Pete Scazzero hosts the Emotionally Healthy Leader podcast and is the author of several books, including The Emotionally Healthy Leader and Emotionally Healthy Discipleship . Scazzero founded New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, where he served as senior pastor for 26 years. Matthew LaPine, a Christian minister and writer on mental health, spoke with Scazzero about a pressing challenge pastors are facing today: recruiting and developing leaders in their congregations.
Pastors are feeling overstretched and emotionally exhausted, and many have asked CT how to raise up and train leaders in their churches in this moment. Is this the right question to be asking right now?
I do think it’s the right question. Every leader needs to be asking that question: How do I develop and raise up leaders?
We’re called to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. This is a huge task right now. Almost all the churches I have talked to have lost 20 to 40 percent of their people. And the folks who are in the room are new. So you’re starting over as you build relationships with a lot of new people. This takes a lot of time—years actually.
But there is some prior work that has to be done. First, we can only develop leaders out of who we are before we lead out of what we say and do. We cannot give what we do not possess. Because pastoring is so demanding right now, we need to attend to God’s work in us. We need to be replenishing the soil of our person so that we’re leading out of a cup that’s overflowing. Maybe that means spending days alone with God, developing a rule of life, getting a spiritual director, getting into therapy, doing some kind of advanced training. You need to assess: What do I need?
Second, this moment is calling for a more robust spiritual formation and discipleship. COVID-19 should be a wake-up call. In the past couple of years, many people have told me that they realized the superficiality of their discipleship, that small groups were not enough. We can no longer say that everything is fine because we have a crowd of people in the room.
The way we have measured success numerically is so inadequate. We have to cultivate spiritual maturity and integrate emotional health. We cannot separate them. It’s a time of humility, curiosity, and openness about our limits.
This will also involve accepting our humanity, accepting grief and loss. We tend to medicate ourselves through addictive behaviors. We deny, suppress, and minimize sorrow.
Accepting grief and loss will reorient how we measure success. If you are standing, if you love Jesus, if you are pointing people to him as the hope of the world, then you’re a booming success. I don’t care if there are just five people in the room. You’re doing wonderful. Relax.
In Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, you discuss the importance of developing “a theology of weakness.” What do you mean by that, and why is it so essential?
A theology of weakness very simply is that God himself came into the world weak; the very nature of the Incarnation is weak. Jesus could have come with great worldly power, but he did not. He invites us into a loving relationship with him, never demanding it.
We need leaders who integrate a theology of weakness into their discipleship. A lot of people are weary. A theology of weakness is going to refresh them and give them perspective. Something has ended, but God’s on the throne. He’s doing something new. He is doing a work in us. We can be okay without having to control everything.
There’s an invitation here into silence, to stillness, and to waiting on God. If we’re just living off another big worship event or we need to get juiced up by worship on Sunday like it’s going to carry us for the week, that’s just not enough. We’ve got to make disciples.
The question is, How do I recruit and develop leaders? How do I make disciples who are serious? Start with yourself and begin to bring in some of the missing pieces to really take your people into a depth where they’re deeply changed by Jesus.
If pastors commit to this sort of discipleship, what will its fruit be in five to ten years? And how does it contrast with a hasty approach that anxiously strives to get attendance numbers back?
If you just want to get your numbers back, I don’t think you’re going to develop mature disciples. That was not Jesus’ strategy. He invested himself in leadership development of 12, and three within the 12, and one didn’t work out. It was really hard, but long range, it worked.
We are not called to build a crowd; we are called to build a church. And we build a church by making disciples.
If we invest in people well, the growth is organic; it’s bottom up. I don’t have to manufacture it or strive to make it happen. If we’ll slow down and actually begin investing in people, we’ll find that God is working.
I spent my early years in ministry “making it happen.” I was doing programs and growing the church numbers. I was watching it very closely. But it wasn’t organic, bottom-up, from-the-soil growth.
The biblical image of growth is agriculture. It is seasonal. It’s slow but powerful. And it is always God who brings fruit. We only create the conditions for people to connect with Jesus and to grow; God’s going to meet them.
Pastors of small congregations face unique challenges in developing leaders as they grapple with the stress of viability and limited numbers of potential volunteers. How is recruiting and developing leaders different in small churches versus big churches?
We’re always looking for the same qualities, whether it is a big, small, or midsize church. We’re looking for people who are faithful, available, and teachable. The bigger challenge is creating the space where you can actually do this work. We have so many urgent things that pull at us, so that we don’t have time to actually invest in people.
