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Ministry foundations matter. The priorities you set in the first few months of a new ministry (or a new ministry year) set the tone for everything that follows. Start your conversations with an emphasis on leadership and you’ll cultivate a culture that places a high value on leadership. Start out with an evangelism push and you’ll embed a passion for evangelism. If you’re launching a new ministry and the first thing you work on with your core team is a leadership development pipeline, you’re creating a pipeline culture.

In the hundreds of conversations our team members have had with ministry leaders over the last several years, we’ve found that for many people—particularly those starting new ministries—the top priority is to develop leaders and create a leadership pipeline.

That’s a problem.

If your priority in starting a ministry is creating a leadership pipeline, you’re going to run into issues down the road. It may seem counterintuitive but starting with a leadership pipeline as your focus will block foundational growth in your ministry.

Counterintuitive? Absolutely. With the fast turnover rate of collegiate and young adult ministry leaders, shouldn’t every ministry have a leadership development plan in place? Who would say that’s not a good place to start?

Jesus, that’s who.

Where Jesus Started

Jesus didn’t start his ministry team by looking for people with leadership potential. He didn’t sit down and make a list of required skills and strengths for joining his core team. He didn’t map out steps for growth. He didn’t even round up volunteers with a skill for facilitating great ministry.

Instead, he started by inviting untrained men to be his disciples. He gave them the opportunity to walk with him, observe, learn and grow. There wasn’t a step-by-step pipeline to follow.

It wasn’t until a significant amount of time passed (probably two to three years, depending on how you read the timelines of the Gospel narratives) that Jesus appointed a specific few of his disciples as leaders. Even at that point, they weren’t given direct leadership of much; they were simply invited into closer proximity to Jesus as he began more intentionally discipling them.

This wasn’t an accident. It’s a model based on a specific set of priorities and values, and it’s something we need to learn from.

Start with Discipleship

If you’re at the outset of your ministry, or if you don’t have a solid disciple-making culture, hold off on creating your leadership team. Don’t spend hours developing a pipeline. Start by laying a foundation of disciple-making by doing the work of disciple-making with those Jesus has placed closest to you.

If you start with leadership, you may develop leaders, but it’s highly likely that discipleship will end up being a lower priority. I made this mistake in the young adult ministry I led for over a decade, and it resulted in unintentionally developing people’s “leadership skills” rather than developing people with hearts that were humbly, joyfully obedient to Jesus.

What I’ve discovered—and what I believe Scripture communicates and demonstrates—is that if you start with disciple-making, you’ll inevitably find people who can lead while they grow as disciples of Jesus.

Start with discipleship. Do the gentle and challenging work of walking with people. Help them learn to receive love and grace from Jesus, to live in obedience to God’s truth and to be attentive to the Holy Spirit’s leading in every domain of life. Follow Jesus’ example and invite those in whose hearts God seems to be working to be close to you. Let them observe, learn and grow. Only then should you send them out to do ministry and lead.

Then Train in Leadership

To be clear, I’m not opposed to leadership pipelines. They’re incredibly helpful tools. They’re a crucial part of the process that Elementum uses to help our partner leaders think through the growth of ministry. However, leadership pipelines are not the starting point of a healthy disciple-making ministry.

Once these you’ve discipled have gotten a taste of what it’s like to do ministry and disciple others, then worry about leadership training and pipelines. Learning skills like casting vision, planning an event, thinking strategically and using time effectively will have much more staying power when they are responses to the felt needs of a disciple-maker. Let leadership become a function of disciple-making rather than something that is separate from being a disciple of Jesus.

Get your foundations right and the rest of the house will be solid. The Great Commission precedes the growth of the church as an organization. Love for God and making disciples of Jesus—not being highly skilled leaders—is the foundation that your ministry needs. The leadership pipeline can come later.