How To Evaluate Church Leaders - Imagine Your Life Depends on It (Because it Does)

Members of the church, now more than at any time, need to have clear ways to discern proper leadership.

Without it, there's very little oversight into who becomes a leader, paid or volunter, within a church.

Failures can be immediately dramatic. But more likely, there is the "Leaven Effect": the slow, at first imperceptible, erosion of the Gospel.

Yet, why is the risk high?

It's very easy to accept on faith decisions made by the leadership as "annointings." But in the same way that companies have boards of directors that turn the other way because they have been appointed by the CEO, churches can lack accountability because a clear vector for qualification is missing.

This is how wolves enter leadership.

Most people think wolves are easily discernible for overtly bad behavior.

But Jesus doesn't take that view. In fact, he believes they can be very difficult to detect.

As Scriptural literacy continues to fall within the church, evasion, including self-deception by the well-intended, is easy. Meaning: a wolf may not even know he is one due to self-deception and prideful Scriptural illiteracy.

Matthew 7:15

Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.

The mistake is that if the person is "nice" or appears to have good intentions, proper "behavior" -- that person couldn't be vicious.

But we take the Scripture incorrectly. We "imagine" that the person's conscious intent must be evil and vicious; therefore they are wolves. When we can't believe that about someone, we assume the outward "harmless sheep" must be capable and a Christ follower.

But the point of the Scripture is that it is not easy to detect. Exterior behavior can cover the heart; and in fact, it is those with the proper outward behavior that can pose the greatest threats as Jesus warns.

Who are often great candidates on the outside, but Jesus warns that those indicators aren't really right.

They include longevity at the church and knows the procedures[1], pray publicly[2], talk about generous giving[3], and abide in the visible behaviors of the church[4].

Anyone who is part of a church who wants to know what is best for your church must pay heed.

Once someone enters into an expectation of spiritual authority but aren't truly ambassadors of Christ will spread their perspective like yeast. The modern version is, once the toothpaste is squeezed out, you can't put it back.[5]

What are the bare minimum?

If we make the bar too high, it can become a bit legalistic. But a hand-wavy bar and an expectation of reputation is too loose.

Here are the five minimum viable requirements:

  1. Sound Teaching. Graceful Refutation.
  2. Expression of the Spiritual Gifts from Ephesians
  3. History of Fruitful Discipleship
  4. Right Relationship with Money
  5. A Life which Demonstrates Christ's Work in Words and Deeds

Sound Teaching. Graceful Refutation.

Titus 1:9

He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

The ability to teach is central to the qualification.

It's the foundation for people to come to faith.

It's critical to prevent wayward doctrine.

Yet this capability of often overlooked.

But it can be properly discerned IF the right circumstances are put and people know what to look for.

The problem with most churches is that a) the right circumstances aren't put into place; b) people don't know what to look for.

Most teaching is done by the pastor. And even then, only a small percentage are willing or able to engage and test what has been taught.

A similar level of inspection should be applied to elder.

This can be done in multiple intentional layers:

This can't be done in a one-off. This is done over time in community.

But when something is off, a deeper investigation must take place.

The problem with this level of discernment is that it can train people "to the test."

Like schools that would teach children how to solve through practice tests versus the first principles, teaching the "right behavior" versus asking "Has the person's mind been renewed"[6] such that they speak from proper spiritual wisdom (versus relying on their worldly-gained knowledge)?[7]

Anti Pattern

I spoke with an Elder who, on multiple occasions, revealed cracks in his understanding of Scripture. These fell under the "interactive" mode weakly.

Example 1

During a heated, divided discussion around potential church policy, a deacon suggested that everyone talk amongst themselves. The policy was already decided upon by the head pastor and it was made clear the deacons wouldn't have decision-making authority; but, given the division, discussion should be made.

This is a practice where disagreements should be addressed by examining together the Scriptures[8] as well as debate as was done at the Council of Jerusalem.[9]

These discussion aren't just debates for their own sake or to see who can argue the best. As Acts 15:6-7 concludes, a decision was made such that the message of the Gospel can be conveyed.

However, rather than seeking truth by dividing God's word and discovering how the Gospel can be the light that shines out of disagreement, the elder said that we should not meet as a body because he heard God tell him that doing so would result in disunity.

Example 2

From the pulpit to invite giving, an elder said the following:

And I think this is the one thing that God has said, test me on it, right? Because he promised to bless us. It's not like a requirement in the Bible anymore, but it is something that we can do as an act of faith, as a way to stand up against what the world says, but stand up for what we 
believe in.*[10]

On the one hand, this is not a true teaching, so we technically can't hold it to that standard. There's no clear exposition.

However, it is from an elder before a congregation which uses Scripture. This deserves at least some scrutiny because it implies an incorrect, potentially dangerous, interpretation and application.

Again, the intent is not nitpicking every casual statement. But if standing before a congregation and asking people for their money AND using Scripture to do so AND proclaiming what this act represents in terms of faith....this should be closer to the mark than it was.

I spend more time on money later, but consider the reference.

"Test me in this" refers to Malachi 3:8-10, one of the most abused Scriptures:

Malachi 3:8-10

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.

Most heretical interpretations then proceed to talk about material blessings that come from God.

There's not enough here to assume this is the intent.

But there's not enough evidence to know it isn't, either.

Learn more how to cultivate healthy relationship with money in your church and removing the prosperity gospel by clicking here, "Slaying Mammon: Creating Healthy Relationships with Money and God".

The second, which doesn't have enough there, but would be worth a deep-dive in terms of the thinking and world view, is how does giving actually show "faith," and standing up to the world?

When it comes to faith, is the person saying this giving according to Scripture? We'll see how some church leaders building healthier relationships with money through transparency.

Expression of the Spiritual Gifts According to Ephesians

Ephesians 4:7-16

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the [b]edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love

Spiritual Giftings are critical to leadership because of what these gifts are to do. When you read through Ephesians 4, those key outcomes from those who have gifts should be part of every church:

These are achieved through the spiritual gifts.

If we read the Scripture that through these specified spiritual gifts Christ HIMSELF gave these gifts (graces in the Greek), the absence of these gifts should imply an impediment towards achieving these same outcomes.

Therefore, a leader who does not exhibit one or more may likely not be the best candidate for church leadership.

While there can be an entire training into development and discernment within your leadership team and the body as a whole (sign up here if interested), here's the quick and dirty litmus

Ask, what other external Christian organizations are they are part of and what do they love about it? Apostles love to attend these, get to know other apostles. It becomes a community and connection of the church.

Ask, "Has he presented a Scripture truth at potential cost to his own personal acceptance?" The Prophet brings truth; they are not people pleasers who prefer to say the right thing to preserve their ego and station. They know Scripture and reference it in their life, their thoughts, and their view of the world.

Ask, "Does this person rejoice in a compelling way for Christ in the world, in his own life?" The Evangelist cannot help but to talk about how the Gospel is challenging, invasive, pervasive, and the only answer to the challenges of this world. It is about Christ (listen carefully -- many leaders talk about God, but the Evangelist pours out himself for Jesus)

Ask, "Does this person connect the Scripture into a way of living according to its truths?" Teaching isn't about the history and facts. It's the core essence of Discipleship (which I cover next) -- how one who has been regenerated can continue their sanctification.

Ask, "Does this person convey a love and caring for people, reaching out to the lost, the 1 out of the 99"? This is a caring, and indefatigible desire for relationships that express Christ's love -- not a worldly social-club type of love -- but sacrificial.

Your congregation, your closest and wisest people, anyone who spends time with them should be able to reach clarity on the gifts for a candidate.

Why compromise?

There could be something else going on and I talk about the Resistance to Rush in my message from Judges 7 when you're looking for the right people to get onto the bus.

History of Fruitful Discipleship

Remember, we want those who can teach God's word and his ways.

One essential commandment is discipleship.

The litmus is simple: without any exhortation by leadership (this is key), has the person attempted to disciple anyone within the church?

I get it. There are often not even any clear definitions of discipleship within a church (click here to learn how you can make it more accessible to everyone).

But that shouldn't matter.

If someone who is a candidate hasn't, one their own as an act of obedience to Christ's final command[11], to disciple someone, anyone, shouldn't that give you pause?

"Oh but holding a small group is discipling."

This is part of a debate I won't wade into: is leading small groups the same as discipling?

I actually think if we're talking about character attributes of church leadership, participating in a "church program" isn't the same. I believe, but won't use as a primary criteria, that one who takes initiative to develop someone's walk in Christ through relationship is discipleship. I believe this behavior illustrates a manner of Christ-like discipleship of initiative, relationships, and if there's fruit, Godly wisdom.

I would be curious why this isn't a foundational requirement.

But let's consider the case that leading a small group should be sufficient. Is there enough evidence from activity to see:

Personally, I think a stronger testimony is not to rely on programs, but to observe individual initiative to disciple. If someone has been raised Christian, they know they should participate in programs and ministries.

But the movement of the Spirit works differently 1:1. But that one may just be me.

Right Relationship with Money

Matthew 6:24

No man can serve two masters: for either he. will hate the one, and love the other; or else. he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Mammon is not just an abstraction. It's a powerful spiritual force.

Ensuring a potential leader has a right relationship with money is a critical, but overlooked, step.

Typically this is overlooked because pastors don't make much.

But some secular volunteer leaders can make an amount which distracts them. It can corrupt thinking and teaching.

Note: I've met extremely wealthy Christians who clearly are focused on the Gospel and they are wealthy by God's hand.

I've also met some for whom God is a means to their own comfort, and without being Joel Osteen about it.

How to address this?

Andy Crouch describes his effective antidote: generosity and transparency.[16]

Here is a simple test of faithfulness according to Jesus:

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.  But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”


Andy Crouch suggests for leaders, amongst themselves, to share their finances in broad strokes. And generosity out of this spirit should reveal itself.

Let's look at a more pragmatic approach: of the practical costs of living, is the person living beneath (out of her "poverty") or above (higher than the margin) and what is the surplus?

For example, San Francisco is known as a true high cost of living. Using Census numbers of media income would be very hard.

A number that got quite a bit of flack, but actually did not show alot of luxures, placed $300k per year, as costs of living.

Let's ask a basic question: if someone makes say, $1M, are they being evaluated for giving $100k as a tithe being faithful?

Having a transparent discussion and a spirit-led conversation around Generosity in this context is everything. It's healthy and Mammon has no place to hide.

Here's the other litmus to test those who are wealthy before granting them spiritual authority:

But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? (1 John 3:17)

I am also somewhat practical. Someone barely making the bills in an expensive city, I wouldn't expect them to tend to needs of people in the church. I've seen it and been humbled by people who live so minimally but continue to give generously. Given that context, I do believe then that someone with a wide margin relative to the cost of living who hasn't been able to be generous to tend to those needs invites deep scrutiny.

But as I shared earlier in the teaching, the prosperity gospel isn't dangerous only because of the extreme and crass teachers. It's very foundation, as described by Christianity Today: "An aberrant theology that teaches God rewards faith—and hefty tithing—with financial blessings."[17]

These ideas begin a yeast. Why give it a foothold?

Transparency will make all things clear. Resistence reveals a stronghold of the heart.

A Life which Demonstrates Christ's Work in Words and Deeds

This is sort of a catch-all, but it's very specific.

I alluded to the concept earlier, and I believe it deserves attention.

Jesus called out those who prayed, those who gave, those who were spiritual warriors saying "Lord, Lord" doing the miraculous.

But He also warned that a belief in God was insufficient. Demons know God exists.

While Godly Wisdom and the Law always leads us to a right path, many leader's live and teach from the concept of "do these things and you will be blessed." Follow this concept and God will bless you.

But that's Law. Christ came to fulfill it, so we know it is true.

But remember Galatians 3:10:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”

To give, to tithe, to pray, to "hear God" -- all of those are certainly and irrefutably good, but they are not the Gospel.

In fact, it is because it is insufficient in a sinful life, we must cling to Jesus.

