The New Testament is filled with instruction on discipling believers generally. But now and then it also focuses on raising up church leaders in particular. For instance, Paul tells Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Then he describes what these elders should be like. Similarly, he tells Timothy to find “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
In the same way, I’d like to offer counsel on how I’ve personally worked to find, encourage, and raise up other leaders in my church, whether to serve in my church or eventually in other churches. Many of the matters discussed below apply to discipling more broadly. After all, the criteria listed for an elder in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 should characterize every Christian, with the exception of not being a recent convert and being able to teach. Which is to say, the goals of discipling a believer and a would-be church leader are mostly the same.
Still, I do want to lay the onus on elders especially to think about how to raise up future leaders. That is one of your particular obligations. Samuel Miller (1769–1850) once observed:
Wherever you reside, endeavor always to acquire and maintain an influence with young men. They are the hope of the church and of the state; and he who becomes instrumental in imbuing their minds with sentiments of wisdom, virtue, and piety is one of the greatest benefactors of his species. They are, therefore, worthy of your special and unwearied attention. . . . In short, employ every Christian method of attaching them to your person and ministry, and of inducing them to take an early interest in the affairs of the church.
Here then are nine steps for raising up leaders in your church.
1. Shepherd Toward Biblical Qualifications
The place to begin is with the qualifications Paul gives to Timothy and Titus:
If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Tim. 3:1–7; also Titus 1:6–9)
There’s nothing extraordinary about these virtues. But as I heard Don Carson once say, an elder does what an ordinary Christian should do extraordinarily well. He’s a model for the whole flock. He’s a picture of maturity for all.
I’ll occasionally ask young men whether they’ve thought about serving as an elder, and I’ll do that early on in their discipleship, knowing they may be years away from being qualified and ready. It’s my way of asking whether serving and building up the church is one of their ambitions, and if not, why not? Which is to say, a good discipling tool for every Christian is this list (with the exception of able to teach).
I want to lay the onus on elders especially to think about how to raise up future leaders. That is one of your particular obligations.
That said, I don’t believe Paul means to provide an exhaustive list for what an elder should be. For instance, he never says “faithful Bible reader” or “man of prayer,” though I think every elder should be those two things. When it comes to raising up leaders generally, and men whom the church would financially support especially, I do think we should also look for natural gifts of leadership. I want to promote and equip men who look like they can help advance Christianity into the place I’ll never go: the future beyond my passing.
Does this mean I’m transgressing James 2:1 and playing favorites? I don’t think so. James is concerned with wrongly favoring the rich. But wrong discernment and discrimination doesn’t make all distinctions wrong. Remember, Paul tells Timothy to look for “faithful men” who can “teach others,” as well as men who “aspire to the office of overseer.” A man can aspire for the wrong reasons, but a man who doesn’t aspire at all is not qualified.
Ultimately, you want to shepherd men toward biblical qualified-ness. That’s the baseline. And the more a man also demonstrates the natural giftings, which show themselves in the fact that people follow him, the more you might look for opportunities to have him practice leading.
2. Adopt a Posture of Looking
If you want to raise up leaders, you need to be on permanent lookout for them. This should be your posture, especially if you’re an elder. Sydney Anglican Phillip Jensen refers to “blokes worth watching.” Can you name any BWWs around you?
Pastors should be profoundly opportunistic about raising up more pastors. And the whole church should have a deep confidence that the Lord wants new leaders raised up.
I want to promote and equip men who look like they can help advance Christianity into the place I’ll never go: the future beyond my passing.
I keep my eyes open in a number of ways. I hang around the congregation and interact with them. I stand at the door after Sunday services and notice who says what, or who is interacting with whom. I work to provide lots of teaching opportunities in the weekly life of our church where gifted teachers can emerge. Praying daily through the church’s membership directory also brings people to mind.
3. Spend Personal Time
Spending time with people is a crucial part of raising up leaders, just as Jesus called the disciples to join him on the mountain so they might “be with him.”
Sadly, I see many pastors build walls around themselves. Those aren’t men who will be raising up more leaders, at least directly. I’m not saying you need to be an extrovert, but a pastor does need to find some way to spend time with other potential leaders in his church. Hebrews 13 exhorts the church to follow their elders’ example. How can they do that if they don’t know their leaders up close? Paul’s call to imitation requires the same—time spent.
So a pastor needs to figure out ways to spend time with younger men. Lunches can be crucial. On those occasions when my wife asks me to go the grocery store, I typically break into a cold sweat for fear of getting the wrong thing (my issue, not hers!), and so I often bring a brother with me. That way, we can spend intentional time together, and he can share the blame. I build people into my sermon preparation schedule, too, including a lunch devoted to brainstorming over application and a Saturday night reading preview. Not only do these encounters improve the sermon, but I’m also able to get a sense of different folks, and encourage them.
All these examples are designed around me, my work, and my schedule. Figure out what schedule works for you, and draw disciples into it.
4. Advance Trust
If you wish to see leaders raised up, your general posture should be characterized by a willingness to advance trust. Having lived in different places and traveled, I know such a disposition varies from place to place. But I do think it’s a property of love: love believes all things and hopes all things (1 Cor. 13:7). You probably have members of your church whom the Lord has entrusted with great talent. But for that to be discovered, someone must advance trust to them, like credit. And good leaders do this. They don’t wait for people to prove themselves, and then give them teaching opportunities. No, they see the hint of something that, with a little encouragement, could grow and flourish. So they advance credit and let the young disciple spend it.
If you want to see leaders raised up, your general posture should be characterized by a willingness to advance trust.
Many leaders, with the best of motives, can be too conservative here. More than once I’ve seen senior pastors unable to affirm anyone else’s leadership. Or I’ve witnessed men become lay elders and then pull the tree house rope ladder up after them, so that no one else can get in, asking more of prospective elders than anyone ever asked of them! Now, you will make mistakes. You won’t bat a thousand. I haven’t. But I do definitely take risks in leadership. It’s worth it. God is sovereign. Christ will build his church. So let’s lean in and take some risks.
Congregations, for their part, need to be patient with young men in leadership as they make young-man mistakes. I often tell churches not to be afraid of nominating a young lion cub. He may scratch the floors or damage some furniture, but if you’re patient with him, you’ll have a lion who loves you for life.
5. Delegate Responsibility
This point is tied to the last one. How do you advance trust? By delegating responsibility and opportunity. There are several components to this:
Give people the opportunity to lead.
Quietly keep a list of men in your congregation you think might be good teachers, or public pray-ers, or service leaders, or Sunday school teachers. Test them by delegating. Again, I recognize some pastors feel very protective about their flocks: “But Mark, the Holy Spirit has made me the overseer.” That’s where I say: When you die, friend, the church is going to be fine. And you want to help make it more fine by loosening your grip now and preparing other leaders by delegating. Your goal is not to build your kingdom. Your goal is to empower others by giving them opportunities to lead and teach.
Lose votes and arguments.
Delegating authority means ceding a measure of control. And if you’re willing to do that, you need to be willing to lose votes or not always have the last word. Not everything must go your way. If you never let people lead in a way contrary to your own opinion, you’re not really letting them lead! So, yes, you might be disappointed to lose on this or that issue, but the gain of encouraging other leaders to lead is a better long-term investment (not to mention it blesses the church with the gifts of their wisdom).
Cultivate respect for other leaders.
Some years ago, our assistant pastor and I were standing on the platform at the front of the church before a Bible study started. He was about to lead it. In the midst of talking playfully with each other, I patted him on the head (he’s shorter than I am). He immediately took me aside and said, kindly but firmly, “Mark, stop it. You can’t treat me like that in front of the congregation if you want them to respect me.” Once he said it, it seemed so obvious. Of course! I needed to publicly treat him like a leader and work to cultivate that respect for him in the congregation.
6. Give and Receive Feedback
Once you delegate responsibilities and opportunities to minister, you also need to create structures for feedback. For starters, that means showing those you’re discipling how to give and receive godly criticism. Be honest and tender with brothers about things they could improve on.
Your ability to give godly criticism will be greatly enhanced by modeling what it means to invite and receive godly criticism. To encourage that, I try to receive critical comments without answering back (not that I always succeed), even if I disagree with the criticism. I do answer if I think the comment will mislead others, but if I slap down every constructive criticism a younger man offers me, especially after I’ve invited the feedback, he’ll quickly learn it’s futile (and embarrassing) for him to offer forthright opinions to me. And that will prove the least useful for me! There’s always room for improvement in my ministry. The feedback I’ve received over 20 years has greatly helped me to serve the church better.
In addition to modeling what it means to give and receive godly criticism, we must also model giving godly encouragement. Paul had plenty of critical things to say to the Corinthian church, yet he opens the letter by thanking God for them (1 Cor. 1:5, 7). I don’t think that Paul was flattering the Corinthians. I think he was rightly acknowledging what God had done. Should we not acknowledge that what comes from God belongs to God, like the evidences of grace in one another’s lives? Encouraging would-be leaders should teach them to give praise to God.
So many times I’ve seen men, particularly younger guys, act as if real leadership is shown in correcting others. That’s why young men’s sermons often scold. What they haven’t figured out is that you can often accomplish more by encouragement. There are times to scold. But 80 to 90 percent of what you hope to correct can be accomplished through encouragement. If you look back at your life and consider who influenced you the most, you’ll probably realize it’s the people who believed in you. As Henry Drummond once observed, “You will find, if you think for a moment, that the people who influence you are people who believe in you. In an atmosphere of suspicion men shrivel up; but in that atmosphere they expand, and find encouragement and educative fellowship.”
So many times I’ve seen men, particularly younger guys, act as if real leadership is shown in correcting others. That’s why young men’s sermons often scold. What they haven’t figured out is that you can often accomplish more by encouragement.
When I observe that the men I’m discipling give encouragement and criticism to me or to one another, I learn as much about them as I do about the thing they’re commenting on. It’s like standing in an art gallery and looking not at the paintings, but at the people observing the paintings. What are they drawn to? What do they emphasize? Setting up good feedback loops, if you’re a pastor, helps all of this discipling to happen.
7. Encourage Godly Authority
Too often today, people don’t understand what a gift godly authority can be. Raising up leaders requires us to teach about godly authority, and to encourage it. Jesus certainly taught his disciples about good use of authority (Matt. 20:25–27).
The fallen world both misuses authority and lies about authority well used. Satan’s basic lie to Adam and Eve was that God couldn’t really love them and tell them no.
The true nature of authority became clear to me years ago when I was preaching through 2 Samuel. David’s “last words” are striking:
When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth. (2 Sam. 23:3–4)
Good authority blesses those under it. It nourishes them. People will gravitate toward healthy authority that spends itself for the good of those under its care, rather than using them for its own good. Look at how a family prospers under good parents, or a team under a good coach.
The abuse of authority by pastors is such a terribly destructive and uniquely blasphemous sin.
That’s why the abuse of authority by pastors is such a terribly destructive and uniquely blasphemous sin. Further, the stories of prosperity preachers buying private jets for tens of millions of dollars point to something incredibly twisted and Satanic. Such “pastors” reinforce the lie that Satan hissed into Adam and Eve’s ear in Eden: that authority is just a way to abuse you for the leader’s benefit.
Gratefully, the King on the cross shows us that the opposite is true for godly authority.
Just as Jesus tutored his disciples in the godly use of authority, and modeled it himself, so must we with any men we’re raising up in leadership.
8. Expect Clarity
Leaders in the church must know how to be unusually clear on doctrine and in teaching the truth generally. This is an implication of what Paul teaches the Ephesian leaders in Acts 20. And it’s his assumption throughout his letters to Timothy and Titus.
A leader must possess a clear-headedness about the truth. You want people who have a natural ability to answer the question, “Why?” And they need to be especially clear about certain issues: the most basic matters of theology and the gospel; those doctrines that distinguish your church from others; and those teachings in Scripture that are under fire and unpopular in the world at large.
9. Foster a Culture of Humility
What all eight of these previous practices require is a culture of humility. Christian discipling depends on such humility, which drives out envy.
It’s no sign of humility in me if I’m watching someone else minister and thinking either “I could do it better” or, feeling discouraged, “I could never do it that well.” God does different good things with different people. We’re like different instruments in the orchestra, and a good leader helps each person find his or her place. Why would the trombone be jealous of the kettledrum? Each can be enjoyed for what it is.
One way to view my whole ministry is getting my church ready for the next pastor.
Fostering a culture of humility means working against the fear of man. And we do that, of course, by learning to fear the Lord. Before men attend my church’s pastoral internship, we ask them to read Ed Welch’s When People Are Big and God Is Small. If you do not know that book, I highly commend it. Every would-be leader should learn to recognize fear of man in himself. One way we can see it in a new intern is when he shows up in our church and is threatened by other strong leaders. But I want strong leaders, as many as I can get. After all, one way to view my whole ministry is getting my church ready for the next pastor.
In general, humility leads us to speak when we should speak and stay silent when we should stay silent. It leads us to be both tender-hearted and thick-skinned. I want to see God’s church prosper by seeing more humble leaders raised up. And I think my humility is part of how that will happen.
What a joy to be used by God to disciple others! Why wouldn’t you spend your life doing this?