My wife and I always ran a group in our basement. Every year, we chose 12 to 18 people. We hosted the group, investing three hours every other Sunday night. We also did weekends together. It was very intensive. But God blessed us with many leaders and pastors that emerged out of that basement over the years.
I think it’s more difficult in a large church, believe it or not. The demand is greater for you to keep the machine going. Seek Jesus and get free from all those tentacles pulling you to be this functionary , this programmatic person that fills a role. Discipleship requires the nitty-gritty of incarnation with people.
The characteristics faithful, available, and teachable sound to me like a wide net. But how do people get into your basement? How can pastors choose whom to invest in?
It’s people who are led to be developed by you. There are many great churches, ministries, and leaders in our city. There are people who offer a lot more than I do. But God brings certain people who actually want to be with me. It’s always a miracle, isn’t it? But I’m looking for that.
Jesus chose 12 people from nowheresville who didn’t look like much. But they were willing to learn and go anywhere with Jesus. People like this are hungry, not just teachable. They are eager.
I’m not looking for charisma. I’m really not. I can tell you story after story of “charismatic leaders” that did not work out because so many other things were missing, like teachability, humility, or openness. But there were many people I never expected to become significant leaders, yet they did because their character became so extraordinary. They led out of their character more than their gifting.
I want to talk about the risks of recruiting leaders, especially in smaller church contexts. When should you not hire or not recruit a leader? How do you backpedal from a mistake on that?
Once a person is in a position, it is challenging to get them out of that position. If possible, you want to do a pilot or probation period. You want to get to know them in advance, doing just some of that job if possible. The nice thing about a smaller church is that there are a lot more opportunities for that.
Don’t just give people a title so they will do something. That’s dangerous. You’re stewarding and giving people power. So you want to be careful that they’ve got the humility and teachability to be in that position.
But if you’ve gotten someone into a position that’s not right for them, you owe it to them and to the church to have an honest conversation, respectfully and kindly. To do “Christian nice” is not loving. Figure out a way to get them out of that position, because it is your mistake, not theirs. But when their identity or false self is tied to that position, wow, that’s hard.
The most difficult part of leadership is the risk and challenge of mobilizing people into positions of power. And in some ways, it is more difficult in a small church because when a person leaves or is removed, it reverberates through the body.
A quarter of the church could be related to them!
Exactly! So you want to be very careful. Remember: A church is a family system. You, as a point leader, are trying to cultivate a healthy family system. You need to be always thinking of that. You want to release people to serve slowly. It is better to have nobody in a position for now than to fill it with someone who may not be God’s person.
It takes thought; it takes prayer. It takes a slow-down spirituality. There is no fast church. A church that has boomed to a few thousand people in a year only has a crowd; they don’t have a church. Building a church is a slow birthing process. You can’t rush it.
Pushing for speed comes out of your flesh. So often, that’s coming from your shadow. When I’m rushing, I know something is wrong inside me, that I’ve stepped out of loving union with Jesus.
I’ve got this little test now: I ask myself, Am I relaxing in Jesus? If I’m hurrying, if I’m rushing, if I am giving quick opinions and talking too much, then I know I’m not relaxing in Jesus. When you’re not relaxing in that place with Jesus, then you make a lot of mistakes.
You end up with a lot of what we call “dirty pain.” We’ll always make mistakes because we’re imperfect. But there is clean pain and dirty pain. With dirty pain, you’re rushing; you’re not thoughtful; you’re not prudent, not taking time like you should.
Clean pain is the suffering that comes with the gospel. Or it might be when someone quits on you or someone you develop goes to lead at another church. And that’s good. It is just suffering that comes from following Christ, especially as a leader.
What biblical encouragement would you offer pastors in this season?
First Corinthians 15:58: “Therefore … stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
There are times when everything in you wants to quit. You think, I just can’t go on. I’ll do anything. I’ll work at minimum wage. There is something to be said about staying faithful during times when you can’t feel anything, when it’s a valley, when it’s a dark night of the soul, when there’s not a lot of fruit on the tree, like in Habakkuk chapter 3.
My encouragement to pastors and leaders is this: Stay with Jesus. Serve as a leader. There’s a suffering that comes with that. But I promise you that God’s going to meet you. Hang in there through those times when you feel like everything in you wants to quit. Stay with it and get resourced so that you have something to give out. You’ll look back later and say, “The most transformative times in my life came out of my failures, setbacks, and when I thought that everything was going backward.” Stay with God, because he’s doing something in you and through you.
This article is a part of our fall CT Pastors issue. You can find the full issue here.