Discipling is Leading

by | Nov 2, 2020 | Leadership | 10 comments

Mention the words “lead,” “leader” or “leadership” in a church context, and people usually think of things like an ordained pastor, skilled teacher, church staff member, elder, board member … Rarely does “leader” equate to the typical believer discipling someone else.

But that’s exactly what discipling is: Leading.

When you disciple someone else, you are:

  • Setting examples and modeling expected behaviors
  • Clarifying intent and casting vision
  • Encouraging through hardship or failure
  • Challenging existing paradigms, perceptions and world views
  • Teaching, correcting, training and rebuking
  • Shaping their self-identity
  • Developing their abilities
  • Exhibiting care and concern
  • Equipping them for self-reliance

All of these are straight-up, textbook descriptions of things leaders do. Look at Jesus’ interaction with his 12 disciples in the gospels and these are the activities that consistently jump off the pages. A review of any worthy marketplace leadership book will give you a similar list (shameless plug: I suggest Taking the Lead: What Riding a Bike Can Teach You About Leadership).

Making disciples is (among other things) leading, and it’s what every believer is called to do.

“Rarely does ‘leader’ equate to the typical believer discipling another person.”

Why We Don’t Associate Discipleship With Leadership

It’s recognized that the West (and particularly North America) is one of the hardest places in the world to make disciples. I agree, and am convinced that one of the main reasons for this is, curiously enough, the form and practices of the church itself.

There are many points to discuss here, but one in particular is that church as we know it—what we call the legacy church—hasn’t focused on developing leadership behaviors in its members. Instead, for most of its history it has focused on compliance to biblical truth and preventing doctrinal error. While these are good and necessary (duh), they are not leadership oriented—they are management oriented.

This may seem nuanced and abstract, but stay with me—it’s vitally important. Managing and leading are two vastly different disciplines. Management emphasizes “doing things right.” It typically focuses on maintaining order and control, keeping things in a healthy status quo. On the other hand, leadership emphasizes “doing the right things.” It usually focuses on moving forward and breaking out of the status quo toward achieving a compelling goal.

“For most of its history the legacy church has focused on compliance to biblical truth and preventing doctrinal error.”

As you may sense, there’s some tension between these two disciplines. It’s analogous to having a marriage where one partner is goal- and action-oriented (where unknowns and surprises can be addressed as they surface), and the other is more of a planner (where advance preparation avoids unknowns and surprises so they don’t detract from the desired outcome).

The Impact on Disciple-Making

As it relates to making disciples in the West, the form of church we practice (for better or for worse) has a management-oriented culture. It vanguards the values of biblical accuracy, doctrinal purity and knowledge. It promotes authorized teaching, standardizing, analyzing, setting policies, and controlling.

In emphasizing management, the church has trained Christians to maintain, guard, validate, stay in line and defer to the organization for approval or direction. In disciple-making this creates hesitation, if not timidity. It resists empowering individual believers to hear from God personally and obey his leading. It blurs their self-identity: Instead of seeing themselves as disciple-makers, personally engaged in carrying out the Great Commission, they see themselves as adherents of an organization, tradition or a program.

“In disciple-making this creates hesitation, if not timidity.”

Implementing Disciple-Making in the Church

There’s a growing trend within the legacy church toward promoting discipleship—which is really exciting! The challenge, however, is that most of the current conversations promote a management perspective on discipleship. They usually focus on things like:

  • Encouraging more Bible knowledge and mastering key doctrines
  • Establishing a “right understanding” of key terms like gospel, disciple, faith, evangelize, baptize, etc.
  • Creating standardized curricula
  • Implementing an approved program.

Again, these are all good things. But separated from complementary leadership behaviors, they simply won’t move the needle much on discipleship multiplication: Making disciples that make disciples. They prolong a management-biased paradigm of discipleship whose main goal is to “do things right” so that nothing is done “wrong.”

A Simple Test

So how can you know which approach (managing or leading) you’re taking? The most basic litmus test is that of decision-making authority. Assume, for the moment, that your church members have been trained and equipped to go and make disciples. Then ask yourself: Does every believer in my church have the unquestioned freedom and authority to make disciples without being dependent upon the church’s established ministry programs?

If not, then management is probably the primary discipline in play.

“They prolong a management-biased paradigm of discipleship whose main goal is to ‘do things right’ so that nothing is done ‘wrong.'”

