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The Mentoring Leader (free sample)

Create a church culture that helps identify and grow leaders.
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Ephesians 4:14-16

During her eight years as a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, Nancy Ortberg led the Network ministry, helping people identify their spiritual gifts and find a place of service in the church. Today she is a founding partner of Teamworx2, a consulting firm that works with organizations, helping leaders overcome the team dysfunctions that are obstacles to high performance and work enjoyment. Nancy spoke with Laura Leonard, editor of BuildingChurchLeaders.com, about how leaders can best train new volunteers to succeed in their roles.

What does mentoring mean for a leader in charge of a group of volunteers?

Mentoring is a really important component of leadership. So if someone is in charge of a group of volunteers, mentoring or developing them would be one function of leading them. It is very much the developmental piece of leadership: I get to know you and know your story and background, your strengths and weaknesses, and I can speak into your life in ways that stretch and grow you. I can give you experiences, resources, and conversations that help develop you.

We all need mentors from more than just one source, at different phases of our lives, and for different areas of our lives. So I would not put all the responsibility of mentoring on the leader. But a piece of good leadership includes a mentoring role. The very best mentors that any of us look back on fondly, they were pretty organic. They weren't assigned. They came up where there was a relational connect and we had the courage to ask them if for a period of time they would fill that role.

What are the best examples you've seen of churches training volunteers well?

When we were at Willow Creek Community Church, they had a pretty well-developed infrastructure and rhythm. Every month in any ministry area there was a gathering of all the leaders of that area—or it could be quarterly, depending on the culture—to do vision, to communicate with them so they know what's going on in the church, and to do some skills-based training. That was the more formal structure of the training.

Then there were the informal rhythms, where you could count on one-on-one or group follow-up with the leaders that was much more personal and contextualized to the group of people they were leading: where they were getting stuck, where they were having successes.

Really great feedback is essential. "Here is what I see you doing well, here is what other people say about you, here is an area I think you can grow in"—this way volunteers know that someone is paying attention, and that what they do matters.

It is also important to have some form of ongoing communication that comes out from the church on a regular basis, maybe from the head pastor or the person overseeing small groups, where there is a constant flow of communication. Leaders should feel like they are among the first to know what decisions are getting made, and what sermon series is coming up: they should feel part of that core group of the church.

What do younger leaders most need to hear from older leaders?

"I see you and I believe in you." That is the first thing they need to hear. Then I think they need ongoing leadership from the older generation. They need them to say, "I'm going to watch you and give you experiences and opportunities to do things, but I'm not just going to let you go. I'm going to coach you along the way, I am going to be a resource for you, I'm going to watch you do it, and I'm going to give you feedback. And then I'm going to give you another opportunity, and stretch you a little further that next time.

The three words I think of a lot when I think of developing people are relationships, opportunities, and challenges. To build trust with somebody, I need to have some kind of a relationship. They don't have to be my best friend, but I have got to know that they know me and that they care about me. There has to be a relationship. Then they have to give me an opportunity to do something that is aligned with who they know me to be, and what my gifts are. If you got to know me you wouldn't put me in charge of a children's program. That's not what I'm good at, and I don't like it. So you give them an opportunity that is based on what you know about them and then along the way you give them challenges, and you stretch them to see how ready they are to take the next step.

What qualities are often overlooked when seeking out potential new leaders?

Andy Stanley said this years ago at a conference: "Underdeveloped and underchallenged leaders will always think they can do your job better than you can." So often we tend to lean away from young leaders who at first impression feel a little scrappy, a little know-it-all-ish, who feel like they can do your job better than you, and that's because we don't like that. I would say you need to lean into that, and figure out if there's a leader under there. People—leaders included—don't always present their best self as a first impression. A lot of times a leader has an energy, and it might be coming out sideways and in all the wrong ways. But when you see passion and urgency and energy, you might want to look under the hood a little bit to see if there's a leader there.

How can leaders better think about their role as identifier and recruiter of new leaders?

Read Ephesians. That's really their primary job, to equip the body for the work of ministry. That means leaders have to be really well-versed in spiritual gifts. They have to know what the spiritual gifts are, and they have to know what clues people radiate off of themselves because of their spiritual gifts. Someone with the gift of hospitality almost always has a warm, welcoming, inclusive, and open posture. Their first response in most situations will be, "Let's be sure everyone feels included." That sentence right there is a spiritual gift 'clue.' Someone with the gift of intercession will say, "Let's pray about this." An administrator will say, "Let's organize this." People are radiating clues about their spiritual gifts all the time. We need to pay attention.

