How soon can new leaders be given leadership responsibility?
One should not answer this question in terms of time but of an individual’s maturity. The apostle Paul was more concerned about one’s character and ability than by length of time in the faith:
An overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. (Titus 1:7-9)
A new believer, if head of a family, should start shepherding that family at once. One’s home is the best place to display one’s leadership skills, as Paul detailed in 1 Tim. 3:4-5.
Paul said not to lay hands on new believers suddenly to install them in leadership. What did Paul mean by “suddenly?” He made his intent clear by his own example. In Acts 14, he installed new leaders quite soon in infant churches, as time goes. At Antioch, an older church with mature leaders (named in Acts 13:1-3) Paul and Barnabas waited at least a year to receive commissioning (Acts 11:26). Why the difference in the waiting time? Since the infant Galatian churches had no older or mature leaders, what would have been too suddenly in Antioch would have been too slow in Galatia.
What makes a leader mature enough to be installed as an overseer?
Many believers, only a few weeks after conversion, have grown more than others who have known Jesus for years. Also, the Holy Spirit works a form of spirituality in the hearts of some people even before they come to know Christ, as He did for Cornelius (Acts 10). Such folk, when saved, are already well along their way to maturity. Missionaries and pastors, who arbitrarily require a long wait under any conditions, frequently stifle God’s work.
The best shepherd for a new church in a pioneer field, where there are no experienced leaders, is often a fairly new convert who keeps a step ahead of the rest of the congregation, provided that a more experienced leader, normally from a mother church, coaches the newer leader.
In pioneer fields, one has no choice but to name leaders quickly, as Paul did, lest new churches be left without shepherds and become prey for “wolves.” So trust God to provide new leaders. Pioneer church planters can name new believers as “provisional elders.” Explain to them that they are too new and unproven to be installed as permanent elders. After they have served well for a few months, remove the term “provisional”, and lay hands on them to impart the Spirit’s power to serve as “official” shepherds.