The Missionary Task: Training Faithful Leaders

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth installment of a six-part series of articles commenting on the missionary task. For the official and complete version of the missionary task as defined by IMB, please refer to the IMB Foundations magazine. Each article in this series covers a single component of the six-part missionary task in the following order: EntryEvangelismDisciple MakingChurch FormationLeadership Development, and Exit and Partnership.

Biblical leadership is essential to the well-being of every local church. In the experience of IMB missionaries, leadership development has proven to be a pivotal element in the survival of new churches. Churches simply need faithful, well-trained pastors in order to thrive and advance Great Commission work.

A Healthy Plan

In the New Testament, elders were appointed in every church (Acts 14:23).  A review of 1 Timothy 3:1–13 and Titus 1:5–9 clearly identifies qualifications for church leaders, most of which have to do with a leader’s character. Leadership training, therefore, flows out of basic discipleship. Church leaders are to be exemplary disciples of Jesus.

Specific pastoral qualifications may be broken down into three categories: the leader’s character, the leader’s knowledge, and the leader’s practice. These categories are comprehensive in nature. Also, since the words “pastor,” “elder,” and overseer” are used interchangeably in the New Testament when referring to the same office, the word “elder” will be used going forward in this article to represent this office of pastor/elder/overseer.

“Most churches are not wanting from a lack of information. They require men of character who know what to do.”

1. Character

First, the elder should model the character of Christ as an example to those they lead (1 Timothy 3:2–3, Titus 1:7–8). Godly traits are essential to healthy church leadership. The fruit of discipleship is best developed and assessed in the context of a local church. It is never enough to give a man academic or theoretical training and then regard him as qualified to be an elder. He must be discipled, tested, and affirmed by the church.

2. Knowledge

Second, a leader must grow in biblical knowledge (Titus 1:9). The elder must know the Bible and have a firm grasp on Christian doctrine in order to lead well and teach accurately. This knowledge enables the leader to discern and refute false teaching. He does not simply live above reproach and have knowledge. He must lead out and apply the knowledge to those he leads. Most churches are not wanting from a lack of information. They require men of character who know what to do.

3. Practice

Third, elders must be able to manage and care for God’s church and equip the saints for the work of ministry, including first leading his own household well. The skills to do so are developed, not simply through the sharing of information but through mentored practice. Also, it’s important to note that while both men and women have vital roles in the ministry of the church, the role of elder is exclusively appointed to men. This is not a Western cultural practice but a biblical tenet to be affirmed in faith.

In order to provide healthy leaders for a church, missionaries work with the disciples who come to faith in their field of service. National partners must be mentored and trained to live lives of character, to learn and understand the Bible, and to provide practical leadership in the church. By definition, indigenous leadership cannot be imported.

Also, since one of the characteristics of a healthy church is biblical mission, churches must embrace the Great Commission both locally and globally from the start of their existence. Therefore, we work with churches and pastors to identify and develop church planters and cross-cultural missionaries so they can engage in mission as quickly and as effectively as possible. 

Pitfalls and Benefits

A church is benefited in many ways by having faithful leaders who lovingly serve the flock. People are led by example, fed the Word of God, cared for, and protected from error. A church that is well-led also has stability, which allows the church to stay focused on advancing the Great Commission. More disciples are made, more leaders are developed, and more churches are started.

However, there are serious pitfalls that can hinder the process of leadership development. Scripture teaches that not everyone has the same gifts or roles—every gift is vital. It also teaches us that not many should be teachers (James 3:1–2). Therefore, not every faithful disciple of Jesus should start or lead a church. Likewise, not every faithful disciple of Jesus should teach in the church. Especially in new church formation, it may be convenient to identify a leader prematurely, but it is not wise.

Also, we must avoid the pitfall of adding extrabiblical requirements to the office of elder. Since the Bible never mentions academic credentials as a requirement, we must be careful to never insinuate that a man must possess a certain academic degree to serve in leadership. Uneducated or undereducated does not mean unable to lead.

“The Bible never mentions academic credentials as a requirement. Uneducated or undereducated does not mean unable to lead.”

In the majority of cases around the globe, appropriate levels and teaching styles of theological training can be provided in the context of the local church, and—if needed—through partnering with good seminaries that have been established. Regardless of one’s education level, every leader should recognize the need for continuous learning, whether formal or informal.

In regard to formal training, one related pitfall is uprooting a man and his family and moving them to another location for theological training. In far too many cases, the newly trained leader fails to return to his home environment. A much more beneficial practice is to establish extension training. This practice better preserves the connection between the leader in training and the life of the local church. 

Leadership Development in the Framework of the Six-Part Missionary Task

Leadership development is a pivotal aspect of the missionary task. Future church health depends on effective leaders. Leadership development follows entry, evangelism, discipleship, and church formation, and must be built on a solid, healthy, and biblical foundation. Once leaders are trained and in place, the stage is set for strategic exit and partnership.

D. Ray Davis serves on the mobilization team at IMB. He and his family previously served among Sub-Saharan African peoples. You can follow him @DRayDavis.