the shape of leadership

The Church as a Farm Team

Your next staff member might be closer than you think

Chris Sonksen on May 17, 2023

The Church could learn a few things from baseball.

Every major league baseball franchise has a pipeline of prospects coming up through the ranks of minor league affiliates, or farm teams. Most players spend time in the farm system before playing in the big leagues. When a team needs to fill an opening on the roster, this pipeline is an obvious place to look.

Church leaders likewise need to scout and develop people for ministry. Unfortunately, we often neglect this responsibility. As a result, there is a shortage of rising prospects. We tend to look for talent outside our churches — competing for a limited group of ministers who are, in effect, free agents. This needs to change.

As the founder of Church Boom, a coaching agency for churches and ministers, I have worked with nearly 300 pastors leading churches of all sizes, most of them Assemblies of God. Our typical client has an average Sunday morning attendance of just under 100.

Filling an important role on a staff team has always been a challenge, but it’s harder than ever today. In fact, the question is no longer how to find the best person for the job, but how to find anybody for the job.

I receive calls every few days from leaders saying, “My district doesn’t have anyone for me to interview. I’ve called placement offices at local universities and Bible colleges, and they can’t give me any names. Can you help?”

Regardless of the church size or geographic location, the problem is the same. There is a shortage of candidates to fill open staff positions.

One solution — I believe the best one — is raising up leaders within our own congregations. To do this, we need a plan, a process, and persistence.

Wishing it were different isn’t enough. We need a farm system that identifies, trains, motivates, and places men and women in positions of leadership.

Mike Clarensau, research coordinator for the AG’s Acts 2 Journey, says a church should seek to produce at least as many vocational ministers as it employs. Many of these newly minted leaders will launch into other ministry fields, while some will become staff members right where they are.

To develop a farm system for your church, you need to do two crucial things: Call out the called and provide a pathway of effective leadership development.


Call Out the Called

We need to refresh our message of calling. Jesus told Peter and Andrew, “Come, follow me … and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19).

More broadly, Jesus asked all His followers to make a stark calculation:

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matthew 16:25–26).

In The Call, Os Guinness wrote, “Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.”

God’s calling doesn’t necessarily mean full-time ministry, but it certainly includes it. Yet many Christians never even consider this vocation.

We may preach on the topic, but we don’t have as many personal conversations about the call to ministry as we should. Perhaps we have lost some of our zeal for Christ and His cause. After all, it’s not cool to be too intense. We don’t want anyone to feel pressured.

However, we can’t communicate the compassion of Jesus without the message of His radical call to surrender. In the first century, those who followed Jesus understood what was at stake, from their livelihoods to their very lives.

Jesus is the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah. His burden is light, but His calling is bold. I believe we’ve drifted away from calling out the called because we’re afraid of offending people or making anyone feel uncomfortable.

When we do talk about calling, it’s usually in the context of youth services. However, Christ’s calling isn’t just for high school and college students. It’s for everybody. We need to call out the called who are in our youth and college groups, but we also need to communicate this invitation and summons to everyone else — men and women, young and not-so-young.

We must regularly weave this message into our preaching. Further, we need to take time to build relationships with people, listen to their stories, identify the anointing on their lives, and say, “I see God at work in you.”

As we do these things, we’ll almost certainly find some hidden gems.

Twelve years ago, Moses Camacho was an usher at the multi-site church I pastored, South Hills Church (AG) in California. In my brief interactions with him, I could tell he was all in with Jesus and our church, so I invited him to join me and a few others for a six-month study group I call a leadership circle.

I met with Camacho individually several times during those months. Each time, I came away with a definite sense God was calling him to some kind of ministry. At the time, Camacho was a middle school teacher.

When I told him I sensed God was leading him to ministry, Camacho shook his head and said, “Chris, that sounds great, but I can’t. It would be a huge upheaval for me and my wife.”

I encouraged Camacho to pray about it, and we continued to meet. A few months later, he joined our team as the small groups pastor. Camacho’s gifts were obvious, and I eventually promoted him to executive pastor.

Camacho excelled in that role as well, so I asked him to supervise our 11 campuses. He now serves as senior pastor of South Hills.

I’m sure Camacho was a wonderful schoolteacher, but after I identified his anointing and called him out, he went to great lengths to change roles so he could become what God had designed him to be.


Provide Pathways

There are many ways to create pathways for people who have a calling to vocational ministry. Let me describe three practical ways to develop a farm system in your church.

The first is the leadership circles strategy. A couple of times a year, I identify a small group of people, maybe half a dozen, who demonstrate a measure of passion and talent. I look for individuals who seem primed for more, whatever that might look like. Some may have the potential to serve as small group leaders or elders. Others might eventually fill pastoral roles.

I invite these potential leaders to meet as a group once or twice monthly for six months. We work through a leadership book together, often covering two chapters at a time.

After discussing the leadership principles in the book we’re studying, I ask two questions at the end of each meeting: What’s the most important point you’ve learned? And how are you going to implement it?

This is much more than a book discussion. If we don’t internally process the principles and then take specific steps to apply them, we’re wasting everyone’s time. Most of the participants are eager to apply what they’re learning. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

Additionally, I meet individually with each member of the group several times during those months — listening carefully to what he or she has to say. I want to hear what God has done and is doing.

My goal is affirming people in their callings and helping them identify where they can serve most effectively. I don’t hit grand slams every time, but there are enough singles, doubles, and triples to let me know these farm teams produce real results.

After my team completes a leadership circle cycle, I ask members to replicate the process by starting their own circles. This further develops their leadership skills and multiplies the number of rising leaders.

The next generation
of ministers will come from the abundant talent each church’s farm team calls out
and cultivates.

