Are you hitting a wall as you train new leaders? If the people you are training as leaders aren’t developing like you hoped they would, it may be that you are missing some stages of the leadership training trail…

Let’s say you have a promising potential young leader in your congregation—say she’s been leading a youth group. Her ministry has grown, more teens are attending, and she’s slowly moving into a position where she’ll need to lead a team of volunteers. She’s never led a team before and expresses a bit of apprehension about it. At this point, you have reached a crossroads. You can a) lead the team yourself and keep her at her current level of leadership, or b) invest in helping her move to the next level of her development as a leader. The correct answer—provided you don’t want more work for yourself—is b. But how do you do that? 

Six stages of the leadership training trail

six stages to train new leaders

Use this simple template, first outlined in my book, From Followers to Leaders. The six-stage process follows the metaphor of hiking a trail. 

  1. Parking lot: Do you want to go? 
  2. Trailhead: What will it look like? 
  3. Beginning of the trail: How do you get started? 
  4. Along the trail: What help do you need along the way?
  5. Campfires: How can you take this journey alongside others? 
  6. End of the trail: Where is your destination?  

Let’s look at each stage in turn. 

1. The parking lot 

Before any journey, everyone involved needs to decide if they want to go along. Are the benefits worth the time and effort that will be required? Start with yourself: Are you willing to spend the time investing in developing a new leader? Initially, it may take longer than doing it yourself, but eventually she’ll be able to do it on her own. Plus the Kingdom will have another leader—and hopefully one who will go on to develop others. 

The new leader will also have to decide whether she wants to invest the time and energy required on her part. She will grow, certainly, but the process may not be smooth. Is it worth it? What is she hearing from God? If she decides she’s not currently ready to take on this journey, you’ll need to begin thinking through whether there are other people you could invest in developing. 

Are you ready for leadership training?

Here are some questions to think through while you’re in the parking lot deciding. Considering questions like these now will help you later in the journey when you’re thinking, “Why did I do this again?” 

  • What qualities are you looking for in potential new leaders? 
  • How can you engage them relationally and ensure that they are not just filling a slot? 
  • How can you best cast vision for what this new leadership role could look like in their lives? 
  • How can you help them make an informed decision about whether they want to invest the time and energy required? 
  • How will you free up the time and energy that will be required on your part? 

2. The trailhead

If you and this potential new leader decide to move forward, the next step is training, right? Whoa… slow down. It’s likely that while you were explaining everything in the parking lot your potential leader was wrestling with God. If she shows up to the next meeting it means she’s saying yes to being trained, however, much of what you said before was not retained. She will have more questions… and you might too. The trailhead is where you provide a basic orientation, work together to determine to which path you will take, and make sure you have counted the cost before embarking on the journey.

Determine the right path

What will the journey look like? What will be required of you? You’ll likely need to spend a few hours a week coaching, developing, and supporting this new leader. How will that time be spent? What will it look like? Also be sure to consider what are the basic skills she needs to know in order to get started. How to recruit team members, how to run a meeting, how to support and train her new leaders, how to engage with the parents, etc. How can you orient her to the basics before she gets started? What else might you need to do to position her well for growth? 

She will also need additional clarity, both on the process and the goals. Recast the vision. Where is it we’re going again? Why is it worth going there? From there, you’ll move to what the journey will look like–what exactly will be required of her? Will she keep all of her current responsibilities or delegate some? If delegation, to whom? What time will she need to set aside to meet with you? What skills will she need in order to get started recruiting and developing her team? Avoid a data dump of information, which only serves to overwhelm and discourage new leaders. Rather, give them a few basic skills to start and work on adding more as they go. 

Where are we going?

A good trailhead experience gets everyone on the same page now so there are fewer surprises down the road. Spending some intentional time at the trailhead reflecting will help avoid, “Wait, I thought…” down the road. A good orientation now also provides leaders with a few basic skills they need in order to get started well. Here are some questions to reflect on at the trailhead? 

  • How can you clarify the destination and provide motivation for the journey?  
  • What are the fewest number of things people need to know before they get started?  
  • How can you best provide those basics without giving people too much information at once? 
  • How can you connect the new leader with a guide or coach? 

3. Beginning of the trail

You’ve gotten her to commit to the role in the parking lot and then provided a basic orientation at the trailhead. Now is the time to get started walking down that trail. The biggest problem to avoid at this stage is thinking orientation counted as training. 

Although this is the right time to start letting her do the work of the ministry and get her hands dirty, this is the absolute wrong time to cut her loose with no further support. This is when the support is really needed. This is when coaching is needed. Real training starts now.  

Put on your “Coach” hat

You’ll need to serve as a coach, walking alongside like a guide along a trail. She’s never been down this path before; she doesn’t know where she’s going. Where can she look to find new team members for the youth group? How should she structure the time so the kids truly enjoy it and have ownership? You’re showing the way and helping her think through questions like these. She’s walking on her own two feet, but you’re still providing guidance, relational check-ins, and problem-solving help. 

How are you getting there?

All new leaders need practice in real-life ministry environments, they need to see effective ministry modeled, they need to make their own mistakes, and they need to figure out their own solutions… but they also still need support and guidance from those who’ve been there before—those who understand. Consider these questions at the beginning of the trail to avoid turning new leaders loose to let them sink as soon as they really get started. 

