Discovering Future Leaders

By Matt Rogers

"Future leaders do not simply appear; they are discovered." Here are the 4 traits to look for for in the future leaders of your church.

Calling Out the Called

Future leaders do not simply appear; they are discovered. Consider the typical process by which the church is made aware of future leaders. A young man is a vital part of the youth group at his local church, where he uses his gifts, passions, and abilities to serve his peers. At summer camp during his junior year of college, he responds to the invitation by indicating he feels called to vocational ministry. The camp pastor prays with him and informs his youth pastor, who in turn tells the church that his guy has been “called to vocational ministry.”

What does the church do then? All too often the answer is “not much.” The church often has been passive in the discovery process and will continue to be passive in “fanning into flame” the calling and giftedness of this young leader. The pastor may meet with him and help him make a decision about which Bible college or seminary he should attend and then send him off with the blessing of the church—often to never see or hear from him again.

An Active Discovery

What if the church were far more active in the process? The church provides fertile soil for the discovery of future leaders, as evidenced by both Timothy and Titus. These leaders were forged in the context of the local church community and, from this body, were recognized as those who may lead the church in the future. Similarly, the church is the best context for discovering future leaders today. As Phil Newton argues, it is due time that churches take back the primary mantel of discovering future leaders and investing in them throughout their maturation process.¹

For this to happen, current leaders who, like Paul, are in a position of authority and must assume the responsibility for both recognizing and exhorting young leaders to the vital work of church leadership. The discovery of new leaders is not the passive byproduct of time and chance, but should be on the forefront of the agenda of all current pastors. Colin Marshall and Tony Payne write, “We shouldn’t sit back and wait for people to ‘feel called’ to gospel work any more than we should sit back and wait for people to become disciples of Christ in the first place. We should be active in seeking, challenging, and testing suitable people to be set apart for gospel work.”²

They continue:

…if the current generation of pastors and ministers is responsible for calling, choosing, and setting apart the next generation, we need to be constantly on the lookout for the sort of people with the gifts and integrity to preach the Word and pastor God’s people. And there is some incredible ministry talent in our churches—people with extraordinary gifts in leadership, communication, and management; people with vision, energy, intelligence, and an entrepreneurial spirit; people who are good with people and who can understand and articulate ideas persuasively. If these people are also godly servants of Christ who long for His kingdom, then why not headhunt them for a life of ‘recognized gospel ministry’?³

Like an athletic scout, pastors should serve as “talent scouts” seeking those who exemplify the fruit of God’s Spirit. This is essential work for the future of the church in North America and must not be neglected due to the host of other demands that vie for a pastor’s attention.⁴ But if pastors are not seeking out leaders, then who will?

The process of discovering new leaders is a challenging process in and of itself. It is complicated by the fact that we are prone to look for the wrong things. Natural charisma, personal charm, or an extroverted personality can immediately thrust a potential leader to the front of the pack. While these characteristics are not bad, they may blind us to the qualities we should look for in future leaders.

1. Look for new believers

The biblical evidence for the conversion of Timothy is sparse. We know that he was raised in a home where he was taught about God and His work in the world. This “sincere faith” that resided in Timothy’s grandmother and mother was now found in Timothy himself (2 Timothy 1:5). The birth of this sincere faith is often linked to Paul’s missionary work in Timothy’s hometown, and many note that the strong paternal language used by Paul throughout his letters would indicate that Timothy came to faith as the result of his ministry. Whatever the timing, the result is clear: Timothy trusted in Jesus, and his life was radically changed such that he would relinquish all he knew and travel with Paul’s roaming band of missionaries.

This often is true of those whom God saves. They are hungry for the truth of the gospel, passionate to share their faith with others, and willing to give their lives away to the mission of God. Sadly, it is often the case that the longer a person is a Christian, the fewer relationships they have with those far from God and the less willing they are to make radical sacrifices for the mission of God. This means pastors should seize the opportunity to challenge new believers to consider how God is calling them to steward their lives for the sake of his mission—which may include leadership in the church.⁵ Like Timothy, new converts are often those who demonstrate an insatiable hunger for the Word, an aptitude for leadership, and still are connected relationally to many of those who are far from Christ.