Two cycles of leadership circles can produce dozens of rising leaders. That becomes the church’s Double A farm team.

The second strategy is individual mentoring. From among the participants in each leadership circle, I prayerfully choose one or two individuals to keep mentoring. We continue meeting as they seek God’s will and begin taking their next steps.

Similarly, as staff members create leadership circles, each one selects one or two others to mentor.

Physicians spend years as interns and residents, learning from seasoned professionals and developing the skills they’ll need for success. Through mentoring relationships, ministers can likewise benefit from the experience of others.

Every team member — from the youth pastor to the small group leader — should be investing in at least a couple of people who are eager to learn and grow. This is the Triple A farm team.

The third strategy is group mentoring. A number of churches have established summer programs. These usually involve 10 to 12 people meeting weekly over a two-month period.

Participation in these groups is by invitation only because leaders want to pour their time and energy into individuals with demonstrated potential.

You might think few people would be willing to participate. However, we’ve found many professionals can and will carve out the time to invest in Kingdom growth.

As rising leaders receive mentoring, either individually or in groups, the focus gradually shifts to placement. This involves identifying where each person can serve most gladly and effectively.

Some will rise to the next level of leadership where they currently serve. Others may become volunteer staff members, investing more time and energy into the life of the church.

A midsize church in Ohio held a summer program with 18 participants. Half became volunteer staff members, and the rest assumed greater responsibilities where they were already serving.

After running this program for two consecutive summers, the church is developing a strong team of current and future leaders. It now has one or two solid leaders within every major area of ministry. The church is doing an outstanding job of deepening the bench.

Many members of a church farm team will pursue credentials to prepare for ministry and demonstrate their commitment to excellence. Some may enroll in a local Bible college or seminary, while others will find online courses they can complete outside of work hours.

AG colleges offer a variety of online courses and degree programs. Ministerial training may also be available through your district office.

Additional education may not be necessary, but it can go a long way toward equipping and confirming people in their calling.

Leadership circles, individual mentoring, and group mentoring accomplish two essential purposes.

First, they provide leaders for your church. Many ministers will come up through your system, which makes the congregation less dependent on finding outside hires.

Second, leadership circles equip the Church as a whole. The next generation of ministers will come from the abundant talent each church’s farm team calls out and cultivates.

I have seen God use these three strategies to create a leadership pipeline in churches of 80 people and a church of 8,000 people. The scale is different, but the results are remarkably similar.

At particular moments in Church history — such as the Second Great Awakening, the missions movement in the late 18th century, and the explosion of global missions after World War II — God called a large number of men and women to devote their lives to expanding His kingdom.

Many of those who answered the call became dynamic leaders in their local churches. Others planted new churches across the U.S. Still others took the gospel to unreached places around the globe.

These sovereign moves of God underscore our dependence on the Holy Spirit to transform hearts and give people a personal vision for vocational ministry.

We must ask God not only to raise up leaders in our settings but also to send workers into the harvest fields everywhere.


Success Stories

Many churches have already discovered the power of farm teams.

Hector Gutierrez Jr., pastor of Thrive Church (AG) in Elk Grove, California, developed an eight-week summer program for rising leaders.

The group meets weekly for classes and training. Each participant receives mentoring from a staff member and fills an apprentice role on the church’s ministry team. In just two years, more than 30 people have become leaders in the church through this strategy.

During her senior year in high school, Brenna Williams started attending the youth group at Roadside Chapel (AG), a church of about 200 in Rutland, Vermont. The teen quickly became involved in the life of the congregation.

The church’s senior pastor, Vinny Greene, saw leadership potential in Williams. When Greene and his team created an internship program, they invited Williams to participate, and she enthusiastically accepted.

At the end of the program, Williams became a volunteer staff member. The following year, she stepped up to serve as the church’s full-time youth pastor.

David and Michele McLain, pastors of Bridge Church (AG) in Hutto, Texas, created their own version of leadership circles. The church’s staff members comprised the first circle.

Each staff member then started a leadership circle with five or six congregants. This multiplied the church’s leadership circles and greatly expanded the number of developing leaders.

When he was lead pastor of Oaks Church (AG) in Red Oak, Texas, Scott Wilson implemented an effective leadership development program that grew to become Oaks College. This two-year internship experience is accredited through Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas.

Leadership development remains a vital part of Oaks Church’s culture under Wilson’s successor, Chris Railey.


Three Keys

There are three keys to developing a healthy farm team: creating a multiplying culture, making the ask, and shepherding the process.

To create a culture where calling out the called becomes normal, step back and ask yourself, How often do I pray for God to raise up leaders from among the people in our church? Am I identifying individuals who may have a ministry calling on their lives?

Adjusting sermon content is part of shaping the culture. That’s where a broad message of calling begins.

A more narrowed focus happens in leadership circles, where you can develop a few people at a time.

God calls all believers to respond to His grace by giving themselves completely to Him, regardless of vocation. In addition to this general calling, some will respond to the invitation to serve God vocationally.

I believe many people don’t answer the call simply because no one ever challenges them to consider it. There are far more yeses out there than most of us can imagine. Sometimes it’s as simple as making the ask.

Beyond these things, shepherding the process is a commitment that requires more than just programming. It means staying involved as a coach, mentor, and friend.

When people say “yes” to God’s call to ministry, they are vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks, internal doubts, and external resistance. They might feel like giving up at times. To stay the course, they will need a wise, strong, and loving coach.

The leadership deficit in the Church today is alarming, but we won’t solve it by wishing things were different. We can’t fix everything everywhere, but we can create a healthy, visionary culture of multiplication, make the ask, and shepherd people as they pursue vocational ministry.

Your church is a farm team. When you prayerfully call out the called, you might be surprised at how many people step up to the plate.


This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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