The primary job of a leader is to look across the horizon of the church and see who the people are, what gifts God has deposited in them, and how they can place them in areas that line up with those gifts to leverage the power that God has placed in them. This is the power that pushes the church into the future. So you ask a lot of questions, you listen well, you make observations, and then you make the ask: "Have you ever considered possibly thinking about volunteering with junior high kids as a leader? Here's why I think you'd be good at that."

What types of questions can leaders ask to help identify leadership potential in people in the pews?

I would start with questions of passion. Questions like, What kind of conversation would keep you up late at night? What are you passionate about that might surprise other people? When you look at the church, or outside the walls of the church, and you consider the fact that the church could make a difference in some of these areas, which ones excite you the most? I would also ask questions about their past. What have you done in the past that brought you a lot of energy and success? What are some areas or competencies that you have that when you used them you had successes, and things happened and changed because of it?

I would also ask them questions of maturity. Tell me a little bit about your journey with God. I also ask people, "When has been a hard time between you and God, when you have doubted him or haven't felt his presence? How did you get through that?" And then I always ask, "What has been a hard time in your life?" For a leader to be good, they have to be very aware of their woundedness, their brokenness, their pain and suffering. Without that self-awareness I'm not ready to put them in too high of a leadership position.

How can you develop reluctant leaders—those people with latent gifts that don't seem to want to step up?

Encouragement. You're going to develop these people slower. One of the reasons it's hard to develop this kind of person is because some people who are reluctant have really low self-esteem. That's really hard to overcome. I have recommended therapy for lots of people, myself included. Low self-esteem is one of the most difficult things to overcome in working with future leaders. So if their reluctance is around that, they're probably going to need a season of spiritual direction and counseling and reading great books, like those by Henry Cloud or Dan Allender, that are going to help them get to the depths of their woundedness.

Other people are just reluctant because nobody believed in them enough to give them a chance and then coach them along the way, to be their safety net. I would give these people observations and feedback about why they might be good in a certain position. And then I would give them a small job first, something with a little less of a stretch, because that gap would be too big and their reluctance might just swallow them down into that chasm. And then promise them that someone is going to be there watching them, supporting them, and giving them feedback to help them succeed.


1. What rhythms, both formal and informal, have we established in our communication and training with volunteers?
2. How often do younger leaders get feedback from older leaders? How could we encourage this to happen more often?
3. How can we better help connect people with leaders who will provide mentoring and feedback?

Topics:Discernment, Discipleship, Empowerment, Evaluation, Leadership, Leadership development, Mentoring, Motivation
Filters:Church staff, Discipleship, Elder, Leadership development, Mentoring, Pastor, Pastoral care, Young adults ministry
References:Ephesians 4:14

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Dr. Roger Smalling

September 11, 2015  9:17am

Thank you for this fine piece. Please note this free resource in English and Spanish on Christian Leadership: http://www.smallings.com/english/books/CHRISTIANLEADERSHIP.htm

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Wy Woods Harris

September 12, 2014  10:42am

Thank you for this very valuable piece. I am now mentoring a new minister and I am sharing this with her.

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SallyB Rodriquez

March 03, 2014  12:18pm

It's unusual for a younger leader (under 40) to see the need to multiply leaders and invest in the development of new leaders. Younger leaders want to develop their own leadership. Thanks, Nancy, for this encouraging nudge. Especially in our smaller church, this seems to be an intergenerational activity--the older working with the younger, but it's personal mentoring, not a program.

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John Little

February 27, 2014  11:21am

Thank you for this. Perhaps the urgency for this is more obvious in a larger church but I think what Nancy sets out here, is very applicable (perhaps crucial) across the full spectrum of churches. Make relationships with those who are newer and younger. Actively identify their passion and provide them opportunities to serve. Those who have been along the path before mentor/coach **walk with** them, allow them to try, fail, try again. Jesus chose Peter knowing the rooster was going to crow, but He was there when Peter failed, and he promised to be with him to the end. It's a good thing to lower the "entry requirements" for serving in the body. Walking with the newbie (and with those who are seasoned) is essential. Thanks again.

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February 27, 2014  10:28am

Very good, practical analysis and advice. Especially useful in a large church context. Harder to do this in a small church context, where there is a less varied and fertile group of people with leadership potential.

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