Leading When You're Not a Gifted Leader


Gary DeLashmutt

As an unquestioned, effective leader in Dwell who has planted multiple home churches and raised up several other important leaders, Gary DeLashmutt commands immediate credibility. Yet this leader is one who does not feel strongly gifted in leadership. These are Gary's notes from his lecture on the subject of learned, rather than natural, or charismatic, leadership. He gave this lecture to home church leaders.

I want to share what I have learned through the years about leading without the gift of leadership.

Distinguish between the gift of leadership and the office of leader

There is a difference between these two, and if you don't understand this and remember it, you will get in trouble.

The gift of leadership is a spiritual gift recognized by things like: 

  • naturally sees where to go; 
  • likes trying new things; 
  • likes the responsibility of making important and difficult decisions; 
  • easily gains confidence of people without having personal relationship with them; 
  • thinks fast and well on his feet; etc.

The office of leader is a role in the church. The New Testament speaks of two such offices - elder and deacon. In addition, we see certain people charged with providing leadership for local churches until elders are appointed (e.g., Titus and Timothy).

The point is that the office does not necessarily require the gift. I say this for several reasons:

  1. There is no leadership gifting mentioned in the elder and deacon requirements in 1 Timothy and Titus.
  2. Paul appoints people like Timothy, who clearly was not a gifted leader, to lead in Ephesus. In fact, I think that Timothy is our model and Paul's advice to Timothy includes most of the keys to leading effectively when you're not a gifted leader.
  3. Experience shows that God's work requires many leaders, and in his sovereign wisdom he has not handed out the gift of leadership to fill all (or even most) of those needed roles.

I do not have any great gift of leadership. All the way back to before I was a Christian, I would say that I have had the ability to lead others, but not the natural gifting or temperament to do so. For as long as I can remember, I have felt most comfortable letting others set direction and then working with them to accomplish the goal. I tend to only assume leadership when I sense that no one else will do so; then my desire for closure and direction motivates me to set direction so we can get going. I also will do a good job when I am put in charge of a project. But I am not a natural visionary, so I don't naturally see what needs to be done or where groups of people should head.

Yet I believe God calls on me to lead in a number of areas. He clearly wants me to lead my family. He also wants me to lead in this church, both as an elder and as a home group leader. God's work requires many leaders, and in his sovereign wisdom he has not handed out the gift of leadership to fill all (or even most) of those needed roles. I believe I can do a reasonably good job at leadership, as long as I look to him for help and "play within myself."

Beware of comparing yourself with gifted leaders

I think it's pretty common for those in the office of leader to unconsciously begin to assume that they should be gifted leaders, and then to compare themselves with gifted leaders. When this happens, bad things happen.

You can become vulnerable to accusation that you are unqualified for the role. The more you buy into this, the less effective you will be.

You can become vulnerable to accusation about the gifted leader(s) you're comparing yourself to.

Instead, thank God for the gifted leaders we have and for the privilege of working with them. Reaffirm to yourself and to God that he hasn't gifted you this way and therefore he doesn't expect you to be like them. Reaffirm what you have to offer (see below) and that God will use you to help grow his church.

Remember the two most important factors that don't have to do with leadership gifting

In his letters to Timothy, Paul wanted Timothy to focus on what he had to offer these people, not on what he didn't have. These two factors were 1) his example of godly living and 2) his knowledge of God's Word. In 1 Tim. 4, this is what Paul reminds "intimidated" Timothy of (see 1 Tim. 4:12 for example and 4:13 for the Word). He does this again in 2 Tim. 2:19-22 (example), 2:24-26 and 3:16-4:2 (Word).

PERSONAL EXAMPLE: Younger Christians need models of relative spiritual maturity. If they want to grow spiritually, they will profit immensely from being able to rub shoulders with people who have godly character, practice sacrificial love, keep trusting God for new things (later), and have built a lifestyle centered around serving the Lord.

This is why Peter says to elders, " . . . proving to be examples of the flock . . . " (1 Pet. 5:3). This is why the author of the Hebrews says, "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith." (Heb. 13:7).

Think about those who have made a great impact on your spiritual lives. Most of them were probably not great visionaries, but they inspired you by their example and they showed you practically how to pray, trust God, share your faith, love others, etc.

