We are in desperate need of disciple-making leaders in the church today. In my experience, these are rare finds. Instead, two types of leaders exist in most churches today; those who have never been discipled and those who have been discipled but never reach their leadership potential.
Leaders who have never been discipled
The first type are capable men and women who sense a call to ministry, some have even spent years in seminary training and have come up through the ranks of church leadership, but they have never been personally discipled.
This was my own story. I grew up in church. My father was a fulltime worship pastor so all I’ve ever known is being in church. In fact, I like to say I was in the alto section of the church choir nine months before I was born. At age seven, I distinctly recall hearing the gospel preached on a Sunday morning. My heart raced. My attention was fixed on every word. After the service I met with one of our pastors and asked Jesus to forgive me and lead my life. It was in every way a life-altering moment. After that initial conversion, most of my discipleship training came through church programs and conversations at home.
When I was in college, a young couple took me and my girlfriend (who became my wife, Liz) under their wing and began teaching us how to study the Bible. It was a tremendous time of growth for me.
A few years later, God clearly called me to vocational ministry. I spent four years in seminary training for the ministry. During that time, I worked in various roles on one church’s staff, spending time as a youth intern, interim youth pastor, college pastor, young adult pastor—you name it, I did it. I rose up through the leadership ranks, and with every step my ministry responsibilities grew. I also received opportunities to preach and lead at the highest levels. Yet not until I was the senior pastor of a church did I meet men who knew how to make disciples.
I watched three businessmen in our church regularly share their faith, following up with new believers and multiplying disciple makers. And I realized in that moment that while I loved the Lord and was called to ministry, I didn’t know how to make disciples. While I was proficient as a leader, I was woefully deficient as a disciple maker.
What does it mean if a leader is not discipled?
I thought the sign of successful ministry was numerical growth under my leadership. It never occurred to me that successful ministry was not just measured by the number in my ministry but by the number of disciple-making leaders I deployed all over the world.
This is the case for most staff members today. As I talk to pastors across the country, most agree they have never been personally discipled. Most would not know what to do if they were asked to disciple anyone personally. They have been trained to lead church programs, preach, and offer pastoral care, but they don’t know how to multiply themselves and raise up disciple-making leaders after them.
Most people hired on church staffs in America today fit this scenario. They are amazing leaders, but they have never been discipled. They still operate to some degree under the superstar mentality, building their ministry instead of building leaders who will multiply. Thus, they limit their redemptive potential. Your greatest redemptive potential is not measured in what you can achieve alone but what can be achieved through you and those you train to multiply!
Leaders who have been discipled but never reached their leadership potential
The second kind of leader I see in churches today is the disciple maker who never rises to leadership. Granted, not everyone is called to lead. Not everyone is gifted to lead (Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 12:28). However, over the years I have seen people with incredible potential for leadership never move into levels of leadership within the church for some reason.
Sometimes that is by their own choice. Many have become disenfranchised with the local church to the point that they feel the only way to do effective ministry is to go around the church. Some have even gone so far as to devote most of their time to parachurch ministries that all too often are perceived as competing with the local church for leadership and resources.
Others don’t rise into church leadership because pastors are intimidated by these people. I’ve seen church leaders stiff-arm these would-be leaders because, quite frankly, they know how to make disciples more effectively than the church’s staff. Pastors tend to overlook these qualified leaders and opt for those who will do things the way the pastor wants them done and not challenge the status quo.
We need disciple-making leaders
In churches we find these two types of leaders: those who are leaders but not disciple makers, and those who are disciple makers but do not become leaders. But what we desperately need is a synthesis of the two: disciple-making leaders. We need men and women who lead out of the overflow of their walk with Christ and intentionally invest in others to produce genuine disciples and ministry leaders who will multiply into a movement.
This brings me back to the three businessmen who discipled me years ago. Although they were not on the church’s staff, they held some of the highest leadership positions in the church. These men were revered and influential. They sat on church boards, championed vision initiatives, and personally led the way in hands-on ministry. They gave. They prayed. They loved deeply. They corrected when necessary. They earned the right to be heard and followed. Why? Because they were the real deal. They lived by example. They invested their lives. They poured into new leaders and taught them how to walk with God. And most important of all, they kept the church focused on its primary mission: to make disciples who make disciples to the ends of the earth.
This blog features an excerpt from our latest book, The Disciple-Making Leader.
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