Breathing Is Not the Main Qualification for Leadership

In churches desperate for quality leaders, empty chairs cry out for warm bodies. This is especially true in small churches, where that cry can be particularly loud. Yet, in the interest of God’s Kingdom and congregational health, the urgency to fill a vacant position should not truncate the process of testing potential leaders. I’ve seen the results when it does…

The first church I pastored was a rural church of under 50 people, and we were constantly struggling to find leaders. Once when there were no obvious candidates for a church board vacancy, one of the elders suggested a casual attendee who had recently started coming more consistently. This man was nice enough and was a personal friend of several board members, but I questioned whether he really knew the Lord, and the fact that he was a heavy drinker and a chain smoker added to my uneasiness about his appointment. Then one day following a worship service, we walked outside, and this gentleman very casually said, “G** damn, what a beautiful day.” Shortly after that, I voiced my concerns about him, but in the end, I was the only “nay” vote at the congregational meeting. He went on to serve for a year or so, but he didn’t contribute to the church or its leadership. He simply filled a chair at meetings and failed to offer any spiritual wisdom to our team.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think people need to be perfect and fully polished to enter a leadership pipeline. I’m also the type of person who is willing to take a chance on someone who still has some questions. Yet, in the end, common sense and biblical mandates must prevail in choosing potential leaders.

The Apostle Paul makes it explicitly clear that we must “test” people before we empower them with leadership responsibilities (1 Timothy 3:10). This “testing” doesn’t have to be a rigid, formal, or exhaustive process. It can even be done without the knowledge of the person being tested. It just needs to be done in some way before we give people power.

Here are four suggestions for testing potential leaders…

1. Give them simple tasks and establish clear expectations. Then observe… Do they follow through? Do they get results? Do they do their job with Christlike character? Do they make excuses and blame others for problems, or do they take responsibility? If you see a tendency to blame and make excuses, you need to confront that attitude and slow the process down.

2. Engage in a brief coaching session with them. Be sure to begin with only one or two issues so as not to overwhelm them. Voice the positives you see in their work, but then graciously address one area where they could improve. Are they receptive or defensive? Overly defensive people who reject constructive criticism are ticking time bombs.

3. Observe their follow through. After a coaching session, see if they apply what you discussed or if they just go back to doing the same thing they did before (see #1).

4. Ask revealing questions. In a private setting ask them about their passions, dreams, and past experiences, including their leadership successes. Then say, “Tell me about some of your biggest mistakes or failures as a leader.” If they are either in denial about or unwilling to share past mistakes, they may have too much pride or too little self-awareness. In either case, future problems are inevitable.

This is not to say that a person who fails any of the above leadership tests is unqualified to lead. People can be coached, and they can change. These tests simply offer a means to gain insight into a person’s character before you empower him or her. At the very least, tests like these help you know how to mentor a potential leader by revealing areas of weakness. As a result, you may be able to avoid serious problems in the future.

In Revelation 3, the church at Ephesus is commended because they “tested those who claimed to be apostles” and discovered they were actually false teachers. The verses that follow tell us the church was still struggling because they had lost their first love and had fallen back. In other words, the church wasn’t perfect. They still had their share of internal difficulties (see the book of Ephesians), but they prevented additional problems by avoiding the temptation to blindly trust potential leaders who claimed to be apostles.

Sometimes when leaders are scarce, we are tempted to latch on to anyone who shows a little bit of promise, but when we follow the biblical mandate to test potential leaders before empowering them, we can provide the church with healthier leadership and prevent major conflicts and complications down the road.