12 Challenges to Building a Leadership Pipeline in Your Church

It is easy to talk about leadership development, but developing disciple-making leaders is a far greater challenge. It requires us to address the challenges to building a leadership pipeline in your church.

Any time you try to intentionally develop leaders, you will face enormous challenges. I’ve faced these challenges while serving every type of church from multi-site, missional, rural, mid-size, to traditional churches.

In the past few weeks, the topic of leadership pipeline development has come up multiple times in consultations, coaching calls, leadership labs, and pastoral development tracks I’ve led. Here are a few common observations I’ve seen among pastors and lay leaders:

— You want to develop leaders.
— You dream of cultivating communities of disciple makers whose missional impact is unleashed.
— You imagine a day when your ministry shifts from chaotic and rapid activity to intentional leadership development aligned with vision clarity.
— Your heart is in the right place, but the how-tos and the day-to-day grind have gotten in the way.


Let’s be honest. Your hope of developing leaders shifts to “getting ministry done” rather than intentional leader development in all ministry areas and levels in the church.

These are 12 of the most common challenges to building a leadership pipeline you will face as you develop leaders.

1) Tyranny of Time

Time is an elephant in the room that shouldn’t be there…but it is. Pastors want to develop leaders, but run out of time to do so due to all the other ministry responsibilities.

If this is you, consider for a moment that lack of time isn’t the true challenge. We all have the same amount of hours in the day. How you spend your time jumps out to me as the greater issue rather than a lack of time (Note: Some bi-vocational pastors develop more leaders than full-time lead pastors. In some ways, they are forced to do what we all know we should do.)

2) Lack of Examples

Ask yourself the question: What examples of leadership pipelines have I seen in the local church? This question can easily stop you in your tracks because most pastors don’t have strong examples in their experience to replicate. Don’t let it get you stuck.

I envision a day when pastors will know of many leadership pipeline examples. If you don’t know of any today, you aren’t alone; however, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set the example for the next generation.

3) Lack of Training

More pastors serve in bi-vocational roles today than ever. Many bi-vocational pastors and those who received seminary training never had a chance to learn a clear process for leadership pipeline development.

I included lack of training as one of the challenges, in order to give a context for understanding the difficulties in building a leadership pipeline rather than to criticize theological institutions. I would love to see a much greater emphasis on building a leadership pipeline in seminary contexts, but also in churches as they train future leaders for leadership pipeline development. Simply said, people matter. They are all created in God’s image. How much more should a clear process for developing disciple-making leaders matter for leaders and the church today?

(As a disclaimer, I am deeply grateful for the many institutions for theological training, church planting networks, and others who faithfully prepare pastors for ministry. Back in my seminary days, I couldn’t imagine the enormity of the decisions seminary administrators had to make to provide quality training in theology, Bible exposition, hermeneutics, languages, preaching, and much more, while still keeping theological education affordable and cultivating godly character in their students.)

4) Misunderstanding of Scripture

I doubt any pastors would reject the book of Ephesians. Most love it. Many take full exegesis courses on the book.

But when you serve in the church, the tendency to over focus on the functional areas of ministry can take precedence over the  development of its leaders. Praxis ends up trumping theory. Days full of activity impact people, but don’t develop them in an Ephesians 4 type leadership pipeline model.

The core of this misunderstanding is the tendency as a leader to misalign your practical theology from your theoretical theology.

5) Comfort

Many days it’s easier to do things as they’ve always been done rather than reimagine your ministries.

Change disrupts comfort. For many, the discussion of change erupts internal discomfort.

You certainly would never announce that this year you’ve chosen to prioritize comfort over people, theology, Scripture or impact. To develop a leadership pipeline you must shift from what you have been doing and embrace a culture of personal and organizational change.

6) Tradition

The church is not known for developing catalytic leadership pipelines. The traditional ministries in your church take on a life of their own and can be brutally difficult to replace or end.

But the painful question we all must ask is: Do you want to be known for your prioritization of tradition or a Biblical model of leadership development and missional impact that multiplies disciples?

