Early Leadership Systems

Accountability and counsel are essential to a church planter. In the early days of a new church plant, you’ll likely experience one of two temptations when it comes to leadership. One is to hastily construct a leadership team with a board, positions and policies. The other is to fly solo with no accountability at all.  Both are extreme approaches and dangerous for a church planter.  Here are a few things I learned the hard way that may help you in developing your leadership structure.

Move Slowly

Move slowly when choosing the leadership structure for a new church. Do not feel like you have to have the entire structure in place in the beginning. As a matter of fact, you’ll find it best if you don’t hastily build a leadership structure and assign roles. If you choose the structure or the leaders too quickly, you may have a mess to unravel.
Resist the urge to move quickly, and methodically set a structure. If you are in a denomination that has already chosen  your structure, then move slowly  in choosing the leaders within the structure. The challenge in a new church is that you really don’t know the people.  I chose our first team much too quickly.  If I could do it all over again, I would wait nine months to a year before I gave anyone a leadership position.  Enlist people in ministry, but do not give them leadership authority in the church too quickly.

Church Leaders

Beware of asking community leaders to be leaders in the church. Obviously, being a leader in the church is totally different than being a leader in the community. I have seen churches place some of the most worldly bank presidents on the finance team. They certainly had financial knowledge, but not spiritual maturity. Some community leaders may be ego-driven and spiritually bankrupt as well. Church starters fall into the trap of thinking a community leader in church leadership will be great for the church. But it could be disastrous. Select them first for the spiritual maturity you have seen in them and second for their expertise, not the other way around. The leadership of a church sets the tone for the spiritual maturity of a church. As John Maxwell says, everything rises and falls on leadership.

Godly Servant-Leaders

As a new church begins, find your leaders among those who serve. Look first for the people who are willing to clean toilets and vacuum the church.  Surround yourself with godly servant-leaders who own and understand the vision of the church. I always had a circle of men who served as counselors and a sounding board. There were seasons when I did not give them a title.  I just asked them to meet and pray with me.  All of these were men I had met serving in the church.

I learned this principle of looking for servant-leaders in the first nine months of The Springs. We had been meeting in an old theater, and it had to be cleaned often. We had Saturday workdays, and one Saturday morning we were scrubbing mildew off of the top of the outside of the building with bleach and rubber gloves. Working beside Bruce Gaultney and James Duff led to lifelong friendships. Bruce was the editor of the newspaper in town, and James was a CEO for a hospital in town, but I did not know what they did for a living at the time. All I knew was that they were willing to scrub mildew off the top of a building for a new church with 120 people in it. The kingdom is comprised of leaders who serve. Ask God to provide people like Bruce and James, and surround yourself with them.

Conversely, beware of people who come to a new church and immediately ask to be in leadership. Tell them to grab a vacuum or clean a toilet. Jesus’ model of leadership was that of a servant-leader. In Matthew 20:28 (NLT) Jesus said, “For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” Jesus came to build an upside-down kingdom, where the greatest would be the servant. His church is to be led by servants. Find people with servants’ hearts who own and understand the vision of the church.

The very first leadership team I put together, I put together too soon. Some did not own the vision—they loved God— but they miscued on the vision. The truth is, we were still trying to figure it out ourselves. But when the course was set to be a purpose driven church, several could not align with it. Within two months, all of them left. That entire team left the church, and in the years that followed, only one person ever asked me where they went. If you’re experiencing losses in the early stages, check out this post.

Simple, Flexible & Scalable

Avoid the temptation to set up a leadership structure that has many levels and committees. Streamline it, keep it simple and scalable.  Scalability is having a structure that adapts as the church grows and changes. A truly scalable structure will still function effectively through change whether it’s an influx of attenders, new staff, new technology, or even a new leader. Sometime during the first six months of The Springs, I e-mailed Rick Warren a question about leadership structure. He referred me to his seminar on tape called “Simple Structure,” and it was precisely what I needed. In it, Rick challenges pastors to keep the structure flexible. Here are some Simple Structure highlights.

What works for 100 people will not work for 500, and what works for 500 people will not work for 1,000. Our skeletal structure must be able to grow or our bodies cannot.  In the same way, the leadership structure is the skeleton of the church body. Keep the structure simple and flexible, because it is going to have to grow with the church. If you lock the structure in, and say, “This is the way we’re doing it,” you will stunt the growth of the church, and your church will be structured for control instead of growth.

We can see this principle by looking at our kids’ toys.

The simple toys like blocks and tinker toys do not break as easily as the complex toys. Simple is usually more durable, and the same is true for church leadership structure.

For more church planting tools, join us for Nuts & Bolts at Grace Church in Avon, MA (near Boston) October 13-14, 2015.