The Importance of Leadership Development: A Reflection from the 2023 Exponential Conference

Mar 21, 2023

By Chris Markert, Bishop’s Associate for Mission

Exponential is the world’s largest annual gathering of church planters and missional leaders from around the world. Each March, nearly 6,000 people gather in Florida for worship, speakers, networking, and to participate in nearly 200 workshops throughout the week. It has grown to include smaller regional gatherings, and specialty networks for the work of mission and leadership training.

I have been attending the Exponential Conference since 2007, when I first attended in preparation to launch Celebration Church in Cypress, Texas. After that first year I began bringing lay leaders from Celebration as part of our leadership team’s professional development. I have only missed one year (2021, because of COVID).

During my years at Celebration, having time to learn together with the lay leaders of the congregation was a huge blessing. Each evening at Exponential, we would gather together to debrief our experiences, both good and bad. We would each go to different workshops, and then share what we learned. And then we would decide together if there was something we wanted to “rent” for our ministry context (i.e., something we would want to bring back to Celebration to try out). Celebration’s leadership and ministry were stronger because of our investment in such leadership development.

When I came on synod staff as our synod’s mission director responsible for mission developers and redevelopers, I made attending Exponential an option for their training, along with the ELCA mission developers training and community organizing training. Most leaders have appreciated the opportunity to experience Exponential. Many come back year after year with lay leaders from their own congregations.

Is Exponential for everyone? Probably not. First, it needs to be noted that the Exponential Conference comes out of the American evangelical tradition. This is much different than our mainline Lutheran experience. Language is different. Theology is different. However, these differences create a space that uniquely challenges us and allows the Holy Spirit to open to us new ways of thinking and understanding. Often, we joke about the need to put on our “Lutheran goggles” when debriefing what was said during Exponential. For example, some Exponential speakers will talk about “those who are far off from God.” As Lutherans we know no one is far off from God. But we do know people who feel as though they are far off from God… those who have yet to experience Christ in ways that are faith-growing or life-transforming.

Also, at times, there may be a speaker or workshop leader whose theological or scriptural understanding is based in misogyny or heterosexism, or in a theology of glory, etc. (by the way, this also happens in ELCA circles). However, even at these times, we as a group process what we heard and critically think about what our own position is, and how we can learn from this. This makes the experience meaningful, too.

This year, we had 9 synod leaders attend Exponential, the largest group ever from our synod! And every single leader said it was worth it.

So, pastors and deacons, my questions for you are:

  • What are you doing to continue to develop yourselves for your particular call and ministry?
  • How are you regularly investing in the leadership development of your lay leaders?

Pastor Andy Stanley says, “Your church is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently getting.” (This is a paraphrase of organizational expert Arthur Jones)

Are you getting the results you are seeking from your ministry leaders and from your congregational ministries? And if not, now is the time to begin planning for the training that will strengthen you and your leaders’ capacities! This can be as simple as reading a book together, or attending regional or national training conferences. But don’t forget to include your lay leaders. Because investing in their development is utterly essential to the work and mission of the Church.