3 Complications with Looking for Church Volunteer Leadership

Where are the Leaders? 

Churches, like most organizations, are always looking for leaders. I recently read an interesting article meant to help church leaders determine whether congregants are leaders or simply doers. Although I agree developing leaders is one of the greatest challenges any organization faces, I disagree with placing people in these two categories. In fact, I believe attempting to distinguish between those worthy to be called leader from those who merely do can actually hurt leadership development in your church or organization.

Part of the problem is we set the concept of leader on a high throne and then search for them amongst our congregation as if hunting for bigfoot, leprechauns, or magical unicorns. Few people are able to meet our high standards and so leadership development is weak or non-existent in our churches. Here are three ways we need to change our leadership focus.

1. Leadership is a Skill, Not a Person

At its core, leadership is attempting to influence an individual or group towards a certain goal. It’s a skill that people employ in various circumstances throughout their day. It happens when a mom attempts to convince her family to go out for ice cream. Or when a family member explains why Christmas should be at their house this year. Leadership happens at work, home, and everywhere in between. Leadership is something we do, but not necessarily something we are.

Talking about leaders is a lot like talking about professional chefs. What if I wrote an article asking how to determine if people were chefs, or merely cooks. A person learns to become a chef through training and on-the-job training. It’s true some people have a naturally precise pallet and good sense of food creativity, but overall becoming an expert chef is a learned set of behaviors. Becoming a leader is similar. It’s not something you are or aren’t. It’s a skill you grow and develop over time through use. In this way, everyone can develop the skill of leadership.

2. Role-Specific Skills are More Important Than “Leadership”

We would more easily find volunteers to fill the roles in our church if we spent more time focused on the skills needed for those roles, instead of looking for “leaders” fill them. Looking for a person who fills the vague concept of leader is difficult and confusing. Instead, consider the following example.

If your church is looking for a small group leader, focus on individuals who can:

  • be friendly
  • gather a group
  • lead spiritual discussions
  • can direct a group as needed

Yes, executing these skills will require a certain level of leadership. But, searching for individuals who have these concrete skills is more powerful and helpful than simply searching for a leader to fill that role. This concept goes beyond small group leaders. Instead of emphasizing leaders in any position, begin focusing on the skills necessary to play the role that you’re looking to fill. De-emphasize leadership as a person, emphasize individual skills necessary for success.

3. Volunteer Roles Differ From Job Roles

The people who attend our churches are probably an expert in some sort of field. This means they manage people and resources every single day. We ask these highly skilled individuals to perform tasks within our church structure that they may or may not be equipped to do. For example, I think of Mark. Mark owns his own financial company and is highly successful in the financial world. When our church began we asked Mark to help with check in in our kid’s area. Mark did fine, but it was clearly a little out of his sweet spot. As a pastor, it could have been easy for me to determine that Mark was not really leader material. But, based on what Mark does in his real job, that’s clearly not the case.

Yes, it’s very possible Mark was placed in the wrong position, but we were starting a church and a little desperate. Sometimes individuals want to do serve in a different way from their daily work requirements anyways. I’ve known many teachers who wanted to serve in any way except with children. The point is, it’s unfair to designate someone as a leader or non-leader, based on what we see from them over the weekend. It’s possible they can take initiative, they’re just not willing to at church for whatever reason. We should be very cautious when wielding terms like leader within our church. We may not always have the whole picture when assessing people’s potential.

The takeaway

Right now there’s a huge emphasis on leadership and leadership development- and rightly so. I love leadership so much I’ve recently begun a doctoral program in the subject. But, I feel the overemphasis on looking for true leaders in the church is actually hurting leadership development. Most churches today are around 100 people. In a church this size, you might need a few individuals creating and accomplishing a clear vision, but mostly you need sincere individuals passionately serving in specific roles. Focus on the skills necessary to successfully accomplish each role and you will more easily find people who fit those roles. Are these people leaders? I don’t know. But, can they develop the skills necessary to lead- definitely yes!

Leadership Addendum

I do want to add a few clarifications on this topic. It may not be helpful to formally designate certain people leaders, but that doesn’t mean it’s not helpful to determine where they fall on a few variables.

For example, consider how a potential volunteer measures in the areas of initiation, responsibility, and organizational commitment. I’ll speak more about these roles in a future post. But, when we say we’re looking for a leader, we’re probably talking about individuals who score pretty high in these three areas. Understanding this can give you more power to determine where a person actually is, while determining if the role is a good fit for them. In time we might find a few individuals who rise to the top as they prove high in both initiation, responsibility, organizational commitment and prove to have high skill in a specific role. I agree it would seem appropriate to call these individuals organizational leaders. The problem is many churches want to focus solely on finding these few while ignoring the amazingly skilled people ready to serve, standing before them.

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