How To Develop Team Leaders In Your Church

Here’s a text from one of my clients last week:

‘I’m having a hard time with one of my ministry team leaders. Can we talk later today?’

Jim pastors a church of around 500 people in the suburbs of Chicago. His leadership team includes almost 20 ministry team leaders - men and women who are responsible for leading various teams, from children’s ministry to finance to church planting. More than 75% of those leaders are volunteers.

One of Jim’s leaders was on the verge of burnout - the combination of a strong work ethic and an underdeveloped understanding of how to lead her team. It’s a fairly common problem in volunteer leadership. If you promote someone into a team leader position, it’s most likely because they work hard. But hard work will not guarantee success for a volunteer leader. In fact, it just might ruin them.

Here’s what I mean. The single most important task of a team leader is to be able to lead a team. I know. Captain Obvious, right? But stick with me for a minute.

When the church I help lead identified four qualities of a great team leader, here’s what we came up with:

  1. A great team leader understands other people. They learn how to leverage team members strengths to build a great team.
  2. A great team leader communicates clearly. They listen well and can articulate their thoughts, feelings and plans.
  3. A great team leader delegates responsibly. They define the work of the team and distribute it to maximize the value of the team.
  4. A great team leader rests consistently. They understand that they need to take care of themselves before they take care of others.

Leaders who display those qualities rarely show up in your church fully developed. An inclination to take initiative and gather people to achieve a common cause must be cultivated. But if your team leaders are primarily volunteers, where do you find the time to help them get better when they’re already investing so much time leading their team?

The ABC Framework for Developing (Volunteer) Team Leaders

A healthy and mature development system ensures that team leaders are recruited, trained and evaluated so that each volunteer flourishes in their particular area of service. To help you build a system that is both simple and sustainable here is the ABC Framework that I use with clients:

Attract

Team Leaders need to be recruited without resorting to guilt. This can be done through a simple placement process:

  • Intentional development. Asking someone to serve as an assistant leader can prepare them for team leadership. 
  • Clearly define the role. What does it look like to win as a team leader?

  • Personal invitation. The person who will supervise the leader recruits the potential team leader. I strongly discourage making an open invitation for someone to serve as a team leader.

Build In

Team Leaders need to get off to a good start. In some circles, this is referred to as ‘on-boarding’; the idea is to make a short-term investment at the beginning of someone’s service to minimize the stress and uncertainty of taking on new responsibilities. Some of the components of a helpful Build In process include:

  • Walkthrough with a supervisor. After someone agrees to the role, sit down and talk through a basic description of the work and your plan for their development.
  • Basic training. New team leaders don’t have to know everything in order to get started. So don’t try to teach them everything just as they get started. Just give them enough to start well and feel successful.

  • No-Fault escape clause. Sometimes a person volunteers to be a team leader and discovers they’re not a good fit for the work. Sometimes you’ll realize that they are not a good fit for the work. Either way, make it easy to end the partnership quickly and quietly.

Connect

Team Leaders need to feel like a person and not a number. With all the work we have to do, it’s easy to forget that actual people are doing the work. You can help people feel like they matter through small but significant investments of time, including:

  • Check-ins. It’s not hard to send a team leader a text asking ‘how are you?’ or ‘how can I pray for you?’
  • One-on-One Conversations. Intentionally ask a team leader, ‘how are you?’ and ‘how can I help you?’ Have this conversation at least once a month face-to-face over coffee or a meal.

Develop

Team Leaders need clear opportunities to improve. This part of the ABC Framework is what most people think of when they refer to training; however, it is just one aspect of the Training phase, along with Build In and Connect. The overarching idea is that if you want to do a great job developing team leaders, you must help them get started (Build In), feel like they matter (Connect) and get better at their work (Develop).

Most churches try to do too much in the Develop process. What I’ve discovered in working with churches ranging from church plants to megachurches is that the best way to help team leaders get better is to offer:

  • Consistent on-the-job help. People look for solutions or ways to improve when they fail or encounter problems. No amount of up-front or theoretical training can prepare someone for the roadblocks experienced in every team leader position. Use the Connect process (‘How can I help you?’) to discover where and how you can train team leaders in the places they need help the most.
  • Occasional training. There are certain skills, convictions and ways to do work that you want to pass on to an individual leader or your entire leadership team. The two practices that I find work best are limiting these to no more than four times a year and using a platform like Trained Up to deliver your training content without asking team leaders to show up for a training event.  

  • Resourcing. This might be access to books or videos, attendance at conferences, or other tools to help them be more effective in their role.

Encourage and Evaluate

Team Leaders need to know that they are doing a good job. Most churches don’t take the time to let leaders know that they are appreciated, and fewer create simple ways to evaluate the work that those leaders are doing. Here are three things you can do to be different than most churches:

  • Host a team leader appreciation event. Again, keep this simple and make it something that can be pulled off year after year. Food, fun, small tokens of appreciation, words of gratitude - let people know that you are grateful for their work. This can be done as part of an all-volunteer event or something you create exclusively for your team leaders.
  • Hand-written notes. Every team leader should routinely receive a hand-written note from a pastor, supervisor or someone who benefits from their service. Create a template for what to write and make it easy for people to express their gratitude in words.

  • A simple evaluation. Evaluations are snapshots of someone’s work as a team leader. If most of your team leaders are volunteers, this needs to stay simple. At least once a year, make sure each team leader has a conversation in which they hear at least one thing they do uncommonly well and one area where improvement is needed.

Do The Next Right Thing

Put this ABC Framework into motion by starting small. Too many churches try to do too much, too soon and overwhelm both volunteers and team leaders. If you’re just getting started, I encourage you to create just one development option for each part of the ABC Framework:

  • Attract - Personal Invitation
  • Build In - Walkthrough (job description and development plan)

  • Connect - Check-in (how are you?)

  • Develop - Annual Team Leader Training Event

  • Encourage and Equip - Handwritten notes

Your team leader development system can and should be part of a church-wide development system called a leadership pipeline. To help you start work on a pipeline for your church, I’ve created a FREE resource entitled, “What Is A Leadership Pipeline.” When you’re done working through it, you’ll discover the three things you need to build the pipeline your church needs, and I’ll give you an action plan to get started.

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