Effective—and counterintuitive—ways to launch leaders
By Joy Allmond
In fall 2015, Travis Wussow was living in the Middle East with his wife and young daughters. A normal day would include meeting with diplomats to discuss religious liberty concerns, advocating for the marginalized and oppressed, or developing partnerships with other organizations.
He doesn’t have a diplomatic, military, or political background. And how he got there can’t ultimately be traced to law school or his time as an attorney in Texas.
The catalyst for his world-changing work was a weekly commitment to set up and tear down a gymnasium for Sunday worship services.
Within a few years of being on the setup team, he was a deacon at church and started a benevolence ministry. He began to dream of doing justice work on a global scale, using his legal degree to advocate for the weak.
“If you told me then I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I’d tell you you’re crazy,” says Wussow.
Prepare them to leave the church
Today, Wussow is a vice president for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
He runs its Washington, D.C., office, serving as general counsel and advocating for public policies that address human dignity, racial unity, religious liberty, and other crucial areas of society.
Kevin Peck, lead pastor at The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas, says too many mentors have a small vision for the people they develop.
Shortly after Wussow committed his life to Christ, Peck—the leader who had him and others setting up and tearing down chairs—became his mentor.
“Most people’s dreams are beyond what we offer them short term,” says Peck.
“The goal should not be to train people for what we have for them but for what God has for them. We need to train and equip people in here, so Christ can be magnified out there. In this way, the church should be an incubator.”
In other words, Peck says when there’s a need, leaders shouldn’t see a system to help them fill a volunteer spot; they should see an opportunity to develop other leaders.
“Christ didn’t do His work on the cross just for someone to hand out bulletins or set up folding chairs for a worship service,” he says.
“It’s not about the bulletins or the chairs. But a person handing out bulletins—let’s say a quiet, reserved person—will likely become more outgoing, self-assertive, and engage with people they don’t know. Eventually, they will adopt new behaviors. They’ll be more effective outside the church.
“I see it not as an end but a means,” he says. “We don’t use people to get tasks done. We use tasks to get people done.”
Assign crucial tasks to the unqualified
When Toronto’s Connexus Church founding pastor and ministry consultant Carey Nieuwhof was a young seminarian, he was called to a church that had around 25 people—on its high attendance day. It was the first time the church had called a new pastor in four decades. His job was to turn things around.
But when as few as six people show up on Sundays, where do you start?
“Too many people are focused on what they don’t have and obsessed with what they can’t change,” says Nieuwhof.
“Instead of fretting about what we don’t have, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Is there anyone in this room I can build the future of this church on?’ Usually the answer is yes, but it’s not always going to be a dream team. They might not be the best you’ve seen, but they are the best you’ve got.”
Since he had such a small group to begin the rebuilding process, he knew he couldn’t build his leadership team on giftedness or talent. But he could build it on availability and action.
“There was no kids’ ministry, presumably because there were no kids,” Nieuwhof says.
“But that’s actually backward. We had no kids because there was no kids’ ministry. So we launched the ministry and kids started showing up. We tend to want to make our goals lofty, but we must start very granularly.”
Within the first year, the congregation had grown to more than 40 people.
Nieuwhof also began to see the benefit of recruiting the unlikely—like Justin.
Justin was a troubled teen with a substance abuse problem. He became a Christian at 18 and began volunteering on the Connexus Church production team three years later.
“I watched him teach other volunteers over time, and he was eventually offered the job of our service program director,” says Nieuwhof.
“Today he coordinates many volunteers across multiple church campus locations. He has helped dozens of church leaders with resources he created.”
Set people up for failure
Wussow was part of a group mentorship led by Peck, who had his mentees doing the grunt work of a Sunday morning service, along with learning systematic theology and hermeneutics.
They weren’t just becoming educated leaders—they were becoming disciplined ones.
“If you can’t lead a team to set up the gym, you won’t be able to lead things on a grander scale,” says Peck. “When you’re recruiting leaders, it’s important to see how they handle the less fun tasks—and how they solve problems.”
Over time, Peck observed Wussow in his church-related roles, in his professional role as an attorney representing the energy sector, and in his global service role as an International Justice Mission fellow.
