3 Principles for Launching a Volunteer Leadership Pipeline

In the first few months after starting Madison Church, I met weekly with our volunteer leaders. From our inception, I knew that this group would be imperative to taking our mission further faster. It was a motley crew of a church planting team as there has ever been. Each of them was in their late teens or early twenties, new followers of Jesus, and came to our weekend services drunk or high seemingly half the time. Hardly an ideal situation, but at the time all I had were words about who we would become and what we would do, and that was good enough for them.

Plenty of setbacks and mistakes occurred, and all of them were preventable had I more clearly defined volunteer leadership. Two years later, we’ll still here, though—a growing church in one of the most post-Christian cities in the United States. These misfit champions are one of the reasons we are expanding our impact in Madison, Wisconsin.

As imperfect as they were, these first volunteer leaders were essential in getting us from there to here. We just could’ve done it better with some guiding principles.

It does not matter how new or small your church is—you have develop leaders to do all the things God wants for and from your church. It’s taken us some time at Madison Church to develop a leadership pipeline that works well. Not paying for employees still costs time, energy and often stress.

I would imagine that like many of you, we regularly engage leadership resources—the latest books, podcasts and conferences—and still struggle to have confidence in knowing where to launch leadership development. What I’m going to suggest is in no way a complete guide to leadership, volunteers or teams, but it is a launching pad.

Here are three principles and accompanying questions for getting started with volunteer leaders.

Principle 1: Are they doing the work of leaders?

The ceiling our regular attenders are reaching for is the floor our leaders stand on. Our potential leaders are already operating on a level that sets them apart from everyone else. At our church, we look for those who are already involved in a small group, volunteer on a team, give consistently and regularly attend our weekend services.

This will certainly vary on the context, but as leaders, we have to ask the question: Where does leadership begin at our church? This is the starting line, not finish line. Once we’ve determined someone is doing the work of leaders, we figure out if they have the traits of people we want in leadership.

Principle 2: Do they fit our leadership culture?

Just because someone is a doer doesn’t mean he or she is leadership material. Maybe you should reread that. The ability to get things done is critical, but so are other things. I look for humility, drive and emotional intelligence in potential leaders. Those are the virtues that, if lacking in someone on my team, keep me awake at night.

What they’re doing will vary from church to church, but who they are will depend on the lead pastor and the kind of staff culture he or she is trying to create. Don’t just copy Craig Groeschel’s or Brian Houston’s list of staff values because their personalities and missions are different than yours. Reflect on what you value the most and move forward with that.

Principle 3: What is my commitment to leadership development?

If you do your homework, you will likely choose the right people. It doesn’t mean they’re perfect people. I say this because I cringe more times than not when other small or new church pastors tell me how they’ve fired staffers or demoted volunteer leaders over conflicts of personality or mistakes that had little or no consequence to the ministry or mission of the church. Be committed to not just the expansion of your church but the development of leaders. The latter always leads to the former, but the former rarely leads to the latter.

Again, this is a launching pad if you don’t have a system or pipeline in place. There is a lot to build on from here. We didn’t have these ideas in mind when we began, so there were more growing pains during our early days than necessary. And although we have more steps for leaders on who are on a journey within our church, we still use these three principles to gauge every person we consider.

A final thought: A person you work with and coach will become your biggest advocate and champion of the mission. That’s always worth the time, energy and stress.

This article is part of our From the Front Lines series, in which several church planters share what they’re learning as they lead their congregations.

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