Spiritual Leadership in Church Planting
The missional aspect of the offices of elders and deacons is often overlooked, but it is of vital importance for church plant leadership. Many church plants fail — even ministries led by very qualified missional pastors — because the leadership functions of elder and deacon were forgotten.
Church planting can be compared to raising children (cf. Gal 4:19). The idea for the church plant is first conceived within the mother church. At some point, the new work is birthed, and then its growth begins from infancy to childhood to adolescence and finally to the maturity of adulthood. Our focus in this article is on the importance of elders and deacons in the church planting life-cycle from the time of its birth to the point it is constituted as a mature church.
Discussions about leadership for church planting usually focus on the office of the missional pastor. The pastor is called by God to lead the new ministry. On behalf of the mother church, he is spiritually responsible for the new work. So it is normal and necessary to study biblical requirements for his character, preparation, and responsibilities. But don’t overlook the work of elders and deacons!
Elders and deacons provide spiritual leadership for a church planting ministry in at least two areas. First, these offices within the mother church provide oversight to the new work. They are called to give wise guidance to the missional pastor and the local church plant ministry under their oversight. Barnabas (before he moved to Antioch) is a good example of such leadership (Acts 11:22–24).
Second, these offices are gradually developed within the church plant community. Though still in infant form, they are “born” and mentored to provide spiritual leadership within the church plant. The young church plant, with God’s blessing, will eventually be constituted as an autonomous, mature church in the denomination. But until the young church is formally constituted, the missional pastor is called to prepare and mentor the proto-leadership functions of elder and deacon within the new work. Let’s give more attention to this second area of spiritual leadership that is often overlooked.
Barnabas knew the importance of spiritual leadership in church planting (cf. Acts 11:19ff). The leaders in Jerusalem had sent him to check out rumors they were hearing about a revival in Antioch. He arrived, realized that God was working in this new place, and quickly become involved in the young church plant. But Barnabas, being a good man and full of the Spirit, knew that he needed to start preparing local leaders immediately. So he recruited Paul, and together they led a training program. The result, among many other good things, was a multiethnic leadership filled with the Spirit (Acts 13:1-2).
The Apostle Paul followed a similar pattern in church planting. In every place where a church was started, Paul quickly selected and began training local leadership (Acts 14:23). Consider Paul’s missional team and his enormous multiethnic network of colleagues, co-workers, and friends in every place! Mentoring local leaders was important to Paul; this was evident when he instructed Titus concerning the church planting work in Crete (Titus 1:5). He was quick to start preparing local leadership while maintaining a high standard of qualifications for elders and deacons.
We can be tempted, especially in church planting contexts, to lower the biblical standard for church leadership (1 Tim. 3:1-13, Titus 1:6-9). In our desire to be like Paul and set up many churches, it is easy to hastily fill the offices with men who later prove to be a John Mark or a Demas or even a Judas.
We would be wise to carefully follow the instructions of Paul (and the Holy Spirit) in this regard, too. In fact, if the missional pastor (together with the mother church) has chosen an unqualified person, it is better to take a few steps back and remove that person from leadership than to press on with the church plant while trying to ignore the problem.
Likewise, the men appointed as leaders of a church plant should not be immediately ordained as elders and deacons. It is better to set up a provisional local governing body, such as a steering committee. After being tested and proven, these men will likely be chosen as future elders and deacons when the church is constituted.
Another common mistake is to select men since they are natural leaders or have leadership roles in the secular world. But the church must not be governed by men because of their secular qualifications or because they may be more popular. The church (and church plant) is a spiritual community that must be led by those who are spiritually gifted by the Holy Spirit for such ministry.
We are tempted to think of leadership selection as a way to increase the power or influence of our own tribe. As in politics, we may want to choose people who are most like us and will best support our own agenda. But when choosing leaders, we should think about how to best improve the ministry of Christ within the body, and how to increase the witness of Christ within the social context.
The composition of a church plant’s steering committee should reflect the social context (ethnicity, social status, economic level, life stage, etc.). For example, a ministry in an area with a large Hispanic population should ideally be led by a steering committee that includes Hispanic men. The homogenous unit principle of church growth theory may describe what has happened in a specific context, but it is not a biblical prescription or a guide for good practice.
Cross-cultural ministry is a reality and multi-ethnicity is a consequence of that reality. But these things should never be an end in themselves. We don’t want a multiethnic church only to create an attractive photo op! Yet we certainly do rejoice when our church reflects the local social context because this brings the church community closer to what it will be like in heaven (Rev 7:9-10).
As the missional pastor of the church plant identifies and prepares men for leadership, he must keep the spiritual competence of the steering committee as his primary objective. Though diversity that reflects the social context is ideal, it must always be remembered that the new church community will not grow spiritually higher than the level of its leadership.
Secondary factors — such as ethnicity, local influence, and natural ability — can be considered, but only when the highest level of spiritual maturity is present. Moreover, it is vitally important to maintain leadership unity at all times — not only since this makes the work much more likely to succeed, but also in order to display this unity “in order that the world may know” the Christ (John 17:21).
How should we prepare future elders and deacons? On-the-job training is almost always the best method. The missional pastor should immediately start preparing for the future leadership of the church, even before the church is actually born. A wise, godly mother is already praying and planning for her child, even before birth. A wise, godly father is already nurturing his son to be the head of a future household. Why should spiritual parenting be different?
Before beginning the church plant, the missional pastor (with the mother church) should have already planned for how the future leaders will be identified and mentored. Many otherwise well-planted churches fail in the later stages because of the lack of a wise exit strategy.
In addition to initial planning, the missional pastor should intentionally start delegating the various aspects of spiritual leadership (both eldership and diaconal functions) as soon as there are men in the steering committee who are able to carry these responsibilities. Knowing how and when to do this requires much prayer and even some courage for trial-and-error.
The role of elders and deacons in a church planting ministry must not be overlooked. The missional pastor, even with the wise assistance of a strong biblically grounded mother church, should not attempt to do the work alone. Like Paul, we need a ministry team that includes the leadership functions of elder and deacon. So it is wise to reflect biblically their spiritual leadership at all stages in the church planting life cycle.