We must be careful that we do not make the concept of “calling to ministry” some type of second rung on the spiritual maturity ladder. We can subtly communicate that God saves all people, but then calls the mature ones among us to vocational ministry and leaves all the rest to simply go to church. The reality is that all those whom God saves, He also sends. While there may be varying roles and leadership responsibilities, we must communicate that all disciples are called to make disciples, which necessitates some level of leadership for all of God’s people.

New disciples are ripe for this type of appeal. We are given a unique opportunity to challenge them to consider leadership from the early days of their faith journey. Paul certainly reminded Timothy to not appoint new converts to leadership (1 Timothy 3:6), but this need not mean we should not challenge young believers to consider leadership at some point in the future. It also does not mean we should have an expectation that new believers have to be a Christian for a decade, have taken 30 Bible study classes, have a master’s degree, and have no recognized character defects before they are appointed to leadership. Young leaders can be deployed into strategic ministry far more quickly through an intentional development process such as the one outlined below.

2. Look for godly character

What we do know about the choice of Timothy for leadership in the church was that by the time Paul returned to Timothy’s hometown, he already was well spoken of by the church there (Acts 16:1-3). This would indicate that Timothy had observable traits that caused him to stand out and made him a clear choice for the apostle Paul. Paul’s later instructions about the choice of elders/pastors for the church would indicate he placed a high value on discernable character in the life of a leader who should be “above reproach” in all things (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-7).

At an early stage, however, it is foolish to assume that a leader must be above reproach in all things prior to being invited into an intentional leadership development process. What would be the point of the development were that to be the case? Leaders need to have exemplary character prior to appointment to leadership in the church, but we should expect these future leaders to be a bit raw at the outset. We would expect this reality to be heightened if the person in question is a new convert. They are going to need time to understand the way in which the gospel exposes their sinful hearts and provides the power for them to overcome the sin that so easily entangles (Hebrews 12:1-2).  So, how would you recognize godly character at an early stage? Change. Repentance. Growth. These marks provided a metric for discerning the fruit of the gospel that one can expect to continue in the life of the leader. A person who is growing in understanding and applying the gospel to his or her life should be marked by “the fruit of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Rather than perfection, we should observe a clear brokenness over sin, a trust in the gospel, and a battle for holiness.

Here’s what I mean. Take Amy. She has recently come to faith in Christ and is known to passionately share the gospel with the moms who live in her neighborhood. But the reality is that she is a gossip. Before she met Christ, she was a busybody who thrived on knowing all the juicy rumors about her peers and being the first one to share that information with others. Since her conversion, this process has continued. She genuinely loves her neighbors now and wants them to come to faith in Christ. But she is over-zealous, and her passion bubbles over into sinful actions at times, including posting things on social media about the sinful behaviors of her friends. Is Amy disqualified from leadership in the church?

No. At least not at the outset. If Amy already were appointed to leadership in the local body, then we might conclude that her actions necessitated removing her from leadership. But, at the early stages, we need to give her time to grow in her application of the gospel and evangelistic witness. The raw material in Amy’s life is compelling: she seems to genuinely love Jesus and her neighbors and desires them to come to faith. We should honor and affirm these passions, while mentoring her to apply the gospel to the way that she speaks of others. We would want to watch how she responds when she makes a mistake and speaks ill of her neighbors. Does she rationalize and defend these behaviors, or does she respond in brokenness and repentance? Does she continue to require someone to point out these actions to her or does she grow to recognize her mistakes on her own? Does she have the maturity to go to those whom she has offended and repent and seek restoration?

If so, then we should expect that the longer she walks with Jesus, the more her character will be refined. She may not be exemplary in her character now, but given an intentional development plan, she could be before she is appointed as a leader.

3. Look for proven faithfulness

The fact that Timothy was well spoken of by the church also would indicate that he was faithful in his service among the people of God through loving, caring, and serving. This type of active ministry would mark him as the type of leader Paul would take with him as he embarked on mission to unreached peoples. Likewise, Paul’s continued deployment of Timothy and Titus to care for difficult churches would indicate that these men had proven faithfulness in leadership among the people of God. This type of proven faithfulness can only be observed over a period of time among the church. This is why an intentional development plan in the church is so vital. Leaders are not leaders if no one is willing to follow them. Sheep recognize shepherds. They see them lead and want to follow.

How would you recognize this type of leadership at an early stage? You would look for people who naturally lead without the label. This likely will start with humble service to others. Future leaders will begin to enter into burden-bearing relationships with others inside and outside the church (Galatians 6:1-2). They will love, pray, listen, and serve without being asked to do so. They care—and people begin to see that.