Peck believed Wussow was ready for the next challenge—an executive pastor role.
“Kevin gave me big projects early on during my time on staff at Austin Stone,” says Wussow.
“And it gave me time to transition and get out of a lawyer’s mindset. He gave me more responsibility and trust than is reasonable and allowed me to get into situations way out of my depth.”
Whether it was a resource or logistical need in the setup and teardown ministry from the earlier days, or a church budget challenge at Austin Stone, Peck challenged his mentorship group to solve problems.
“One of Kevin’s mantras is, ‘Every problem is a leadership problem,’” says Wussow.
“We could have hired people to set up and tear down 1,000 chairs every Sunday at the high school where our church met. But Kevin trained us to ask ourselves how we could solve problems without spending money.”
Wussow says that mentality has stayed with him throughout his ministry and career.
“I’ve made a ton of mistakes as an executive pastor I wish I could undo,” says Wussow.
“But I’ve grown to see that Kevin understood my gifts and what my contributions could be better than I did. He put me in situations where I could grow and expand my strengths. He threw me in the deep end, and I’m thankful for that.”
Don’t recruit fame seekers
Chris Adams, retired women’s ministry specialist for Lifeway Christian Resources, recalls the task of finding her replacement when she left her role as women’s ministry director at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, to move to Nashville and work for Lifeway in 1994.
Adams’ then-supervisor asked her to have lunch with some replacement candidates to get to know them a bit and get a feel for their motivations.
“The first one said it was time for a job change and thought it would be good to do something different,” Adams says.
“The second one said she had never been in women’s ministry and thought it would be a great job opportunity. But I didn’t see it as a job—I saw it as a calling.”
Adams’ eventual replacement was a woman she remembered from local women’s conferences. The woman had never held a ministry leadership role.
She was a full-time special education teacher who, Adams says, “had a heart for ministry, invested in women, taught the Word, and worked with children. I knew her heart for ministry and heart for the Lord. I knew she could do it. And over the years, she has taken that ministry to places it had never been.”
When Adams came to Lifeway as one who helped launch women into public ministry, it became common to hear from women who were looking for a platform rather than a mission.
“Some were trying to tell God what to do,” she said. “Some weren’t even serving women in their own local church.
“The women I knew and worked with never set out to be the next big thing,” Adams says. “They were just doing what God called them to do.”
Leaders must spend time getting to know people they could potentially develop, she says. “We can’t be good at recruiting without knowing who would steward their leadership well.”
Lack of succession planning is a prevalent problem among ministry leaders, says Nieuwhof.
“There’s no success without a successor,” he says. “In my late 40s I asked myself, ‘Is what started with me going to end with me?’ I wanted the answer to be ‘no.’ I didn’t want things to just run; I wanted them to grow.”
One way Nieuwhof says leaders sabotage their recruiting and developing efforts is an unwillingness to push other people into the spotlight.
“They hang on because there’s nothing greater ahead of them,” he says.
“They fear if they allow someone else to lead, their moment is over. And if we look at that in daylight, it shows up as a spiritual problem. Leaders have to trust God for their future and get over the insecurity—be more openhanded with their leadership. When they grip their roles too tightly, it keeps a lot of other leaders off the platform and out of the seats they should be in.”
Wear out your welcome
For leaders who develop others, it’s easy to see a mentorship as a “project” with start and end dates. But investing in people requires a long-term commitment.
“I can’t think of a time or single instance when (Peck) canceled our group meetings for any reason,” says Wussow.
“We always met. You have to have a total commitment to your people. They’re going to flake on you—people will come and go—but you have to be consistent and committed to the people you are investing in. That’s a fairly self-obvious thing to assert; it’s another thing to actually do it.”
Many years later and many miles apart, Peck and Wussow still maintain their relationship, and Peck continues to encourage and mentor Wussow from a distance.
“I don’t think I would have had the courage to take the big career risks I’ve taken if I didn’t have that sense of confidence Kevin spoke into me over time. He encouraged me to think broadly about my impact on earth,” Wussow says.
“I’m not doing anything remotely close to what I thought I would be doing. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
JOY ALLMOND (@JoyAllmond) is managing editor of Facts & Trends.