Identifying Leaders in Small Towns Joseph Swords By Joseph Swords September 29, 2016
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Church planters in small towns commonly puzzle over where to find gifted leaders. It’s not uncommon for small town planters to celebrate the hard work of their volunteers while bemoaning the apparent lack of residential leadership in the community. In my experience, this perceived problem is so widespread that it has become a general assumption that gifted leaders are rare if not completely absent from rural communities. But I am less and less convinced that this assumption is, in fact, true. Certainly there are fewer natural leaders just as there are fewer of every other sort of person, and they may be of a different ilk; but I suspect that, with some careful observation, church planters will be able to discover the treasure of gifted leaders in small towns.

With careful observation, church planters will be able to discover the treasure of gifted leaders in small towns.

Before we get too far, the following is based entirely on my observations from a handful of small town Michigan churches. Perhaps small towns in Minnesota or northern California have such a different demographic that these observations would not apply. Nevertheless, I hope the following thoughts at least encourage small town church planters to think beyond the common indicators for leaders in their search for brothers and sisters to lead Jesus’ church to our hope of future glory.

Three General Assumptions

  1. Leaders and Followers. Not everyone is, or should be, a leader. Leadership is not better than followership; leaders and followers are both necessary and good. Moreover, in some sense, we should all be followers, and the ability to follow is divine.
  2. Leadership Isn’t. Management, organizational, and system development skills do not equal leadership, although a leader may possess some or all three qualities. Furthermore, loudness, power, and wealth are not markers of leaders. A good many pastors have mired their churches by giving leadership to good managers or acquiescing decision making to the loud.
  3. Leadership Is. Leadership is being able to 1) cause people to want to move from point A to point B, and 2) understand and enact the means by which to move people from A to B. This may be done intuitively (which may appear disorganized or even sloppy, though effective) or it may be well ordered and systematized.

Leader Modes: Active, Dormant, Undeveloped

Active leaders are relatively easy to spot. Look where people are going, find who is taking them there, and you’ve found an active leader. These might be local entrepreneurs, high school coaches, or good mayors. But these active leaders are not those we’re having trouble finding; how do we find the dormant or undeveloped leaders?

Not everyone is, or should be, a leader. Leadership is not better than followership.

I am sure there are many ways to identify dormant and undeveloped leaders, but there does seem to be a thoroughgoing trait that helps identify these sorts of people in small communities. The majority of dormant and undeveloped leaders that I have encountered in small town Michigan are people who have made a self-sacrificial decision to return to or remain in their small community. Let me give three examples of the sort of person I have in mind, then explain why self-sacrificial staying/returning often points to leadership abilities.

Three Examples

A young man feels that he has exhausted his career opportunities in his hometown and moves to a city across the country to try his hand at a more profitable career. Two years later his dad is diagnosed with cancer and the young man returns home, committing to care for his father until the end, whatever the cost.

A newly married, upwardly mobile couple engages in the foster care system, planning to move elsewhere as soon as the opportunity arises. The couple begins to foster a child who will probably become a ward of the state, and they are determined to adopt the child. They put all other plans on hold for as long as it takes.

A middle aged, successful entrepreneur and politician resigns business ventures and political positions to care for his physically declining son. He quietly puts down roots in a local church within driving distance of a hospital that will be able to give his son the appropriate care.

Examples Explained

These examples are three of many that are common to dormant or undeveloped leaders in small town Michigan. My observation indicates that this self-sacrificial returning to or staying in the small community exhibits three characteristics that are necessary for leadership:

  1. Conviction strong enough to alter otherwise more personally profitable plans. The examples reveal conviction that the betterment of another person’s existence is worth personal investment.
  2. A measure of humility to put the needs of others above one’s own abilities and potential. In every case, including the examples above, those who returned or stayed have done so at personal, career or financial loss.
  3. In most cases, those who have returned or stayed have exhibited vision to see through the immediate circumstances to an equal or greater (though perhaps less noticeable) good that will be accomplished by staying or returning to the small town.

The people from the examples above are engaging in various forms of leadership in Jesus’ church. The first is developing as a leader in a church plant. The second are beginning to explore the possibility of planting a church. The third is leading faithfully in an older, established church.  All three are currently in small towns.

Gospel-formed conviction, humility, and vision mark the men who are under-shepherds of the church

Indeed, gospel-formed conviction, humility, and vision mark the men who are the under-shepherds of the church because their chief Shepherd embodied them perfectly. Elders live out the gospel by seeing eldership as a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1). The word translated noble by the ESV (kalos) means good, beautiful. What could make the onerous, dangerous, tiring, stressful, difficult task of feeding and protecting God’s flock, especially in small town situations, attractive so that it is to be desired? It is when we understand that it is a noble task, in the same way that Jesus considered it a noble task to give himself for his people as a ransom. For the joy set before him, he went to the cross. It is a task, but a noble one.

Parting Thoughts

Self-sacrificial returning to or staying in a small town is certainly not the only method for identifying leaders. But for church planters with limited time and limited budgets, searching out this common characteristic may help accelerate the leader identification process. By God’s grace, may we both be and find men and women who will self-sacrificially lead and love Jesus’ church.

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Joseph Swords Joseph Swords

Joseph Swords is lead pastor of The Exchange Church, MI. You can follow him on twitter at @josephaswords.

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