They also begin to find meaningful ways to use their gifts to serve the body. They see a need in the ministry of the church and do what they can to fill the gap. This will begin in small, almost unrecognizable ways. They won’t be teaching or leading a small group, but they will be showing up early to greet guests on Sunday mornings, providing a ride to small group for someone new to the church, volunteering to serve at various big events that the church offers, and things of this sort. When they hear of people struggling with sin or suffering, they will seek to find ways to serve them and meet tangible needs. At first, they may not know what to do to help, but they will do what they can. They may make mistakes or say the wrong things, but that is to be expected for young leaders. Intentional training directs raw passion toward increasingly fruitful ministry and mission.

4. Look for passionate desire

This leads us to the last trait you should be looking for in developing future leaders: passionate desire. The type of leader who would leave everything and follow the apostle Paul is one who is marked by an all-consuming passion for the mission of God. Anyone who would be willing (or crazy enough) to lead among challenging church situations such as Corinth and Ephesus must be willing to trust God and take faith-fueled risks for His mission.

This means that future leaders often will have a desire for more.

Seeking out leaders does not mean leaders should not self-identify. Paul notes that men should aspire to the office of elder (1 Timothy 3:1). This is not necessarily a prideful posturing, but rather the outworking of a God-given passion in the heart of a young leader. They aspire to lead and serve. For this reason, future leaders often will make known their desires to lead. They will call you with questions, send emails seeking counsel, or make suggestions on the way in which ministry could be improved.

They may even come on too strong at times or volunteer to serve in ways that exceed their current maturity level. This need not deter you from inviting them into a more formal development process. Their passion can often be channeled into meaningful ministry with the proper mentorship and training. At this point, what you are looking for are humble servants who are faithful (albeit not perfect) at the work God has put before them. Your job is to partner with them to see them developed into men and women who can lead among God’s people.

Speak Up, Speak Life

New believers, godly character, proven faithfulness, and passionate desire: this is the recipe for a future leader. It is the responsibility of the pastors and leaders of the church to seek out men and women who meet these qualifications and call them out to greater levels of leadership. In many ways, this simple act is a beautiful gift of grace. Years after I began in vocational ministry, I remember sitting in my pastor’s office one day and hearing him say something like “Matt, I can see that God has called you to serve him as a pastor. You have served us faithfully here, but I believe it is time for you to go plant a church of your own. I believe in you and will fully support you in this process.” These words were some of the most important, and meaningful, words I had ever heard. Here was a mature pastor validating my ministry. He thought I should lead, and this word of encouragement and exhortation provided the affirmation I needed to take the next step.

As pastors and leaders, we have the ability to speak words of affirmation into the lives of a host of potential leaders who may doubt their ability to lead God’s people. They may easily lose heart or grow weary in serving. They may wonder if anyone even notices. Our invitation into an intentional development process may be the very thing they need to fan into flame the fire that the Lord has started in their hearts. We can say that we see, we notice, and we believe in them. Then, we can demonstrate this trust by taking the next step and developing the raw material in a leader’s life into the type of man or woman who is ready to lead.

¹ Phillip Newton, Local Church Leadership Development: Its effects and Importance on Church Planting and Revitalization, (PhD Dissertation, May 2013, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary), xvii.

² Marshall and Payne, Trellis, 134.

³ Ibid., 141-42.– 18 –.

⁴ Owen Strachan, “Pastoral Discipleship,” 9Marks, n.p. [cited 8 September 2012]. Online:– 19 –.

⁵ J.D Payne, Discovering Church Planting: An Introduction to the Whats, Whys, and Hows of Global Church Planting (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2009), 131-32.

Excerpted from Deep Bench. Download your free copy now.

Published March 4, 2024

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Matt Rogers

Matt Rogers serves as pastor of Christ Fellowship Cherrydale in Greenville, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Sarah, and their five children. A two-time graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div., Ph.D.), Matt continues to write and teach on topics related to church planting and discipleship. He is the author of Seven Arrows: Aiming Bible Readers in the Right Direction and Aspire: Transformed by the Gospel, along with numerous resources on church planting with the North American Mission Board. Matt continues to aid the church-planting work of the Pillar Network as they seek to plant healthy churches throughout the world.