When to Empower Risky Leaders

This post originally appeared on the Fresh Expressions US Blog.

One of my favorite pieces of advice in my training for starting a church was “Know the rule before you break it.” In other words, in starting a fresh expression of church, we cannot always play by the rules. There are times when the Holy Spirit does not work within the confines of our preconceived church planting systems, but before you throw out a rule, you better know it. We should not go blindly into starting fresh expressions of church, but we should not choose rules over the Holy Spirit.

The rule that I’ve struggled with the most in planting fresh expressions of church is 1 Timothy 3.

“An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”

While some churches and traditions take this verse more literally than others, the general take-away that I’ve heard in church circles is that every church leader should be pretty close to perfect.

In a lot of ways this makes sense. We have seen the catastrophic results of pastors who lack integrity. Abuse of all kinds thrives in an environment where someone without morals has too much power.


Yet, there’s a reality that I have discovered over the past few years: risky leaders bring in risky people. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in church planting is that your initial leaders determine what your group will become. If your leaders are long-time church members, that’s who will come to the group. If your leaders are folks who struggle with the church, that’s who will come to your group. And in a fresh expression the latter is who we’re looking for. We’re starting churches for those outside the church, not bible studies for church people in a cool location.


This all has the potential to get you and your congregation in trouble. Here are a few tips to get the controlled chaos you’re hoping for in risky leaders.


One of my favorite leadership risks I took was having a lady who was not Christian lead one of our fresh expressions. The group was a “serve-first” group that we hoped would form into a church as we did service projects together in the community. The woman I asked to lead is one of the most caring people I know, but she is not a Christian. I asked a trusted colleague for his thoughts on this. He said, “It depends on what she’s leading. You probably don’t want her to lead spiritual conversations, but it sounds like she’s more than capable of leading service.”


I’m not a big fan of church planting buzzwords, but bear with me on this one. Velocity is the speed of something in a given direction. Therefore, spiritual velocity is the speed of which someone is traveling towards Christ. Who would be a better leader, a person who has been going to church every Sunday for 30 years but is spiritually cold, or a brand new Christian with a fiery passion for God? When you look for a leader don’t look at their resume, look at their passion and actions. Who do they care about? What are they doing about it? If the only thing they’re good at is following rules, that doesn’t make them a good leader.


Don’t hear in this post that anything goes. Nothing is farther from the truth. We have to have standards for leadership. It’s just that we’ve focused on the wrong standards. One standard I recently discovered is a rule of Craig Greenfield’s missional community: “Bizarre behavior is okay. Abusive behavior is not okay.” (Subversive Jesus, kindle loc 495). It’s simple, freeing, but protective. Perhaps some of our standards for leadership that we’ve accepted as a given are wrong. Perhaps there are more important standards that we’ve missed.


There’s a reason 1 Timothy 3 is in the Bible, standards of leadership are a good idea. We need to protect the people in our congregations. However, our overprotective, hypochondriacal church is willing to throw out leaders who are rough around the edges at the expense of expanding the kingdom. Christ didn’t start his church with the super spiritual—he did it with a bunch of dirty fishermen. Take some calculated risks with the leaders of your fresh expression and see what happens. It could bring in folks you never imagined connecting with or it could fail miserably. But when did spreading the gospel become foolproof?

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