that piece of cardboard: The larger the base, the more sand you can hold. If your leadership base is small, it doesn't matter how much sand you pour onto it. It will be impossible for you to hold any more sand until you increase the size of the base.
That's the secret to what many churches call "closing the back door." Some church leaders feel as if their doors are turnstiles through which people come in but never stay. Visitors can't seem to become part of the life of the church, so they leave. Increasing the leadership base by building a solid core of leaders is primary to a church's foundation for the future.
1. Believe leaders are there. The first step in building a core of leaders is to believe that they are there. You must believe that God would never call a leader to oversee a ministry without providing everything necessary for its fruitfulness and success. Many pastors and ministers have the best reason in the world for why things just aren't happening like they should at their churches: "We have no leaders!" But God is not so cruel as to call you to build an ark without providing the necessary materials for its completion.
Look for the leaders. They might be right under your nose, but if you are not looking for them, you'll never see them.
2. Recognize their potential. A dear pastor friend and I were talking one day. He was having trouble finding quality leaders in his church. He was on the verge of burnout from undertaking many of the ministry responsibilities himself.
"If I had a bigger church," he observed, "there would be more leaders to choose from. But right now there just aren't any!"
"When you look at a forest, what do you see?" I asked.
"Elementary, Watson," he quipped. "Trees."
"That's your problem," I replied. "All you see are trees. You've got to see more than trees. You've got to see the houses. When I look at a forest, I see houses, dressers, rocking chairs, bed frames, cabinets and desks. They're all in the forest. No, you won't find them already completed. But the potential is all there."
In short, you've got to believe "there's gold in them there hills" if you're going to muster up the energy you need to mine it out. When you believe that leaders are in your church, and that they have potential, you'll be surprised at how many wonderful leaders start showing up.
3. See the best. One of the greatest roles of a pastor is to believe in the people under his care. This one quality alone can do more to develop emerging leaders in a church than any class or group study. We all need someone to believe in us, to see the best in us and to help us bring it forth. Sure, we may have many faults that still need to be corrected, but what we need are people who will look beyond our glitches to see God's best.
4. Take risks. And encourage your leaders to do the same. Leaders develop their gifts by considering the consequences and going for it anyway. There are no shortcuts. If it's for God, don't ask, "Why?" Ask, "Why not?"
Jesus tells us that we cannot please God by playing it safe. Are you willing to risk what you have for the sake of the Master? Too many of us are afraid, so we bury our gifts, and we wonder why we never grow or increase in our giftedness and influence. One of the keys to the success of the early church was that they were men and women who "risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 15:26, NKJV).
If you're afraid of messes, if you're afraid of failing, if you're afraid of risking, you'll never get anywhere. As a baseball man once said, you can't steal second base with your foot still on first. Leaders must be willing to venture off the bag, take the lead and go for it.
People can develop their gifts only by using them. Encourage them not to wait until their gifts are fully developed before they put them to use. That just won't happen because gifts don't ripen like a bunch of bananas put in a dark place. Gifts that are hidden away don't ripen--they rot.
THE DREAM RELEASER
Several principles must be understood and practiced to be a dream releaser and to successfully develop a core team of servant-leaders. Having a grip on these principles will make or break your effectiveness as a dream releaser.
1. Watch your character. God is less interested in what you're doing and more interested in what you're becoming. Sometimes the Lord will place you in a position for a season because He knows there are some things that need to be developed inside you. When you get involved, God will instill character or virtue in you through the process--traits such as endurance, submission, people skills or positive attitudes.
Over the long haul, ministry should charge you up, and you'll build character along the way. But if week after week you come away from ministry drained, then stop. Reevaluate what may be causing this and find a remedy. Don't keep running on empty.
What we often define as burnout may actually be the result of personality conflicts or a problem with submission to authority. This is where accountability through friendships has become a lifesaver for me. I need people watching out for me, and I need to do the same for others. Develop relationships along the way that are deep enough that you are willing to allow these friends to speak into your life.
2. Banish insecurity. Developing servant-leaders requires one major ingredient: security. Pastors, if you are not secure as a leader, you will find it virtually impossible to attract, develop or retain other leaders. You cannot do church as a team while battling insecurity. Good leaders must be able to build confidence in others.
Secure people encourage others and enjoy their successes. They can appreciate and applaud the achievements of those they have put into positions to succeed. Secure leaders are neither territorial nor possessive. They are willing and able to surround themselves with people more qualified than themselves.
Insecure people, on the other hand, feel that if they are not controlling everything around them, then they are not doing their job. They fear criticism, and they worry about what others think. Such people can never believe that others are competent enough to do the job. Hence, they seldom delegate anything. Leaders must always remember that everyone will make mistakes, and mistakes are often the best classrooms in the world.
3. Pass the baton. As you read through the Gospels, you will notice something interesting about the leadership style of Jesus: He began passing batons to His disciples early in His ministry. By the sixth chapter of Mark, He is already choosing a dozen men to succeed Him.
Just as in a relay race, passing the baton in ministry isn't meant to be a sudden last-ditch effort. Plan on it. Start passing batons early in your ministry.
When I began studying the early missionary efforts to Hawaii, Titus Coan became one of my heroes, as did Hiram Bingham. These men served the people of Hawaii during the early and middle 1800s. Coan and Bingham did hundreds of things right in reaching the Hawaiian islands, but they also made two costly mistakes that hindered the future of their ministries.
Their first mistake was allowing their second generation to be lost--their own children grew up without a deep and genuine faith. There may have been many reasons for this, but suffice it to say the missionaries' plates were so full that they probably had little time left for their own children. That is a poignant lesson for all of us.
The second costly mistake I noticed was that these men passed the baton too late in life. Just before his death, Coan passed the mantle of leadership to a few potential leaders. They carried on as best they could but, inevitably, the mission diminished, and the vision faded.
It may take only a moment to pass a baton, but it takes much longer to pass the heart of that baton. Passing out batons early ensures that no one burns out and that we all share the joys (and sorrows) together. Don't pass batons as a precursor to the end of someone's ministry. Pass batons as a way of including others in the race.
One of the fastest and easiest ways to pass batons is through shadowing. Shadowing is simply following someone around who has been serving in an area of interest to you. It is a way of introducing new people into a ministry.
The three stages of shadowing are: (1) I do; you watch; (2) We do together; and (3) You do; I applaud.
Fight the tendency to become territorial or possessive. That will only wreak havoc and discourage new and emerging leaders. An open invitation to get involved is crucial for developing an atmosphere of growth and teamwork. Passing out batons allows each of us to begin by first serving one another.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus sent out His disciples two by two? I think it was because He knew the gospel would best be seen and understood in the context of relationships. As people witnessed the love, friendship and camaraderie of the two messengers, this gave credence to the message.
4. Serve one another. Although serving the Lord and others is best done in teams, one of the ways to make this happen is by first serving the others on your team. Some call this lateral serving. It's a willingness to occasionally do someone else's job and do it with great joy. I have heard lateral serving described as "the art of making good on someone else's mistake."
Pastor, look for faith in those around you. In each of us is a measure of faith, a desire for God's best. Every person has a yearning to do well, to make a difference. God created us that way. Dreams are inside every person in your church. Discover the joys of being a dream releaser.