One of the common issues church planters face is when and how to assemble a church leadership team.
The church plant needs some sort of leadership team as it emerges beyond the planter calling all the shots. But, since it is new, the warning in the Bible must be heard: “Never be in a hurry about appointing a church leader.”--1 Timothy 5:22 (NLT)
I have observed and unfortunately personally experienced a good deal of pain in watching new churches try to maneuver the first steps of church life with leadership teams.
In our first church plant one of the most supportive people in our church seemed to change dramatically the moment he became an “elder.” The “power” may have gone to his head and he turned sour. When the youth pastor’s daughter beat up this leader’s son (maybe he had it coming!) it became even more ugly. Anyway, I had to push him to resign and it was not a pleasant time.
In our second plant, one leader lost his job and spiraled into a seemingly temporary insanity. Marriage, family and relational problems ensued and he refused to step down from leadership nicely. I had to redo our whole leadership structure to get him off the team.
Both of those situations caused me great grief, but more importantly, they caused our plants to get a bit off task.
I wish my experience was rare. But it happens in many, if not most, church plants. Someone on the team tries to take over the church, triangulate conflict, or just cause problems. This seems to be a common strategy of our spiritual enemy. He goes after the planter’s marriage first, and if that doesn’t work, the leadership team becomes the prime target.
So what’s a new church to do?
Here’s a strategy from my friend Tom Nebel that really works: Implement multiple leadership team phases before a formal board is chosen.
The idea is to have short, clear time frame and purposeful teams with a clear “changing-of-the-guard” built in at the end.
In our third plant we started with a small “First Preview Leadership Team.” The function of that team was to help us make wise decisions and to get us to and through our first preview service. Then we progressed to a “Launch Leadership Team” that led us to launch. We launched at Easter so we moved to a “Summer Advisory Team” that helped us maneuver the summer. Then we had a “Grand Opening Leadership Team” that got us through our Grand Opening. We moved to a one-year “Transitional Advisory Group”--our “Tag Team” that served for a year, and we renewed it for another year. For years we’ve had a “Vision Alignment Team”--our VAT Team that keeps us on mission. And now we are moving to an “ABC Team”--a leadership team that provides Advice, Brakes and Crisis management.
We intentionally avoid church-sounding names in our leadership teams. That term “Elder” seems to come with a lot of baggage these days. I’m not sure it communicates its Biblical meaning of servant leadership. We don’t use “Deacon” or “Presbyter” either for similar reasons.
The clear ending time for the team is key. Early on we purposely had team members who we knew had to leave after the time ram was finished--church planting inters, for example. The shorter term of service seems to reinforce a servant attitude and it provides a natural opportunity to move folks off the team who don’t fit.
This approach also allowed us to use leaders from outside the church. In our second plant, we moved to this approach and had two leaders from other churches serve as advisors for a couple years. Their fresh eyes helped us immensely.
The multi-phase approach doesn’t eliminate leadership friction. We have had to move people off of our leadership team without their full acceptance. But it provides a natural opportunity and makes those tough conversations a little bit easier.
The Bible tells us that when it comes to leaders: “They must first be tested…”--1 Timothy 3:10 (NLT) This multi-phase approach gives new churches an opportunity to do just that.