The First Priority of Church Leadership

John was more discouraged than ever after the Board meeting. It was another fatigued litany of excuses why they hadn’t fulfilled their commitments—again. Alone in the car, he wondered aloud, “Why am I failing to shake them out of their slumber? I have no idea how to motivate them to lead this church! Is it time to shake the dust off my feet and move on? They keep promising to fulfill their leadership duties, but all they do is make excuses. Lord, what do I do?”

Pastor John knew he was falling down on the job, but he was befuddled. Why were his church leaders failing? They had the ability to do what needed doing. Their success in other endeavors proved they knew how to prioritize, manage a schedule, and work with people.

Their ability wasn’t the problem. It was John’s lack of discernment. He picked people with leadership potential, but he failed to nurture in them the most important of leadership qualifications: a vibrant relationship with Christ.

You see, church leaders should be like the church itself. It is a spiritual being where believers gather to encounter Christ. A church is also an organization governed by tacit and explicit rules that encode its mission, vision, and values. Pastors should train church leaders on how to be spiritually maturing believers. They need their pastor to model and teach what a Christ-centered life looks like. If they don’t, the results could be devastating.

Pastors must develop church leaders in two domains: spiritual maturity and competent governance. This is not an either or choice. If you want good spiritual leadership in your church, you must train them to walk in spiritual life and to exercise leadership behaviors.

The First Priority

Although both are required, nurturing one’s spiritual life is the first priority for church leaders. The apostle Paul directed the Ephesian elders, “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). “Take heed” for themselves preceded caring for the flock. Paul urged them to maintain constant watchfulness and care for their spiritual lives. Spiritual maturity includes being wary of spiritual wolves (29), emulating one’s mentors (31), and abiding in the grace of God (32).

Prepare Them for Battle

In his excellent book on the spiritual nature of leadership, The Gospel Shaped Leader, Scott Thomas offers us this sobering reminder.

Every church leader must engage in this spiritual battle with sober-mindedness, knowing the enemy seeks to destroy both shepherds and sheep. The prophet Zechariah warned, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones” (Zechariah 13:7 cf. Matthew 26:31). Church leadership is not a position, nor is it a picnic. It is a spiritual war zone, and gospel-shaped leaders must come prepared with Christ’s mind (Philippians 2:1–5) and the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:3–11).

Without a solid spiritual life upon which to stand, a church’s leaders will be inadequate for protecting God’s people (e.g., Ezekiel 34:1-10). When the shepherds cannot withstand adversity, the sheep are scattered (Zechariah 13:7).

Developing leaders is crucial to your church’s wellbeing. You must bear in mind that charisma, success in life, and leadership skills are not qualifications for church leadership. Rather, look for those in whom you can develop spiritual maturity as of first importance, and then competent leadership behaviors.

How does your leadership development process measure up? Maybe it’s time to make some changes.