7) Focus on Accomplishment over Development

You likely are far too busy. The demands of sermon preparation, missional community or small group planning, congregational care, and all the other events can quickly lead to burnout.

What if you shifted your time to prioritize development of disciple-making leaders rather than getting the to-do list taken care of each week? What if you could pour into a few leaders deeply by discipling them for greater impact and transformation?

8) Ambiguous Leadership Progressions (if any)

I once worked with a church where a man proudly announced that he had taught the same Sunday School class for 30 years and had no plans to change. He served faithfully and had seen God use him, and I am thankful for him.

But why hasn’t he developed other faithful communicators of Scripture? What if he had coached and developed 30 other teachers or leaders over 30 years?

He needed a clear progression to higher levels of leadership. The ambiguous leadership progressions in his church (if any) inhibited his growth and influence. He stayed a leader of others his entire life when he could have become a leader or coach of leaders. He kept his focus on the ministry functions rather than the cultivation and training of leaders who could have been multiplied to lead many different ministries.

Have you clearly defined the core levels of leadership in your church? Is it clear how someone proceeds toward greater levels of impact and influence?

If it is not clear, we’ve often found that church leaders lack critical coaching competencies. Our team can train your staff, campus pastors, or executive team in Basic Coaching Skills on how to coach other leaders.

9) A Void of Discipleship Clarity

What is your definition of a disciple according to Scripture? How can we legitimately claim to be making disciples if we haven’t defined the characteristics of one? And how we will cultivate those characteristics in people?

Your leadership pipeline depends on your commitment to disciple-making at all levels and contexts of ministry. A person can’t claim to be a spiritual leader if they aren’t growing AS a disciple or aren’t committed to MAKING disciples. Neither of those can happen if you’ve intentionally or unintentionally allowed a void of discipleship clarity in your church.

10) Faulty Scorecard

I’ve found that churches need to throw out their score card or at minimum make adjustments to it. Let me explain.

A) Throw out the score card: Some ministries may not admit this, but the way they measure effectiveness is by making sure they do things as they always have. In this context, the score card likely needs to go!

B) Alter the Score Card: If you only measure “bottoms in seats” and giving, you haven’t necessarily used the wrong score card. You need to change or add to it.

When is the last time you measured how many people are leading small groups? How many people are leading leaders? These aren’t the only metrics, but if you clarify your pipeline, you will force yourself and your team to measure not only the functions of ministry, but also the development of leaders into other levels of leadership throughout the ministries.

11) Chaotic Competencies

Most churches assume everyone agrees about the competencies required. Some have never thought of competencies.

What qualifies a person to lead a group? To teach a bible study in a missional community?

Take the time to define the emotional, spiritual, skills, and physical competencies necessary for someone to move from one level of impact to another.

12) You

The greatest of the 12 challenges to building a leadership pipeline is YOU.

Leadership pipelines don’t create themselves. They don’t organically show up as a result of preaching more or “being faithful.” (To be clear, I believe that the consistent communication of Scripture and ministry faithfulness are both essential for any catalytic spiritual leader or pastor.)

You will never break through your leadership challenges without admitting you are part of the problem. We all are.

Take a look at the challenges above and identify at least 1-3 challenges you have permitted to block the development of a leadership pipeline (even if unintentionally). Pray about those areas. Intentional development of disciple-making leaders is a spiritual ministry that will encounter opposition. Ask God for direction and wisdom as you begin to clarify your leadership pipeline and lean on Him.

Our team at the Malphurs Group would enjoy a chance to speak with you briefly about hosting our leadership pipeline university at your church. A leadership pipeline allows pastors to orient their ministry around a more Ephesians 4 model. A missional culture will arise out of your commitment to cultivate disciple-making leaders by clarifying your pipeline, your processes, your competencies, and your personal passion to develop others as well.

Take intentional steps to address these challenges to building a leadership pipeline and gain clarity today. Retain a coach for distance coaching or host an on-site leadership pipeline workshop for your church or a group of churches in your area.


Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).

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