A. Trevor Sutton: How do you keep great leaders?

Composite Illustration: Bigstock/Beta757

Finding good people to serve your congregation or organization isn’t enough, writes a pastor. You also need to develop a strategy to retain them.

Finding the right leaders is hard enough. Keeping the right leaders seems nearly impossible.

Why is it so hard to retain good people serving in a congregation or organization? Why do many volunteers sign up and then fizzle out in six months? The answer is not all that complex. In my experience, we spend nearly all our energy finding people -- and almost none of it keeping them.

Once we find the right people, we let out a big sigh of relief, thinking our work is finally done.

But the real work is just getting started.

Retaining leaders is vital to any leadership development process. Rather than constantly searching for new leaders to fill vacated positions, taking the time to develop a leadership retention strategy can help you keep the leaders you already have.

There are several important factors in developing such a strategy:

Fit: Jamming the wrong person into the wrong position never ends well. Asking someone with a giftedness for teaching adults to serve on the church council will typically result in neither a teacher nor a council member. Make sure that you have asked the right person to serve in the right way.

One great way to determine a good fit is to ask, “Does this task leave you energized or exhausted?” If a leader has more energy and excitement after serving in a particular capacity, then it’s a good fit. If not, he or she should be serving in another way.

Freedom: Leaders need enough freedom to make a project their own. To be asked to lead a ministry and then told exactly how to do it is to be denied real leadership.

Are you letting your leaders lead or just having them implement your plans? Good leaders can sense the difference between grunt work and an opening for innovation.

Feedback: It is very important to establish effective feedback loops. Rather than waiting for frustrations to arise, create timely and consistent opportunities for your leaders to receive and give meaningful feedback.

Share encouraging comments that you have heard about their work. Give examples of how their efforts are making a difference. Ask what can be done to build upon their work. Listen for ways you can do a better job of encouraging and supporting their service.

Some people thrive with more feedback and reassurance than others; ask your leaders whether you are giving a constructive amount.

Appreciation: People who feel appreciated are motivated to do more than is expected. How do you make your leaders feel appreciated? A handwritten note is invaluable in conveying your appreciation. Giving a small token of appreciation -- a book or a gift card to a coffee shop -- is another option.

Having an appreciation dinner for congregational leaders provides an opportunity to receive feedback, enjoy fellowship and express your thanks. If your leaders feel appreciated, they will exceed your expectations. Every. Single. Time.

Support: Being accessible to your leaders is important. However, do not assume that passive support is enough to retain good people.

How you speak to them sends an important message. Passive support sounds like this: “Let me know if you need anything.” Active support sounds like this: “How can I help?”

Rather than putting the burden on your leaders to ask, make sure that you are actively supporting their work. That can help keep them around.

Finding great people to serve and then ignoring them is like planting an orchard and then never watering it. It’s far easier -- and less destructive -- to feed and nourish the trees than to dig them up and replace them.

The apostle Paul offers this very image of planting and watering when describing the work of leaders in the early church:

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:6-9 NIV)

God gives growth and supplies fruit when the seed is both planted and watered.