Developing Future Leaders

Six Principles for Training the Next Generation of Church Leaders

by Scott Thomas


Every church needs leaders. But new leaders don't just magically appear. They must be identified and developed. We must strategically train them according to Scripture.

Paul told Timothy, "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Tim. 2:2). Paul wanted to ensure future followers of Jesus would be spiritually vibrant and scripturally faithful. We should have a similar desire. Here are six principles for building up the kind of leaders that will champion the faith well into the future.

1. Nurture Their Inner Lives

We train leaders by focusing on the things that don't change: teach them how to commune with Christ, how to love his mission and his church. Methods vary. But future leaders will always need an authentic and deep faith to sustain them through the journey of ministering the gospel in a rapidly changing culture. Paul expressed his relationship with Timothy as a beloved child (2 Tim. 1:2; 2:2). We should adopt the same caring attitude toward the leaders we train, equipping our spiritual children with parental love for their spiritual wellbeing.

2. Focus on Their Transformative Potential

Jesus took a risk on all 12 of the disciples, including the leader, Peter. When Barnabas chose Paul, a former persecutor of the church, it was a huge risk. In both cases, the risk was based on the transforming power of the gospel. A pastor took a risk on me. When I was 19 years old, he let me preach my first sermon. I still have a copy of that sermon. It was an exegetical nightmare! But he didn't focus on my current skills, or lack of them. He saw in me the leader I could become.

3. Let Them Lead (and Fail) and Lead Again

Jesus called Peter "Satan," and then later accurately predicted Peter would deny him three times. Yet after these failures, Jesus still commissioned him to lead again by feeding and tending his sheep. After the ascension of Jesus, Peter preached at Pentecost and 3,000 people were saved.

The grace of God toward failed leaders is abundant in Scripture. It's easy to write people off because of early missteps. But those who train up leaders have eyes to see past a new leader's flaws and weaknesses.

4. Encourage Innovation and Risk Taking

We often prefer emerging leaders in our churches to be more like mules than stallions. Mules are great at carrying heavy loads over long distances. And they're not as spirited like stallions. Stallions are designed to run. They don't like being penned up in a stable. The problem with mules is that it they are almost always sterile.

Risk-averse people rarely lead radical movements of God. Don't get me wrong: we need mules. They're consistent and reliable and excellent at keeping things running smoothly. But we need stallions, too. We need those next generation leaders who will gallop into new projects and find daring, new ways to present the never changing good news of Jesus.

5. Think Long-term and Short

Every organism, including the church, has a lifecycle of birth, growth, maturity, reproduction, maintenance, decline, and death. The lifecycle of a fruit fly is only 30 days. The lifecycle for some church plants, unfortunately, isn't much longer. Churches that become too focused on the present have shorter lifecycles. Present needs should be addressed with future-oriented solutions.

Almost every goal can be accomplished in 20 years. Most people, however, are not conditioned to think that way. They're not disciplined or focused enough to persevere. Investing time in young leaders is a surefire sign that we're thinking about the future and not content with mere short-term success.

6. Model Humility

True, biblical leadership is saturated in humility. Jesus was explicit about the way his disciples were to lead: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you" (Matt. 20:25-28).

Developing future leaders demands we be humble. Often our protégés will possess greater skill and potential than we do. But if we see our role in parental terms we will joyfully serve and cheer for our spiritual offspring to surpass us in every way.


Jesus was the greatest at developing leaders. He poured the vast majority of his time into a handful of people. He taught them to be disciple-makers and trusted that future generations would hear the Good News because of their witness.

We are a part of that great plan of God, and it spans the generations. Let's tirelessly train leaders. Through God's grace and our guidance, they may witness God do more than we could ever imagine

Scott Thomas