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November 26, 2014

Missional Leadership: Reflection on One Leader’s Retirement


What makes a missional leader?

This past Sunday, our church gathered together to celebrate 18 years of Steve Hartman’s leadership, the retiring Senior Pastor of Third Church Richmond. As one who has worked along side him for nearly 10 years as an associate pastor, I’ve been reflecting on Steve’s leadership and what makes him an unusual and effective leader.

There’s something about the way Steve leads that has helped catalyze a movement of mission in and through Third Church. Under his tenure, five churches have been planted, innumerable local and international ministries have been started or supported, and the church’s influence in the city and world has expanded. What is it about Steve’s leadership that makes him what Alan Roxbugh calls a “Missional Leader”? Here are a few characteristics I have observed:

1. A Commitment to Cultivating Leaders

Many leaders are out to amass followers, but it was clear to me from the beginning that Steve was out to amass more leaders. Unhealthy leaders often secure their power by maintaining a hold on others who serve them and their vision. Instead, Steve is known for liberally giving opportunity and space for others to speak their voice and use their gifts. His ego is remarkably small, he knows his own weaknesses, and he is not threatened by the gifts of abilities of others. Even if it means giving up his own place at times, he seeks to empower other leaders for the sake of the Church.

2. A Willingness to Lose Control

When leaders (like myself) have come up with ideas for a new church or church initiative, Steve has empowered them to follow the Lord, instead of limiting them to their job description. In the course of his 18 years, he has empowered associate pastors like myself to start new churches, and in the process has willingly given up key leaders, money-giving families, and friends of Third to see new initiatives and churches happen. Whereas most churches seek to swell their own numbers, leaders and wealth, Steve’s habit of empowering other leaders has often resulted in losing money, members, leaders, and control. He has not been afraid to give away his own people, his own power, or his own glory. By doing this, he resembles his Savior.

3. A Kingdom Orientation

This directly relates to the last, but Steve has consistently demonstrated to me a greater prioritization on the Kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of Third Church. Only two of the five churches planted under his tenure have been of the same denomination as Third. Steve has never demanded that new congregations resemble or bear the name of Third. Members have even, at times, left Third when daughter churches have flourished. In all of this, Steve has celebrated that the Kingdom of God is expanding, rather than fret about the ebbs and flows of the kingdom of Third. His mindset is geared not toward the institutional turf of the congregation he leads, but rather the overall health and flourishing of the Kingdom of God.

4. A Spirit-led Prayerfulness

This is the most significant mark of Steve’s leadership. On the first day of my job, Steve said to me, “We hired you to be Associate Pastor of Outreach and Young Adults, but we are open to how the Spirit leads.” Almost every time I ask him about something, he invites us into prayer. Three years into my tenure, I approached him about giving up more of my time and responsibilities at Third in order to help start East End Fellowship, a new congregation. Steve replied,

“It sounds like the Spirit is up to something. Let’s make this work.”

His flexibility and openness have been a product of his intimate prayer life, his humility before God, and his sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading.

In our secular age, we need more pastoral leaders who think and lead like Steve. Leaders who reject power games and competitive tribal politics, and who go the humble, other-oriented, self-effacing way of Jesus. Steve will retire at the end of December, and I will begin my new role as Senior Pastor of Third Church on January 3. I pray and hope that I will continue to bear the marks of missional leadership that Steve has modeled so well, so that not only Third Church, but also God’s Kingdom will flourish for Christ’s glory.


Corey Widmer is Associate Pastor at Third Church, Richmond and Co-Pastor of East End Fellowship, a multi-cultural congregation in the East End of Richmond, VA. Corey, his wife Sarah, and their four daughters live in North Church Hill and have been part of a community development effort there for almost 10 years. Corey is a graduate of the University of Virginia, as well as Princeton Seminary, and is a PhD candidate in theology and missiology. He loves the outdoors, especially cycling the roads and trails of metro Richmond. In January, Corey will begin as Senior Pastor of Third Church.

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