Why churches stink at developing leaders (and what we're trying to do about it)

Let’s face it: the modern church has done a pretty miserable job of empowering leaders for social transformation. This hasn’t always been the case. Historically, the church has been a cultural incubator, nurturing patrons for the arts, scholars for academia, and entrepreneurs for the marketplace, while also creating city-shaping alternative institutions like hospitals, schools, and professional guilds.

More recently, however, it seems that we’ve been more interested in training lemmings to build our empires than forming leaders to restore the broken walls of our cities.

It’s not just churches that are having a hard time recruiting and keeping good talent. Even many respectable companies seem to be whiffing in this area. The failure to cultivate sharp, talented young people is not only self-defeating for a church or business; it also has massive social implications. Unfortunately, there are no magical Oompa-Loompa factories cranking out mature leaders who have a vision for a better Indianapolis.

Which brings me back to my original question. Why do churches seem to stink so badly at developing leaders, when their very existence and the future thriving of the city demands new leaders? While I think there are a number of reasons for this phenomenon (including bad theology, faulty assumptions, and egotistical senior leaders), I want to focus on two things in particular and discuss how we’re attempting to push back against this tide at Soma. Then I’ll close by asking you to consider an invitation to pursue a better future together with us.

Reason 1: No Vision

Put simply, a lot of churches aren’t thinking strategically about leadership development and communicating this vision to their people. Some churches are stuck in a vicious cycle of institutional survival and don’t have the margin (or the emerging leaders) to even think about development; others just assume that mature leaders will show up eager to serve.

Church leadership teams must create a vision for developing leaders that inspires and fuels the collective imagination of their people. “Leadership development” can’t be a program you do in a classroom on Thursday mornings; it has to be part of who you are, the cultural air that you breathe.

Developing men and women to influence their spheres for God’s kingdom should be a vision that drives churches. And when churches develop a vision that belongs to them – that looks and sounds and tastes like them – they should creatively, viscerally, and consistently cast that vision to their congregations. Try to capture people’s imaginations through stories, metaphors, and embodied examples of the kind of leadership that can reimagine and reshape a city block or an entire industry.

At Soma, we try to weave this vision into our strategic plans and communicate it publicly: to create an intentional process for releasing a movement of self-aware servants to the church and the city.

Reason 2: No Pathways

It’s not enough, however, to cast a strong vision for leadership development. I’ve discovered this to be true especially in a church plant full of young, inexperienced, and hungry emerging leaders. More than a vision to inspire them, our people need “leadership pathways” to ground them and move them forward. While this might seem obvious, I think this second misstep is nearly epidemic in organizations of all sizes and spaces.

Why are pathways so critical to developing leaders? There are at least two reasons:

1. Everyone has blind spots that have to be owned, challenged, and dealt with if they’re going to become the servant-leaders our churches and city need to flourish.

2. There’s nothing more disempowering for a younger leader than being told to “wait your turn” without being given concrete, tangible steps that help them become who God is calling them to be right now.

At Soma, we’re trying to bridge this gap by creating leadership pathways and pipelines that are grounded in self-awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to own who we are before God and others, and to integrate the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, physical, and social aspects of our humanity into a unified whole. Using an assessment-based process, we take groups of emerging leaders and help through a process of self-discovery in six areas of leadership:

  • Character: Am I the kind of repentant, humble, grace-oriented person others can follow?
  • Calling: Where is God calling me to use my gifts to serve the city?
  • Competency: Do I have the knowledge and skills to do this with excellence?
  • Capacity: Is this the right time and opportunity for me to lead in this way?
  • Community: Do I have relationships with others who can speak truth to me?
  • Cross-Cultural Awareness: Can I build meaningful friendships with people of other cultures, classes, and perspectives that are different from my own?

As leaders are learning to embrace who they are (and who they’re not) through the assessment process, we can produce customizable development plans. We try to form plans that engage a person’s head (knowing), heart (being), and hands (doing). These leadership pathways may take several months or several years; but more important than the timeline is a deeper self-awareness that leads to transformational presence.

A Call to Action

Leadership development matters for our community, but more importantly it matters for the future of our city. Where do you need to grow as a leader? What pathway will you take to get there? Who are you going to let help you?

We hope you’ll consider jumping into a leadership pathway this fall. We’ll have options available for both groups and individuals, Christians and non-Christians, men and women, ministry and marketplace leaders, artists and professionals. If you’d like more information, please email your congregational pastors and they can connect you with a local opportunity.

Image: "The Young Sabot Maker," by Henry Ossawa Tanner; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons