“How do I become a leader?”

“How do I become a leader?” Several people have asked me that question. That’s usually in relation to the church, but has come in other settings, as well.

We use the word “leader” most often for two particular roles: (1) person who sits at the decision-making table, (2) person entrusted with the most visible and public roles.

And we often address the “become a leader” question with a program or an application. Attend this training, and you’ll become a leader. Or fill out this application to be on our leadership team. That has some merit to it. But it hardly guarantees that you’ll be a true “leader” on the other side. Nor does it guarantee that the people who went through the training or application process are the best people to put in decision-making or public positions.

My simple, two-step process to becoming a leader:

1) Participate

Leadership starts with participation. For a few reasons…

a) Participation itself is leadership training. Our community has discipleship groups called catechesis groups. We believe the primary training for leading a group is to participate in a group. Nothing will help someone understand the nature of these groups better than participating in one.

We see this in American society when we celebrate mailroom to boardroom stories. A friend of mine who started working at a bank said that his bank requires everyone to start as a teller. “You need to know how the front lines work before you do anything else.” Before someone is making important decisions for others or leading in a public role, it helps to know what it’s like to be on those “front lines.” This leads to the second reason…

b) Participation reflects buy-in. In our community, we wouldn’t consider having someone lead in a public role until we have seen a lot of behind-the-scenes faithfulness. Don’t ask to lead in worship if you haven’t put in some good time helping with worship setup, in the nursery, or in one of those other areas of high need. We expect our leaders to be servant leaders, and models of the kind of leadership we need. That means filling the most-needed roles before filling the most-coveted roles.

See “What are you passionate about?” for more along these lines.

c) Participation allows you to see places where you can lead. The more you participate, the more you see real areas of need and opportunity. You may be able to recognize these areas from the outside, but in several instances, your perspective will change once you get more involved. Once you’re participating, you may understand the reasons your ideas from the outside wouldn’t work. Or you may see the real needs, rather than just perceived, surface-level items.

2) Initiate

Leadership requires initiation. If you can’t initiate, you can’t lead. To be clear, that’s okay. If you’re great at taking a list of tasks and accomplishing them, you can be a great asset in a number of places. You are a highly valued servant/follower/assistant! We need many more people like you.

If you want to be a leader, that’s a good starting point. Can you be trusted to do a task you’ve committed to? If not, go back and start there. If you’re already a trusted servant/follower/assistant, now add initiative to it, and you’re becoming a leader.

Initiative in a few forms:

a) “I’ll figure it out.” Here’s simple initiative. One of our volunteers found me on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago and asked, “Do you know who’s picking up the donuts?”

I have no idea how donuts get to us every Sunday morning, but I stood up and grabbed my phone to try to find out. “No, sit down,” he said, “If you don’t know, I’ll figure it out.” I don’t know what he did after that, but I saw donuts later that day.

“I’ll figure it out” is initiative. It says that you’re willing to take responsibility for more than a checklist. You’ll take the next steps to find a solution.

b) Initiative also comes in this form: “Have we ever thought about _______?  I’d be happy to help make it happen, if you think it’s an option.” 

Sometimes it doesn’t even happen that clearly. It’s subtle, behind-the-scenes, almost-unnoticed culture shaping. Sometimes it’s a simple, “Here, I made this” (of course, only when it’s okay that you didn’t ask permission…)

I’ve told our community several times that our vision is limited right now. I don’t dare to paint too much of a vision about five years from now. Because our vision involves a community. It’s about all of us bringing together our passions and gifts. We are who we are today because of a number of people who aren’t even with us anymore. Their contributions outlasted their time with us. And who they made us is different than what we would have planned in a “strategic visioning session.”

We are who we are today because of Andrew’s desire to teach our kids to pray and worship together, and because of his desire for an adult in the community to speak to those kids each week as valued members.

We are who we are today because Jason and Sarah called us to be a community that made sure it included both genders throughout its leadership.

We are who we are today because Adam was determined to give people the warmest welcome possible and because Anna was determined to get them around a table together.

And we will be who our next leaders help us become.

c) If you’re at a loss for where to start, initiative can even come in this simplest of forms. It can be the initiative to learn from a mentor. “I want to grow as a leader. Would you help me find a mentor? I’m willing to do anything they/you think would be a helpful next step.”

And of course, if you’ve already been participating and initiating in a number of ways, but there are more leadership opportunities you aspire to, you can certainly initiate a conversation about those. Go to the right person and tell them you’re interested in more.


Essential Qualifications

These won’t make you a leader, but you can’t lead (or shouldn’t) without them.

  • Holiness – You can be the greatest speaker, decision-maker, creator, organizer, or motivator the world has ever seen, but if your life isn’t a model of holiness, you shouldn’t be leading. Not in the church, at least. An essential question for our leaders: “How is your heart today?”
  • Servanthood – Yes, the Bible refers to disciples and servants much more than it refers to leaders. And we need disciples and servants more than we need leaders. If you are not a model servant, don’t presume to be a leader. That is, if you haven’t demonstrated that you can care for others and set their interests above your own, you’re going to have difficulty being a good leader. At least in the church, when we say “leader,” we need to presume that “servant” is a part of the definition.
  • Trustworthiness – If we can’t rely on you to make your actions match your words (integrity) and to make your words match your actions (honesty), we can’t have you leading us.

How Should We Then Eat?

cowsLast Sunday, I began a preaching series on Old Testament ethics with a sermon titled “The earth matters.” How do we understand our relationship to God’s creation and creatures? You can find the sermon audio here.

A main part of that message was on humane treatment of animals. This isn’t just humane activity. It’s divine. It’s acting as the living image of God, God’s representatives on the earth. It’s caring for God’s creation and the creatures of the earth as the good gift that they are––not to be abused or disregarded. We especially focused on the living and dying conditions of most of America’s “food animals.”

A little secret I let my congregation in on: the preacher doesn’t already have all these things worked out. My family is no exemplar of care for God’s good earth and its creatures. This isn’t to say we do anything intentionally abusive or negligent, but we’ve just not given it much attention. Whether this sermon convicted anyone else, it at least convicted the preacher.

I thought I’d share with you some practical tools we’re finding to do better. These are all resources to help us buy from places with an eye toward humane treatment of animals, rather than from factory farms. For what it’s worth, in addition to the benefit to the animals, these practices may also include health benefits, environmental benefits, benefits to farmers, and provide better-tasting food.

There are so many things to think about, and wholesale change can be difficult. Not to mention that many of these new choices will be more expensive. For those who are just trying to take baby steps, I’ve talked to some people who have decided to focus on switching one meat meal per week to a free-range/grass-fed/organic option. Others have talked about reducing the amount of meat they eat per week, and still others about starting with a move to organic or free-range eggs.

Sadly, the environment has become a political hot button issue. The mere mention of the word is likely to get our backs up about as quickly as words like gun control, abortion, same-sex marriage or immigration. If you find yourself in lock-step agreement with a certain political party on all of these social/ethical issues, you might pause for some reflection. None of our political parties (so far as I know) are seeking first to govern according to the will of God. They have many other agendas. Donors, pressure groups and philosophical commitments all influence their social agendas far more than a deep reading of the Christian faith.

Some people want us to avoid these topics in the church for the sake of “keeping politics out of church.” But more than American political issues, these are ethical issues. The church must speak and act on these things, and we need to be able to do it without the suspicion that we’re doing something as small as promoting a political party’s agenda. Our task is different, and bigger, than any of theirs.

“Is it okay to give to other missions instead of my local church?” – Q&A pt. II

I began responding to reader questions in this post about conditional salvation and pastors’ salaries. I thought this next question was appropriate to consider as this year ends and a new year begins…

Hi Teddy,

I have a question about giving. My family has always appreciated the discipline of generosity. So we wanted to give generously––beginning with a tithe as minimum––but we DIDN’T give it back into our local church. We felt no conscience about this, but when my senior pastor found out, he was very displeased about it.

As I think about becoming a senior pastor in the future, I’m less concerned that my staff tithe to the church and more concerned that they are generous in other kingdom ways that expand beyond a mere tithe.

As of now, I could direct most of my giving somewhere besides the church without having a conscience issue SO LONG AS my family is being generous TO THE BODY as a whole.

Maybe that’s the question – where is the line between the local body and the larger body of Christ? Why does one seem to demand priority in our giving?

What a great question! Thanks for asking. I certainly relate to this. We give to several missions outside our local church. It would be hard not to. There are a lot of great missions / missionaries we believe in, and it’s fun to be a part of what they’re doing. We don’t necessarily separate out “tithing” to the church and “giving” to other places, so I’ll just talk in terms of giving. And let me commend you for considering “tithe” (10%) your minimum and then giving more. The vast majority of American households have the capacity and should be giving more than 10%.

In my case, I would have a conscience issue if we weren’t giving––and giving substantially––to our church. I obviously see up-close how the money available affects what our church can do. We depend on people’s generosity to continue the mission. If I believe in our mission, I need to be supporting it with our finances. If I don’t believe in our mission, I need to be working on a short-term “reform or exit” plan.1

That wasn’t always my position. For a couple of years, I didn’t give to our church. I had told our Sr. Pastor at the time that I didn’t believe in how we were spending money and couldn’t contribute to it. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed by that. If I couldn’t believe enough in the church to give it our money, I should have left.2 Moreover, that position made it difficult for me to lead and to call for others to buy-in. I wasn’t bought-in myself. I didn’t realize the difference that made in my leadership until later.

Jesus’ words, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” have proven more true than I expected (see the linked article on generosity for more on that). Once I started giving, even sacrificially giving, to our church, I began to love the church a lot more. I began to lose my cynicism and feel much more like a full member of the team.

“Buying in” doesn’t prevent me from raising questions and challenging certain things. But now I’m doing it as a fully-committed member. For any of us who fashion ourselves “reformers” of any sort, we need to do it as committed members. That kind of commitment doesn’t have to require lock-step agreement. But it requires being in. So long as I was criticizing our use of other people’s money while not contributing myself, I was just standing on the outside throwing stones.

In short, my love and commitment for our church and our mission have followed my money more than they preceded it. If I waited until I was in full agreement with how we spent money, I probably never would have given. (For what it’s worth––I’m very proud of how our church uses money now. Along with the important work we’re doing locally, we send 25% out the door for missions bigger than our own. And we’re in the minority of UMC churches that pay our full apportionments, no matter how tight the budget. How can we ask our members to be faithful with their giving––even in tough times––if we aren’t being faithful to our commitments to the larger body?)

I’m able to ask for other people’s full investment––prayers, presence, gifts, service, witness––because I’m willing to stand at the head of the line, as someone who’s all-in. With that experience, it’s hard for me to imagine leading again if I weren’t all-in myself. That’s not so much advice as personal testimony.

I don’t know if that answers any questions about lines between “local body” and “larger body” giving. I don’t know if I would ever tell anyone else that their local church demands priority. I wouldn’t point to any biblical regulations to say that your church should receive your first-priority giving. But I might point to your personal situation. The mission I’m most directly a part of is First Church’s. So by virtue of participation, First Church’s mission is our top priority. For us, that means it needs to be our top priority for giving, too.

Thanks for giving me a chance to reflect on that. I hope it might be helpful to your situation.


  1. A note: If I find myself constantly exiting places because of my disagreements with them, it’s probably time to ask if the problem is me––if my standards are too high, or if my initial selection criteria is poor. Beware the person who leaves angry and often.
  2. I’m not suggesting I should have actually left in that situation. Rather, I think I should have been giving, despite my disagreements. They weren’t big enough to warrant leaving, so they shouldn’t have been big enough to warrant withholding my money.