BIBLICAL KNOWLEDGE: By definition, to lead other Christians means telling them what God wants. To the best of our ability, we've got to dish it out by teaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), by answering people's questions, by helping people see how it applies to their present situations, etc. We have to cultivate confidence that God's Word has the power to change people long-term in ways that force of personality, pressure, etc. cannot accomplish.

Again, if you think back to those who have impacted you the most, you will find that such biblical knowledge is a common feature.

You have to be a life-long learner of God's truth. This is why Sanders says good leaders are readers. God can develop this in you, even if you had a poor education, poor study habits, etc. but you have to want it, pray for it, and cooperate with him in building it.

Know where you are gifted, and use those strengths to enhance your leadership

In the midst of reminding Timothy to focus on setting an example of godly living and communicating God's Word, he also urges him to focus on his areas of gifting and keep developing in those areas (1 Tim. 4:14,15). In another passage, he says the same thing, and implies that there is a connection between this and overcoming timidity (2 Tim. 1:6,7).

A good leader uses his gifts to impact the people he is leading. I may have to minister in areas that I'm not gifted in, especially if no one else can or will do them--but I dare not neglect focusing on the areas I am gifted in. God will work through me especially in those areas to impact the people and to give me more confidence to lead.

I use my teaching and knowledge gift to draw people into my home church from Central Teaching and Principles class, and to draw new people in my home church to talk afterwards and challenge them to take the next step (study group, ministry house, etc.). I use my encouragement gift to build up the hurting and exhort people to take the next step.

My wife uses her gifts of hospitality and counseling to have a powerful leadership impact on my home church even though she rarely teaches.

What areas are you gifted in? Are you using them and developing them in your home group work? Or are you ministering primarily in areas of non-gifting?

Take advantage of gifted leaders and other experienced home church workers

Ask those not in your group for advice. I'm always asking Dennis and other gifted leaders what they would do about situations in my home church. You should be full of questions during your consultations with staff overseers!! What does it mean if you know you're not a gifted leader, but you don't have questions for these folks?

If you have gifted leaders in your group, consult them for vision and strategic thinking. You can do this even if they are not yet ready to lead. This is not abdicating your role, and it will motivate them to contribute their gifting even if they aren't yet ready for the office.

Understand the distinction between discipleship and shepherding - and do both

These are two distinct ministries. Leaders who don't understand the difference make mistakes that hurt their impact.

  • Shepherding emphasizes the other person's own spiritual growth. Though ministering to others may well come up, your main purpose is in giving nurture, counsel, admonition, biblical instruction to help them get established in their walks with God. Discipleship, however, emphasizes teaching the other person how to minister to others. Personal growth issues are addressed, but the main focus is on how to become an effective Christian worker.
  • Shepherding is unconditional--we do it freely and with no expectations of reciprocal response. Discipleship, however, is conditional. If you move into a discipleship relationship, you should make it clear there will be expectations and accountability, and spell them out. Be willing to step back if they won't do their part--but still love them as before. This is important both for the work of discipleship and to avoid "bait and switch" relationships.
  • Shepherding is normally sporadic and ongoing. You help people as they need it and are open to it, and as you are burdened and available. Discipleship, however, is normally consistent and for a period of time. You meet with the person on a regular basis with the understanding that the day will come when they will be doing this with others.

This is not an "either-or" issue. Leaders are responsible to "shepherd the flock of God" (1 Pet. 5:2), so we need to be praying for insight and guidance to give to people and using the meetings and other contacts to do this. But leaders are also responsible to raise up other leaders (2 Tim. 2:2), and this involves prayerfully selecting a person or two, meeting with them regularly for training, and staying with them until they become leaders/Servant Team members--or flake out.

Involvement in discipleship is also very gratifying because of the friendship aspect. It also helps you not to give way to discouragement when things look dark, because you'll win in the long run if you are raising up disciples.

Invest in your people until you feel affection for them

Home church leadership is people-intensive. You can't sit in the control tower and hand down the orders; you have to be among the people, rubbing shoulders with them, getting to know them, and actually feel a closeness and affection for them (in varying degrees). Some people are "people persons"--others (including myself) are not. For those who aren't, we need to actively cultivate this affection by investing in the people.

Affection is not something you can fake, but neither is it something you can afford to not have if you want to lead effectively. People sense whether you love them, and they will not follow very far people who don't love them. Besides, nothing is more uncomfortable and dissatisfying than being a disengaged leader--it's hypocritical and you feel more and more aversive to leading. Turn it around! Get in there and invest by faith, and God will enable you to feel love for the people, excitement about being with them, and give more insight into how you can help.

