4 Ways to Build a Leadership Development Culture

Bobby Gruenewald: “We believe the best way to develop leaders is to create an environment that fosters their growth.”

Over the past 20 years, Life.Church has grown to 25 locations in seven states. Each campus requires a handful of strong leaders to launch and grow that location. As our campuses have grown, we’ve also increased the number and capacity of our centralized leaders who serve all of our locations.

Finding and developing leaders is mission critical for Life.Church. That’s been true at each stage of our growth, as it is for every church. We’ve learned some lessons along the way, so I wanted to share some insights about our leadership development culture from Jerry Hurley, the team development leader at Life.Church.

Jerry, you’ve been instrumental in forming a foundation that allows us to find and develop leaders on a consistent basis. How did that start?

For me, it was a wake-up call as we started expanding into multiple locations. Our first few staff members were able to join the team early on and grow up with the church. But by the time we were expanding to our third, fourth and fifth locations, we had a hard time finding the right people, even though it seemed like we should have a larger pool of prospects to draw from. We saw people struggle if they tried to step right into a role with significant leadership responsibilities. The pace was so fast and so many gears were in motion that it was a little like dropping someone into the swiftly moving current of a rushing river. We realized people needed to grow into those roles—to step into the river a little further upstream. So we began focusing on hiring at an entry level and then positioning those staff members to grow into leadership roles.

When you’re hiring people who could grow into a leadership role, what do you look for? Is it different for each ministry?

Beyond being a Christ follower and having any job-specific talent (for example, musical experience for worship leaders), we look for someone who can:

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1. Identify and develop leaders.
2. Inspire people to action.
3. Lead a team to consistent results.

Those skills are needed across the board in leadership roles, whether someone is a youth pastor, small groups ministry leader, worship pastor or campus admin leader. They’re transferable skills that can be found in people from a wide range of backgrounds (from corporate to nonprofit to ministry). This gives us a larger pool of prospects to work with, and it also gives us fluidity between roles on different ministry teams.

How do we develop leaders once they’re on board? Is there a specific course or track?

We believe the best way to develop leaders is to create an environment that fosters their growth. So we’ve founded a leadership development culture at Life.Church that’s based on four principles:

1. Self-awareness is the first step to growth and development. Without self-awareness, we don’t know where to focus our strengths or shore up our limitations. As an organization, we have to invest in tools and experiences that help people learn more about who God created them to be and how they can move toward that. To help with that process, we rely on tools like Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder, Emotional Intelligence and more. We also give and receive lots of feedback throughout our team, which pinpoints blind spots and offers alternative perspectives.

2. Development hinges on trusted relationships. The baseline for us is that trust should be given; mistrust has to be earned. It might not be a smart approach for buying a used car, but if you’re on a team or in a family, we have to extend trust freely. If we don’t, it takes time to build trust, which slows everything down and leads to missed opportunities. When trust becomes more than lip service on your team, it paves the way for the kind of feedback people need to develop quickly.

3. People grow best while they’re in the game. Many organizations feel the need to build programs to train leaders, creating a separate pathway for development. But that undervalues the growth that can happen in the course of doing your job. As long as you have meaningful roles where people can stretch, fail and learn by leveraging the day-to-day things that happen, they can grow right where they are while contributing to the organization.

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4. People have to own their own development. I can go to the airport and travel anywhere in the world through a multitude of pathways. But I have to get on the plane to make it happen. As an organization, it’s our job to provide different pathways for growth—both resources and opportunities. And it’s the team member’s job to take the initiative to develop and grow. Instead of pushing development onto a team member, they are pulling it toward themselves because we’re giving them ownership. This changes the dynamic. Development isn’t something I have to do, it’s something I get to do.

These four basic principles aren’t complicated, but when they all click into place, it creates fertile ground for leaders to develop. We’ve found this approach crosses generations, and resonates particularly well with millennials.

Is a leadership development culture something that’s better suited for larger churches and teams, or can it work for churches of all sizes?

Every church needs leaders, whether staff or lay leaders. Churches of any size can put a leadership development culture into place for both staff and volunteers, because the concepts are simple enough and the tools are readily available. Honestly, the smaller you are, the easier it is to establish. As I look back over the years we’ve had this culture in place, it’s amazing to see team member after team member step into significant levels of leadership, many times beyond what even they thought was possible.

Bobby Gruenewald is pastor, innovation leader at Life.Church. Connect with him on Twitter: @BobbyGwald