One of our readers made a special request that I address the issue of how to safely empower new leaders and servants in churches. So in this article, that’s what we’re going to do. I’ve personally experienced the frustration of wanting to empower more people to help with ministry needs, while feeling hesitance due to not knowing enough about every volunteer to feel comfortable turning over service opportunities to them. What should you consider in these situations? Is there anything you can do to prepare for those moments, so you can protect the church, but not unnecessarily hinder faithful and like-minded people from serving? Should we care? I think so. Consider a few thoughts:
Intentionally Training ALL Believers is Right
Ephesians 4:11-12 “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ . . . ”
The first thing we need to have straight is that the foundational purpose for which Jesus gives pastors to His people is that they intentionally equip them to serve with their spiritual gifts. This means every pastor should care about helping people discover and use their gifts. I don’t care what we THINK our job is in other areas as pastors, Jesus is clear that intentionally raising up Christians and helping them serve in practical ways is our job, and we need to take it seriously. Too many pastors expect people to figure things out on their own. If you’ve been feeling responsible to help people understand their gifts, and put them to use serving the church, you’re walking with the heart of Jesus.
Intentionally Training & Empowering New Pastors is Right
2 Timothy 2:2 “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
Not only is it the job of pastors to train and empower the general follower of Jesus, but it’s also the pastor’s job to train the next generation of church leaders. The words of the verse above aren’t a special message for super pastors or a suggestion either. This verse is a command to all pastors. If you’re a pastor today, it’s probably because somebody helped you see, embrace, and grow in your gifts and calling. And if you’re a pastor today, it’s your job to turn around and help those who are coming along behind you as well. You need to “commit” the wisdom, lessons, and experience you’ve gleaned to training the next generation of leaders.
Intentionally Being Careful about Empowering People is Right
1 Timothy 5:22 “Do not lay hands on anyone hastily, nor share in other people's sins; keep yourself pure.”
Here’s the sticky part. While it’s a pastoral responsibility to help Christians understand and use their spiritual gifts, and train the next generation of church leaders, you have to exercise caution as you do both. Some want to gain a position of influence in the church because they want to hurt the church. Part of the job of pastors is to do the best they can to protect the body from being damaged by wolves and misguided Christians. So what do we do with the two-fold responsibility to empower trained Christians, and protect the church from crazy leaders?
Expect to Get it Wrong Sometimes
First, and this might sound nuts, but if you take the call to train and empower Christians for service seriously, you should expect to mess up sometimes. It’s not a question of if you’ll empower someone you shouldn’t, but when. As Paul said, “. . . savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.” (Acts 20:31) The truth of this causes some pastors to cower under the responsibility of raising people up. The result is that they continue to burn out while trying to do everything and the people they lead continue to be frustrated and joyless because they aren’t serving in the role in which Jesus designed them to serve the body. You can’t let the fear of mistakes cripple you from doing your job.
You will get it wrong on new leaders sometimes, but you can do practical things to make sure you’re wrong as little as possible. The best way to empower the right people more often is to prayerfully develop systems of discipleship and assessment for people who want to serve. This isn’t some carnal, seeker church idea. It’s an encouraged New Testament concept and safeguard.
When you get a chance, read 1 Timothy 3:1-15 and Titus 1:5-9. What you’ll see are lists of qualifications for pastors and deacons. The lists were written to two men who were already serving as pastors, and they were instructed by the apostle Paul to use the lists to evaluate potential new leadership for service roles in various local churches. 1 Timothy 3:8-15 lists qualities of deacons, and 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 list the qualities of pastors.
Body & Leadership Training at Refuge Church
At the church I lead we have designed a three level discipleship system which helps us entrust the right people and avoid the wrong people. Our church leadership structure is intentionally simple. At the top of our leadership structure is, of course, Jesus, the Head of the church. Under Jesus are the pastors, with the Lead Pastor serving as the leader of the leaders. If you’re overseeing an area of ministry (department if you like), and are NOT a pastor, you’re a deacon. If you’re simply using your spiritual gifts to serve on a ministry team in a non-oversight, you’re a Christian. This is how we train each kind of person:
People who just want to serve at Refuge (in anything from greeting to cleaning) attend a once per quarter discipleship day called EQUIP. During the day they go through four main sessions. First, they go through the Gospel Class. In this class we make sure everyone who wants to serve is a Christian by explaining the gospel to them thoroughly. Additionally, we make sure they are signed up to get baptized taking the first step of discipleship, if they haven’t been baptized since they believed the gospel. Secondly, they go through the Missional Christianity Class. In this class they learn practical ways to be a witness for Christ in their daily lives. Third, they go through the Spiritual Gifts Class. All the biblical gifts of the Spirit are defined for them, and they take a spiritual gifts test. We know spiritual gifts tests aren’t full proof, but they at least give people a starting point to begin serving, from which God will clarify their actual spiritual gifts. Fourth, they attend the Refuge Distinctives Class. In this class they get a quick view of our basic theology as a church.
After attending EQUIP, we know if people are saved, baptized, understand a bit about personal witnessing and their spiritual gifts, and like-minded in Refuge theology and philosophy of ministry. That being the case, we have confidence when we direct them to get involved serving the church in an area of ministry consistent with what we’ve agreed are their spiritual gifts.
If someone wants to help direct an area of ministry under the oversight of a pastor, they have to have already gone through EQUIP. If they have, they are invited to go through our deacon process which includes filling out an application and meeting with the appropriate pastor about service opportunities. Through the application and relational interaction with the person, it’s easy to tell if they’re a good fit for serving as a deacon at Refuge.
If a man desires to be a pastor at Refuge, they have to go through EQUIP and complete an intense pastoral training and assessment process. It includes an extensive application and theological questionnaire, attending staff meetings once per week, and undergoing a ton of character, spiritual gifts, and skills assessment. Their wives are an integral part of the process as well. When a man completes the process it is really clear if they’re a good fit in terms of character, gifting, and theology to be a pastor at Refuge.
You Have What You Need
So there’s my take on how to raise up servants and leaders and protect the church at the same time. You need to develop a clarifying discipleship process through which you can help people make sure they know Christ, understand their spiritual gifts and where to use them, and embrace the theology and philosophy of ministry of your church. If all that discipleship and clarity is accomplished, it’s much easier to empower people, and protect the church. When someone asks to serve in some way, the first question for us is, “Have you gone through EQUIP?” If they have we either say yes, or move them toward the Deacon or Pastor processes. If they say no, we tell them EQUIP is the place to begin. A system like this has freed me from the stress of not knowing who to empower for what, and it has freed the church to serve Christ how He has designed them to do so, and freed them from the frustration of being used by the pastors as warm bodies to fill service needs. Start by simply using the lists of Deacon and Pastor qualities in 1 Timothy 3:1-15, and Titus 1:5-9. God’s word has given you all you need to do this well.