This is what we learn about Paul in 1 Thessalonians. He had fond affection for them because they had become very dear to him (2:8), and his emotional state was affected by how they were doing spiritually (3:5-8). This seems to have been the result of his personal investment in them (2:7,9-11).

How can you do this?

You have to be around people a sufficient amount of time.

This means not only attending the meetings consistently, but using the time before and after to relate to people on more than a superficial level. This may require prayerful reflection and writing down edification goals (Heb. 10:24). This comes more naturally for gifted leaders, but the rest of us have to set aside time to do this.

This also means spending time telling stories, laughing and enjoying one another.

You can act on the feelings of affection you do occasionally have by expressing them. As you do this, it gets easier over time. And this forges deep bonds.

You can use appropriate physical touch (see Rom. 16:16). A hug, a hand on the shoulder, etc. can communicate warmth and affection very effectively.

You can encourage and admonish when you see either is needed. These interactions express genuine love, and they build affection.

QUALIFY: Those of you who have no trouble with this may need to watch for the co-dependent attitude--you are so involved that your emotional state is dependent on how your people are doing. If this is the case, review the three roles in ministry (God's, yours, and theirs). Are you able to set boundaries?

Know the mission, and keep it in front of yourself and the people you're leading

Gifted leaders naturally think along these lines. They always have the mission in mind, and they almost instinctively sense the most strategic way to get there. The rest of us have to find ways to stay focused on this or we'll drift off track and forfeit the unity and momentum that the group needs.

I make sure that I enunciate the mission of my home church at least quarterly at a combined study group or Leaders-Team meeting. I also schedule at least an annual leaders weekend where we evaluate the progress in each area of our mission. Then we report this to the group so they remember the mission and see the progress.

Our corporate prayer time accomplishes several things at once: models the importance of prayer; keeps the mission in focus; builds spiritual unity; communicates where people are at spiritually; vulnerability enhances closeness and affection.

As a home church leader, you are asked to fill out a report before you talk to a consultant in the home church department. This report covers things like attendance (3 part), ministry charts, discipleship lines, financial giving, planting plan, etc. You will be wise to use tools like this to keep your eye on the ball.

Be honest when you're not succeeding. Verbalize this and call on people for insight and help. Resist the fleshly tendency to hide it, rationalize it, lower the bar, etc. You don't have to have the answer to a problem before you communicate it at least to other leaders and workers. You can raise the issue, ask people for feedback, share your own thoughts, challenge people to pray, etc.

QUALIFY: Overly negative people need to remember that "objectivity is your friend" and ask others before expressing their negativity.

Continue to take scary steps of faith

Leaders are trying to lead others to follow the Lord, which involves stepping out of our comfort zones. Gifted leaders seem to enjoy doing this. There is an intangible connection between your ability to lead others spiritually and maintaining a vital faith by following God in the scary areas. You need to be able to convince others that following the Lord is exciting and that he is faithful, and this is transmitted in large part by your own personal dealings with God.

This is why the author of Hebrews says, " Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith." (Heb. 13:7).

When was the last time you followed God's prompting out of your comfort zone? How do you respond when he prompts you to serve someone, when he convicts you of sin, when he challenges you to share your faith, or confront someone, or give your money, etc.? These steps, which no one else sees but you and God, are so crucial to your own vitality and to your impact on your flock.

Beware the tendency to rest on your laurels in this area! Yesterday's faith can never fight today's battles! Compare the church in Sardis (Rev. 3:2,3) to Caleb (Josh. 14:6-12).

Be consistent and persistent!

TORTOISE & HARE: It's probably true what they say: Leadership is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. I will take a consistent, reliable godly person who isn't gifted in leadership over a gifted leader who is inconsistent ten times out of ten.

This is probably why Paul says to Timothy, " persevere in these things; for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you." (1 Tim. 4:16), and " The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops." (2 Tim. 2:6).

You don’t need to feel like you have to have some great insight for people every time you speak or talk to them. If you pray for your people, discharge the insight God gives you, etc., you have to bank on the fact that in the long run God will use you to make an impact in their lives.

HUMOR: This is why I recommend that Christian workers get a hobby that yields visible short-term results! Christian work is slow, and much of the time we are laboring in faith without seeing tangible results.