But many leaders, and preachers, attract people through the Law (follow these things and your life gets better!) or through cheap grace (everything is fine and will get better because of God's love.)

True, but insufficient.

If, in the course of doing life with the person, it's not evident in word and deed that it is Jesus at the center versus God, this is not the same. The person can still be good. Potentially even believe the teachings of Christ.

But until we are able to live with a repentant life and realize that Christ didn't come primarily to provide present-tense blessings, but life in eternity, where all of these material things will hold no value and stock, if that isn't present fully in the person, the stories, the life choices, the language day to's probably not Christ at the center.

Next Steps

For candidates or for the final vote, everyone should consider the criteria above and come up with a clear answer:[18]

This is better than a generic "accept what we have decided upon" and gives an edifying experience. The lack of evidence is an important one. Without that option, people will feel pressued into going with the default.

How not to use this

This is for the discernment process.

Not for the training.

The challenge with training with outcomes it that it leads to people who "study to the test."

The Scriptures warn of this in the parable of the Rich Young Ruler.[19]

The Rich Young Ruler implicitly rejected the premise of the Gospel because he believed he was already good. He had earned, through hard work and diligence, righteousness. That it was tied to material wealth and he would not give it up revealed this underlying performative approach.

It's both the hardest part of following Jesus. And the most freeing.

Teaching to test won't weed them out. And I do believe it's important to weed these out from leadership because the "Leaven Effect" I wrote about earlier.

If you believe leadership matters, both in educating your flock how to discern, and in raising them, clicik here to learn how to enroll your church in Eldership: True Spiritual Leadership in an Age of Compromise.

Why this matters

A common recourse underlying decisions to perhaps lower the bar is a need to do this. Fill the slots. Maybe it's a fast-food approach to leadership of "on the job training" versus the brain surgeon approach of deep qualification.

While this scenario isn't true, it's a good check.

If you were to place a candidate in a room with an unbeliever whom both persons knew had 24 hours left to live, would you place your own salvation at stake that every effort would be made in a spiritually sound way to convey the Gospel?

Not to convert, we know that does not come from human hands.

But you would see that no stone were unturned and those stones were stones even you may not have thought of?

Because that's at stake with leadership.

The random conversation.

The words injected in front of the pulpit.

How a conflict is handled.

How an off-chance relationship could bloom or not.

Don't fill an empty slot. Plant seeds ready to bloom.

How To Evaluate Church Leaders - Imagine Your Life Depends on It (Because it Does)
  1. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! (Mark 7:8-9) ↩︎

  2. When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. (Matthew 6:5) ↩︎

  3. “Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.” (Acts 5:1-2) ↩︎

  4. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will go into the holy nation of heaven. The one who does the things My Father in heaven wants him to do will go into the holy nation of heaven. Many people will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not preach in Your Name? Did we not put out demons in Your Name? Did we not do many powerful works in Your Name?’ Then I will say to them in plain words, ‘I never knew you. Go away from Me, you who do wrong!’ (Matthew 7:21-23) ↩︎

  5. And he charged them, saying,  Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod. (Mark 8:15) ↩︎

  6. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2) ↩︎

  7. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness" (1 Corinthians 3:19) ↩︎

  8. Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11) ↩︎

  9. The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. (Acts 15:6-7) ↩︎

  10. Radiance Sunday Service | 11/27/2022 | A Case for Hope | Isaiah 52:1-12 - YouTube ↩︎

  11. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” ↩︎

  12. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, ↩︎

  13. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. (James 5:16) ↩︎

  14. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! (Galatians 1:8) ↩︎

  15. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. (James 2:19) ↩︎

  16. Detoxing From The Power Of Money Over Our Life with Andy Crouch - YouTube ↩︎

  17. Prosperity Gospel | Topics | Christianity Today ↩︎

  18. Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned. ↩︎

  19. 17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do so that I may inherit eternal life?” 18 But Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not give false testimony, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth.” 21 Looking at him, Jesus showed love to him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But he was deeply dismayed by these words, and he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property. (Mark 10:17-27) ↩︎