If you’re a pastor or church leader, the degree of concern you have over that scenario is an indication of how much your church leans on management instead of leadership. If you’re a church member or attender, the degree of apprehension, inadequacy or confusion you feel about it is an indication of how comfortable you are operating in a management-heavy organization.

So What?

Why is this important? It’s pretty simple:

  • If individual believers are not released to lead others in disciple-making, we won’t see discipleship multiplication occur.
  • If we don’t see the fruit of discipleship multiplication, we’ll never see viral movements started.
  • If we don’t get movements, we can’t make disciples faster than the population is growing.
  • If spiritual growth doesn’t surpass population growth, we can’t make disciples of all nations.
  • If we don’t make disciples of all nations, we’ve failed in the mission our Savior gave us (Matt. 28.19-20).

I don’t know about you, but that’s not the conversation I want to have when I see my Savior face-to-face.

The Bottom Line

To be clear: I’m not suggesting all believers go rogue and disconnect from their church’s oversight. To overemphasize either discipline at the expense of the other invites dysfunction.

I’m NOT advocating for leadership INSTEAD OF management in the church; I’m advocating for leadership PLUS management.

“If we don’t make disciples of all nations, we’ve failed in the mission our Savior gave us.”

I implore the church: Teach and train people how to lead others in disciple-making, then release them to do it and continue walking with them as they get better at it.

I exhort believers: Go out among those who don’t know Jesus and start discipling them until they come to faith and are equipped to imitate what you’ve modeled. We must lead with “doing the right things” and manage the results the Lord brings us.

Photo by Juri Gianfrancesco on Unsplash

Damian Gerke is on the leadership team of 1Body Church. He is married to Cheryl, his wife of 30+ years, and they have three grown children.

Damian has a diverse background that includes leadership and development coaching, vocational pastoral ministry and even working as a design engineer in the aerospace industry. He is the author of In the Way: Church As We Know It Can Be a Discipleship Movement (Again) and Taking the Lead: What Riding a Bike Can Teach You About Leadership. He blogs regularly about faith and church leadership issues here at 1Body.church, as well as leadership and life issues at DamianGerke.com.


  1. Jim Morgan

    Great post. Wonder if managing vs. empowering is the contrast in play here – current church structures are designed to create dependence that breed loyalty to an institution and a pastor, which keeps the machine running. Empowerment prepares and deploys into ministry, putting allegiance to Jesus and the Great Commission over any self-serving ambitions like church growth (for growth’s sake).

    • Damian Gerke

      Thanks Jim! You could sure call it empowerment if you want … empowerment is one outcome of effective leadership (“Management” and “Leadership” are the 2 terms I’ve seen most commonly used, so that’s why I went with them). The legacy church culture has always prioritized “management” principles and priorities, which makes it easy to install the structures you mentioned. Over-prioritizing management creates a culture that more guarded and protective, instead of one that is empowering and releasing. You have to both lead AND manage—which is not easy to do. The church has simply defaulted to the priority of managing over the years. It’s time for a shift in culture!

  2. Agaba Jude

    Wonderful news!!! Praise the Lord.
    In Uganda we started practicing discipleship movement it is working out. Thanks

    • Damian Gerke

      So thrilled to see God at work through your obedience, brother! Well done!

  3. Tim Aagard

    “To be clear: I’m not suggesting all believers go rogue and disconnect from their church’s oversight. To overemphasize either discipline at the expense of the other invites dysfunction.”
    This is a very unfortunate statement.
    1. Disconnecting from an institution is not going “rogue”. You just spent many paragraphs talking about how the institution is a HUGE distraction and consumer of spiritual energy for perpetual dependency results – the OPPOSITE of “making disciples”. Why do you want to preserve this ALTERNATIVE IDENTITY, as if there is some truth in it? Whatever happens for God’s glory in IC is DESPITE what is done by “the leadership”, compartmentalized from the “non-leadership”- the spectating sheep. There is a DIRECT headship with Jesus outside the clergyism corruption. That is TRUE oversight. Mutual relationships are TRUE oversight, not top-down titled program managers. Clergyism is rogue – disobedient to Jesus. You have it backwards.
    2. Based on the HIGHLY RELATIONAL version of “oversight” taught in the Bible, and the tragic relational instability of institutional management claimed to be “oversight”, there really is no “oversight” in the institution. It’s lip service oversight. Why preserve that?
    3. The pulpit and pew institution IS “DYSFUNCTION”. We are told to FIRST “throw off the things that hinder and the sin that so easily entangles”. It is only AFTER that, we can “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus. Hebrews 12:1-4.
    Why combine sinful practices claimed to be ekklesia, which are 90% the opposite of body life, and then try to add in some discipleship? Get rid of the crud, based on God’s instruction.
    Do you need more than Hebrews 12 instruction to get this point?
    Is it not simple and clear enough?

