The Critical Role of Core Competencies for Leadership

The Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 243

This week, we continue our deep dive into Leadership Pipeline Design. In the first week, we explored why every church needs a leadership pipeline. Last week, we detailed the various levels of leadership and why it’s critical to have a clear structure from your senior board to your front line leaders. This week, we’re exploring the essence of leadership within these levels, and how to be able to define high-capacity from low-capacity leadership.

Leadership is the church’s most valuable asset. This isn’t a flippant overstatement – it’s a fundamental reality. A church could have a compelling vision, a clear mission, and brilliant strategies, but without capable leaders to activate and implement them, it’s all just theoretical. Ideas and plans remain inert on whiteboards and in notebooks, never coming to life to make an impact.

You don’t have to question whether the Holy Spirit’s power will be available – He is ever-present and ready to empower. The real differentiator between thriving churches and those that stagnate or decline is leadership, plain and simple. As the leadership goes, so goes the church. Developing a strong leadership culture with a robust pipeline of leaders at every level is how churches unleash their full potential. 

This is why I’m convinced that defining and developing “Core Competencies” is one of the most important foundations a church can lay for its leadership pipeline. Core Competencies provide the objective criteria by which to identify and develop leaders in a clear, consistent manner. They demystify what it takes to be a leader and to grow as a leader.

In this article, we’ll unpack exactly what Core Competencies are, the pivotal role they play in building an effective leadership pipeline, and how to go about defining them in your own church context. My goal is to convince you that establishing Core Competencies is not peripheral, but absolutely central to the task of leadership development. Are you ready to revolutionize your approach to raising up leaders? Let’s jump in.

Apple PodcastsSpotifyOvercastRSS

What are Core Competencies?

At their essence, Core Competencies are the qualifications required to serve at each level of leadership in the church. They define what a “leader” is in objective terms and provide clarity on what it takes to advance in responsibility. Rather than leadership being an ambiguous or subjective concept, Core Competencies break it down into specific, measurable qualities.

One of the key distinctives of Core Competencies is that they are consistent across all ministries. This ensures a baseline of leadership health and maturity from one department to another. You shouldn’t have radically different standards from children’s ministry to worship to small groups – the Core Competencies unify everyone around shared biblical leadership values.

Core Competencies draw clear lines between leaders and non-leaders, as well as between different levels of leadership. They may include skills, character qualities, spiritual disciplines, relational abilities, and more. The idea is to make explicit what is often intuitive – “this person seems like a leader.” By defining it, you can intentionally identify and develop it.

Many churches make the mistake of equating experience or longevity with leadership. “Jim has been here for 20 years and knows how things work, so he must be a senior leader.” But Core Competencies reorient us to look for the right biblical qualities rather than mere tenure. They inject objectivity into an often subjective process.

In essence, Core Competencies provide the standardized blueprint for leadership in your church. They give you vocabulary and parameters to consistently identify, discuss and develop leadership at every level. We’ll explore more of the benefits of establishing them, but first let this baseline definition sink in. What could clear, objective leadership criteria do for your pipeline?

The Role of Core Competencies in Leadership Development

So why go to all the effort to define Core Competencies? What do they tangibly accomplish in terms of leadership development? There are several key benefits:

First, Core Competencies provide objective benchmarks for identifying emerging leaders. Rather than going with your gut on who seems like a leader, you have clear qualities to look for and discuss. This helps overcome the natural tendency to play favorites or make assumptions based on superficial factors. Competencies keep us grounded in Scripture’s qualifications.

Second, Core Competencies enable highly targeted development. When you have clear standards for each level of leadership, you know exactly how to coach and what to call people to. You can give emerging leaders specific areas to focus on rather than vague platitudes to “keep growing.” Concrete competencies allow for concrete development.

Third, Core Competencies provide a pathway for growth and promotion. With clear, stepped competencies from one level to the next, leaders know what they need to develop to advance in responsibility. This motivates growth and makes promotion decisions more objective. People are evaluated based on the right criteria, not just relationships or politics.

Fourth, Core Competencies unify expectations across all ministries. Rather than having silos with different definitions of leadership, all your pastors and directors are working off the same page. This consistency raises the bar and facilitates easier coordination and development between departments. You create a common leadership culture.

There are certainly other benefits, but these four alone make defining Core Competencies well worth it. Essentially, they give you the objective tools to effectively identify, grow and promote leaders at every level. They help overcome so many of the common dysfunctions and ambiguities that plague leadership pipelines. What could it mean for your church to have this kind of clarity and intentionality?

How to Define Core Competencies

At this point, you may be bought in conceptually but wondering, “How do we actually define Core Competencies in our context?” While there’s no singular formula, here’s a process to get you started:

First, prayerfully identify the key categories you believe are central to biblical leadership. These are your broadest buckets. They might include things like character, spiritual disciplines, doctrinal knowledge, relational skills, ministry competencies, and more. Aim for 6-8 high-level categories to keep things memorable and manageable.

Under each category, define what increasing levels of maturity and skill look like. What does an emerging “lead self” servant need to demonstrate? How about a “lead others” small group leader or ministry volunteer? What about a “lead leaders” coach or director? Keep going up to a “lead ministries” pastor and even “lead church” elder or senior leader.