  • How can you have the new leader start doing something right away? 
  • How can you make use of show-how training? 
  • How can you encourage the new leader to take ownership? 
  • How can you provide encouragement? 
  • How can you help them troubleshoot? 

4. Along the trail

Even after getting started, new leaders will need help along the way. What about when a conflict arises on the team? How should she handle things then? What about unexpected obstacles? What about the times leaders just have to slog through and it feels like nothing is working like it’s supposed to? “Is this normal?” they wonder, “Or does this mean I’m failing?” 

One of the most important functions along the way is to provide times of encouragement and celebration. Look how far you’ve come! Look what you have accomplished! Most new leaders will focus on what isn’t work rather than what is working. Certainly some things won’t be working. The new leader will think, “Why are the members of my team not communicating well?” or “Why aren’t they supporting each other in their differing roles instead of competing?” or, “How do I hold team meetings that people don’t dread going to?” Yes, those are issues to be considered and addressed—and as a coach, you can help her address them. But you also need to reminder her of the ultimate vision and how far she has come toward it. Yes, there’s still a ways to go, but she’s on the right track. She’ll get there. 

Where are you at now?

Providing along-the-trail coaching avoids the twin problems of lack of support and leader burnout. They are two sides of the same coin. No one can last long without feeling like there’s someone along with them. What help and support can you provide to the new leaders you’re developing? Reflect on these questions and find ways to support those you’re developing. 

  • How can you provide consistent relational support? 
  • How can you provide resources on an as-needed basis? 
  • How can you mark and celebrate progress? 
  • How can you help with midcourse corrections? 

5. Campfires

Challenging hikes require breaks. Continuing to go, go, go isn’t good for you. Sometimes you need to sit down and rest, drink some water, have a snack, and talk for a bit with those journeying along with you. You need a campfire. 

The same is true of new leaders. They are doing something challenging that they’ve not done before. They are prone to discouragement and a sense of isolation, to fears of failure, and to feeling generally depleted. What do they need? Peers. 

Connecting with others

Consider your new youth group leader. She’s been working hard. You’ve provided guidance along the way, but she still wonders if how she’s feeling is normal, if the barriers she’s running into are common to all or just to her. She needs others who are walking the same path. They get it in a way even you, as the coach or guide, cannot. They are right there with her, struggling with their own challenges, figuring out new strategies and trying them out, wondering if they’re doing it “right.” Connect her with other new ministry leaders. Maybe the worship leader is going through the same kind of season. Or maybe some staff members or other higher-level lay leaders are finding themselves right where she’s at. Maybe there are new leaders at other churches she could connect with for support. 

Where is your support?

The point is, everyone needs to know they’re not in it alone. It’s like having small groups of first-year teachers who get together periodically to encourage each other, commiserate, and exchange ideas. There’s value simply in knowing you’re not in something alone. Moses had Aaron and Miriam. Paul had Barnabas. None of us were designed to function in isolation. We all need to know we’re journeying alongside others. Avoid the problems of isolation and discouragement by finding ways to band new leaders together with their peers. 

  • Who can new leaders gather with for support? 
  • How can prayer be built into that time? 
  • How can peer relationships be encouraged and strengthened?
  • What structure will best promote the exchange of stories and ideas? 
  • How you help these groups encourage one another on toward what’s next? 

6. End of the trail

The point of a journey is to get somewhere: the end of the trail, the big view, the mountaintop experience. This was the vision new leaders set out to accomplish. Getting there should be marked with intentional celebration. 

Your new youth group leader has assembled a team and helped place people according to their gifts and passions. The youth group has grown, the students are learning, and the community is feeling more and more connected all the time. It’s working. It may not be perfect—nothing is—but it’s working. And that’s worth celebrating. 

You’ve come so far!

You’ve been walking alongside this new leader for quite some time now. You know how far she’s come, but it’s unlikely she has that same perspective. Share it with her. Express how much progress has been made and the ways in which you’ve seen her grow and develop new skills. She didn’t know how to get buy-in among team members before… and now she does. She’s figuring out how to navigate relationships with parents. She’s learning and growing in effectiveness as she works with the teens. Say it out loud. Express it to others. Publicly recognizing ministry contributions is an incredibly effective means of casting vision for future ministry for others as well as encouraging those who have served. 

Too often people come to the end of their journey of development as a leader and… nothing. It just fizzles out. They did it, but so what? Don’t make that mistake with the leaders you’re investing in. Be intentional about helping them celebrate crossing the finish line. 

What have you learned?

From there, you can help them reflect on all they’ve learned and listen again to the Holy Spirit for whatever endeavors might be next for them. Think of those you’ve invested in and consider: 

  • How are you celebrating new leaders’ accomplishments? 
  • How are you helping them reflect on what they’ve learned? 
  • What other journeys are next? With whom? 
  • How can you help them guide others along this same journey? 

Try using this six-stage process for developing leaders from within your own ministry and see what happens. I think you’ll be surprised at how effective it is… as well as how much work it eventually takes off your own plate. That frees you up to do what only you can do, and multiplies more leaders for the Kingdom. 


Leadership Skills Guides– When developing people as leaders, it’s common to discover that people need help in some basics skills. Don’t give up on them! These downloadable guides were written to help you coach people in learning skills in key areas that effect every person’s ability to lead: communication, organizational, pastoral, working with teams, developing others, and even personal development skills.

Photo by Kayla Duhon on Unsplash