    • Damian Gerke

      Tim – Thanks for the perspective. My point with the “rogue” statement was an attempt to explain that individual believers leading others in disciple-making shouldn’t be perceived by anyone as “going rogue.” This actually can be and should be managed well. I believe the church is fully capable of both leading and managing the disciple-making efforts of individual believers—without getting in the way. But to do so will require some significant adjustments from its current approach. Up to this point, the church has relied almost completely on managing—which is dysfunctional from an organizational standpoint. Many believe that management and leadership are mutually exclusive. My point is that they are not. I’m not advocating one over the other, but both.

      • Tim Aagard

        Thanks for your reply. I apologize for not giving scripture that demonstrates the DIRECT DISOBEDIENCE of the clergyism version of “management” in the local pulpit and pew driven church.

        Luke 6:40
        A disciple is not above his teacher,
        but EVERYONE when he is FULLY TRAINED
        will be LIKE his teacher.

        In one sentence, Jesus definitively describes and correlates disciple making and teaching DEMANDS “fully training everyone”. You been in pulpit and pew church to know that the hired teacher will NEVER fully train anyone in even 20 years of “teaching”. The results of teaching are perpetual dependency. Jesus is REJECTED. When the hired Pastor of 20 years leaves, another man must be hired to do everything the previous man did. That is a REVERSAL of discipleship in the pulpit routine. This is their “vision” that they “cast”. Is that what you want? No, but that is what you get when you maintain the systemic OPPOSITE of disciple making, yet claimed to be disciple making.

        This corruption is destructive to Jesus’ instructions as the papacy, rosaries, etc.

        I attend a mega – multi site church where Luke 6:40 is the core verse of the whole church. But the “Lead Pastor” has not “fully trained” anyone in 18 years. No lay person will speak from the pulpit for even 5 minutes. This verse is pure lip service. He gave me 30 minutes to meet with him to introduce this issue. There is no brotherliness to respond and talk more. This scripture is an ambiguous fog to merely mean saints will somehow grow in faith attend a small group, be regular attenders and tithers, etc. He has no understanding that his life should reproduce. This results in lots of words about discipleship but zero practice. Are you ok with that? It’s been going on for 500 years. I am not questioning anyone’s sincerity. I am confronting systemic blindness due to traditions of men. I’m trying to be simple and direct.

        • Damian Gerke

          Tim – I understand your point, and in fact just wrote a book that explores that very topic. It’s called In the Way: Church As We Know It Can Be a Discipleship Movement (Again). Church as we know it (what I refer to as CAWKI) is unfortunately blocking discipleship multiplication. In its current form, CAWKI can’t ever produce a disciple-making movement (DMM), and so prevents us from accomplishing the Great Commission.
          Personally, I believe it is largely unintentional: The form of church we inherited from Europe is the only one we’ve ever known. That said, it’s become clear that CAWKI is not working to make disciples that make disciples, and we (particularly church leaders) are accountable for that.
          I devote a whole chapter to unpacking how the church is led and developed. Much to say here, but the structure of the church gives leaders positional authority, emphasizes teaching above all the other gifts, gives them a pseudo-celebrity status, limits their relational connection, reinforces a hierarchical organization and is not a good model for others to follow in going and making disciples.
          As I said, this is the church paradigm that virtually all of Western society is familiar with. It makes it challenging to see any other alternatives, even though they exist in the New Testament and in other places around the world. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is an incredible opportunity before us! I choose to see it that way, and this is the approach I’m taking in trying to influence the church toward a DMM approach.
          Thanks for the dialog, and I pray blessings on you as you seek the Lord’s guidance in following Jesus and making disciples!

  4. MTWT

    Such a great article – so excited to read the book, Damian!


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