The beauty of this framework is you can make it as simple or nuanced as you want. At minimum, clearly define competencies for each category at each level. But you can also create sub-competencies under each one to add layers of depth and granularity. The key is to focus on the most essential qualities at each stage.

Some categories like character may stay fairly broad, while others like ministry skills will get much more specific. The key is to make them observable and assessable. “Demonstrates humility and teachability” or “effectively communicates biblical truth to adults.” Not just abstractions, but clear standards you can point to and evaluate.

To generate ideas, look at Scripture passages like 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, Acts 6, and Exodus 18. Mine the biblical qualifications and imagine how they might map to various levels of responsibility. You can also gather input from existing leaders, but stay anchored in the Word. Borrow ideas from other churches, but make it your own.

The final key is to keep iterating. Don’t expect to nail it right away. Create a prototype, then pressure test it against real people and situations. Gather feedback, make refinements, then do it again. Consider it a living document that will get better over time. But don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough to start.

Define your terms, make a chart, and start using it. As you do, your leadership culture will begin to change. You’ll find yourself having more focused, fruitful conversations. Leaders will mature faster and more fully. You’ll build a deep bench, and a healthy pipeline. All because you took time to define and apply Core Competencies.

Core Competencies vs Ministry-Specific Competencies

As you develop your Core Competencies, it’s important to distinguish them from ministry-specific competencies. Core Competencies are the universal qualifications that apply to every leader in every ministry. They’re the common foundation. But there are also more specialized competencies unique to each ministry area.

For example, your Core Competencies for the “lead others” level might include things like “demonstrates a commitment to personal spiritual growth” and “builds intentional relationships to encourage and serve others.” Those would be true of small group leaders, children’s teachers, worship team members, and so on.

But a children’s teacher would also need to be competent in things like “understands age-appropriate learning styles and can effectively teach biblical truths to children.” A worship team member would need to be able to “use musical skills to lead others in glorifying God.” Those are ministry-specific competencies.

The ministry-specific competencies can also scale up at different levels, just like the core. So you might expect a children’s ministry director to be skilled at creating curriculum or a worship pastor to be proficient in planning services. The key is that these build on the core while allowing for bespoke skills in each area.

Think of your Core Competencies as the 80 percent – the universal foundation every leader needs. Then the ministry-specific competencies are the contextual 20 percent. Both are important to develop well-rounded leaders, but the Core keeps everyone aligned while the specific allows for customization.

One other key difference is that Core Competencies tend to focus more on character and biblical qualifications, while specific competencies often focus more on skills. Again, both matter, but the Core cultivates the heart and soul of leadership while the specific drills down on the hands and feet in each context.

As you build out your leadership pipeline, you’ll need to define both. Bring your ministry leaders together to work through the specific skills, knowledge, and character traits for their area. Let them determine what great looks like at each level. But have everyone work off the same core template to ensure consistency and cross-pollination. 

Aligning the universal and specific competencies is key to building a healthy leadership culture. The Core keeps everyone calibrated, while the ministry-specific brings it to life in each context. Define them well, and you’ll develop well-rounded leaders with deep roots and vibrant fruit.


Developing a strong leadership pipeline is one of the most important things you can do for the long-term health and impact of your church. And defining clear, biblical Core Competencies is the essential foundation for that pipeline. It’s not a side project or optional enhancement – it’s the very heart of leadership development.

With clear Core Competencies, you have an objective framework for identifying, developing, and deploying leaders at every level. You remove the ambiguity and inconsistency that so often derails pipelines. You create a common language and standard that unites all your ministries around shared biblical values. You exponentially increase your capacity to scale leadership and impact.

But without clear competencies, you’re left guessing and going on gut. You’re subject to all manner of bias and dysfunction. You have no common standard or roadmap for growth. You may have some great leaders, but you won’t have a great leadership culture. And you’ll be limited in your ability to scale and sustain impact.

So if you want to see every leader in your church mature and multiply, take time to define your Core Competencies. Gather your team, study the Scriptures, and prayerfully articulate the character traits and skills you believe are essential at every level of leadership. Then start using that framework in every leadership conversation and decision. Make it part of your culture.

It won’t be quick or easy, but it will be worth it. As you align around clear biblical competencies, you’ll start developing more and better leaders. You’ll build a deep bench and a strong pipeline. You’ll see people mature and ministry multiply. And you’ll look back on defining Core Competencies as one of the best investments you ever made.

Leadership is indeed your church’s most valuable asset. And Core Competencies are the key to developing that asset to its full potential. They’re not peripheral – they’re absolutely central. So define them well, and watch as God grows His leaders and His church for His glory. It’s worth every ounce of effort.

Want Help Building Your Leadership Pipeline?
Schedule a Meeting with Our Team.

Watch this episode on YouTube!

Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).

Got questions? Meet with our team for a free Discovery Call.

Want to become a
 Healthy Church? 

We believe getting churches healthy again is just as important as planting new ones. Here are our best tips to get you going in the right direction.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.