The Small Church Leadership Pipeline is Broken

Churches need leadership, beyond that of the pastor alone, and today's small church often fails to develop such leaders.

Roland grew up in a small church. So when he moved away for his first job, it was no surprise that he sought out a similar situation. He quickly made friends and became a part of a new church family. Within a year he was volunteering at every opportunity, and discovered he was a natural fit as a junior leader with the youth ministry. As with most churches this size, there was no budget for a youth pastor or even an associate pastor. So youth leadership was comprised entirely of volunteers.

Some time later the youth leader decided to step down from his role. The pastor had noticed how the youth looked up to Roland and asked him if he wanted to become the new youth leader. After some thought and prayer Roland agreed to take over.

Roland had some idea of his responsibilities as the new youth leader. He had watched the previous person in the role for the better part of a year. He knew that events were a big part of the ministry. Local concerts. Nerf war nights. The annual lock-in. And games at the weekly meeting.

Since he grew up in the church he had somewhat of a grasp on Biblical fundamentals.

But he had never truly lead people before.

He had only taught lessons once or twice.

He had never been completely responsible for the safety of a group of people.

Or for their spiritual guidance and development.

Counseling was so far out of his wheel house that he never even realized it was part of the job.

He had never even personally lead someone to Jesus before.

He was completely, utterly, hopelessly lost.

Youth Pastor Turnover

What did the church do when the youth pastor couldn't find his keys?

They got a new youth pastor!

It is no surprise that youth pastor turnover has become somewhat of a running gag in the church. Some estimates put the average tenure of a church youth leader at only 18 months. That's shorter than a career in the NFL!

This means that during an adolescent's time in the youth group, from 9th grade through graduation, they may see 3-4 different leaders cycle through the position. This is an age where kids are struggling to fit in to society; they're often at odds with their parents; they feel like outsiders at their school. The church is like a second family to many high-school age kids, and sometimes, their only family. At a time when they need consistency, and when they need a positive role model, the church is letting them down.

When as many as 80% of young adults who grow up in the church abandon it before the age of 23, why are we not doing more to serve the young people in our pews? (Or more often than not, the young people squeezed in the pastor's study or sharing the multi-purpose room.)

Symptoms of a Bigger Problem

We could look at the youth leadership in our churches from an isolated perspective and come up with a slew of excuses.

In reality, it is symptomatic of a larger problem.

In my experience, small church leaders are often shunted into roles they are not prepared for, and then forgotten about or ignored. The Roland experience above is not unique. I've seen it enacted in various forms time and time again. I could point out where it's happening right now in some of our local churches, and I expect that if you think about your church you could see it happening there as well.

It is not limited to youth pastors, either. That's merely one concrete example.

Is your children's ministry team qualified to handle children? Are they being trained on various teaching methods that might reach different kids? If a child asks a difficult question do they know how to respond to it?

Consider even the pragmatic level - do they know how to respond to emergency situations? Or bullying? Or handicapped children?

Even the worship leaders in our churches are often unqualified. Yes, they can sing and play guitar (most of the time!), but are they in a place spiritually where they should be leading others in an act of worship? Or were they simply the only person capable and willing to take the job?

We can't expect perfection, particularly with the limited resources of a small church, but we can do better.

The responsibility for Roland's failing as the youth leader falls squarely on the shoulders of his church. They offered little by way of support for him. Instead of becoming a mentor for a young man interested in ministry, the pastor largely ignored him and let him fail on his own. (Never mind ignoring the youth in the church.) Roland lacked the experience to realize how much he didn't know. The pastor and the church should have had his back.

The Church Leadership Pipeline

The Gospel contains many accounts of Jesus preaching to large crowds. The biggest we know of is when He fed the 5000 men (plus women and children). He packed a house so full that men had to literally tear the roof off to reach Him. He was constantly surrounded by people, to the point where He felt the need to escape the crowd and be alone.

(Yes, introverts, Jesus may have been one too!)

This is the bulk of the modern model for the Pastor. It's built around the Sunday morning service where a crowd gathers to hear the weekly message, just as Jesus preached to the crowd. It has become the source of many jokes wherein the pastor works only 1 day a week and rests for 6.

In other words, the "pastor is a preacher."

That's an important role, and one that is surely based on Jesus' own ministry. But it misses out on an essential, likely even more important aspect of His work on Earth.

We also know the modern day pastor is somewhat of a business man. Especially the pastor of a small church. I've spoken of this ad nauseam and will likely continue to do so. His everyday tasks may include filing paperwork, running to the bank, preparing a sermon, and networking with other local organizations.

Of course, the pastor is also often a counselor helping his congregants with personal situations. Maybe he conducts pre-marital guidance, or financial training.

What we too often forget is that the bulk of Jesus ministry was spent training, developing, and nurturing the 12 men chosen to perpetuate his work here on Earth.

Discipleship in the Church

Today we may call this Discipleship.

I hesitate to use that term, yet it encompasses everything discussed here and there is no other word that fits better. We may fall into the trap of thinking that Discipleship is merely about a person's individual relationship with God. There is really so much more to it. Jesus wasn't spending His time with the 12 so that they alone might benefit; no, he was also training them to become leaders so that they may eventually Disciple others.

Discipleship's focus is on the individual; it's goal is the perpetuation of Jesus' ministry.

The two must go hand-in-hand.

Discipleship is about training people to be leaders, that they might lead others to Christ. If we aren't providing that for even the volunteers and staff of our churches then we are failing at Jesus' Great Commission.

Ultimately Roland served as the youth leader for a short period of time without major incident. And that's the best that could be hoped for! The youth group began to erode without clear leadership and without consistency. The kids had a lot of fun at the youth events during that his time as leader, but their spiritual needs weren't being met. (The church can't compete with the world on fun alone, and it shouldn't try to.) He stepped down from the leadership position, drifted away from the church for awhile, and the carousel of youth leaders continued.

Ultimately Roland would continue his ministry years later at a different church, and with more experience, and a closer relationship with God, he did big things for God's kingdom.

Roland's story has a relatively happy ending, but so many similar stories don't. Churchworthy's mission is to enable churches big and small to Disciple better, that they may fulfill their purpose on Earth.

Stay tuned.

Filed under: Leadership Development, The Modern Church

Originally published on Dec. 5, 2018, 10:21 a.m. by matthias

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