Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

December 2007
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Three Approaches to Leader Development

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

In the last decade or so, there has been an increasing realization in the church around the world – especially in areas of fast church growth – of the need to build leaders. In response, there has been a steady growth of “leader development ministries.” But, what exactly does a “leader development ministry” do?

Essentially, there are three broad approaches that a leader development ministry can take in working with indigenous ministries:

1. The 4-P Approach

We will come in and train your leaders for you, using our curriculum, our teachers, our funds and we will give you our degrees upon completion.

This “we must do it for you” method is largely a remnant of old colonialist missions thinking.

It is the “4P” approach. The outsiders supply:

In some situations, this might be the best approach. For example, if there are absolutely no existing leaders, the only option may be for outsiders to build them – at least at first.

However, this approach is not the best long-term activity. Clearly, there is not a high level of contextualization or indigenous ownership in this method. In addition, it is condescending and demeaning toward the capacity of the national leaders and churches to build their own leaders.

Moreover, this approach presupposes that outsiders (with their inevitably limited awareness of the local culture, history and context) can effectively build the indigenous leaders – a bold but hazardous assertion!

When this approach is used, there is usually talk of the outside ministry “phasing out” or “passing the baton” of responsibility to the indigenous leaders. This rarely occurs, however, since the indigenous leaders have learned to be the passive recipients of outside charity. If the outsiders stop doing the work, sadly, the whole thing sometimes falls apart.

2. The Train the Trainer Approach

We will come and show you how to train. We will train you and then you will use the same materials and the same procedures and you will train others, who will then do the same with others, etc.

There may also be a certain amount of customization which is described as “contextualization.”

This “Train the Trainer” approach is currently in vogue.

The basic idea is: “we will show you how to do it, giving you the materials to use, and then you will do it (our way).”

This approach does have a significantly higher level of indigenous ownership than the previous approach since it involves the national leaders themselves doing the ongoing training.

This approach may also be appropriate when a high level of specialized training is needed.

However, this method does have significant weaknesses:

  1. The training is not deeply contextualized, since the national leader is being asked by the outsider, more or less, to use his materials and to do the training “his way.”
  2. Due to the “law of decreasing relearns,” the effectiveness of the training decreases, often quickly and dramatically, with each subsequent “passing on.”
  3. The program is never truly owned by the nationals. It will always be seen as an “outside” program (which, of course, it is). Typically, such programs are used for a while, perhaps several years, but then fall into disuse, because they don’t really meet the local need, being replaced by the latest program to come along.
  4. The program cannot be easily adapted to meet local needs; neither can it be easily changed in response to changing ministry environments. The leaders have not been taught to design; they’ve been taught to repeat. Their own capacities to understand and create leader development processes have not been nurtured; they’ve simply been taught how to teach a certain program in a certain way. (Sadly, sometimes the outside ministry even goes so far as to formally forbid the indigenous leaders from ever changing their program, requiring them to teach exactly the same thing exactly the same way – a truly extraordinary insistence on opposing the indigenization of leader development!)

This approach presupposes that outsiders (with their inevitably limited awareness of the local culture, history and context) know how to best build the indigenous leaders – again, a rather daring premise!

Those who use the “Train the Trainer” approach frequently do have a strategy for “phasing out” by “passing the baton” to the indigenous leaders once a sufficient number of them have been indoctrinated in the training materials and their use. In practice, however, the “law of decreasing relearns” and the lack of true ownership are often the fatal flaws of the strategy, and, after several years, the indigenous leaders turn, disillusioned, to the next outsider who comes along promoting his new and improved “train the trainer” method.

3. The Build the Designer Approach

We will come and explore with you the basic, biblical principles of how leaders are built, and, on the basis of those principles, we will then work with you as you develop the strategies, methods and tools that you will use as you build your own leaders.

Clearly, this method is considerably more difficult than the first two. However, if successful, it will yield a leader development process that is truly indigenized and contextualized, and is entirely owned, designed, operated and funded by the national leaders – one that is capable of being sustained and multiplied; one that is entirely capable of being changed whenever necessary.

This approach has the following characteristics:

  1. It is considerably harder to do.
  2. It takes a longer time to do.
  3. It requires a deep and genuine commitment from the indigenous leaders, since they are the ones, ultimately, who will design the work, do the work, and provide for its support.
  4. It requires a clear and accurate biblical model of how leaders are built, rather than merely a set curriculum along with preformed implementation strategies.
  5. It requires a deep and flexible willingness to explore and to learn on the parts of both the leader development ministry and the local leaders.

This approach presupposes that outsiders (with their inevitably limited awareness of the local culture, history and context) are simply not the best ones either to do or to design the leader development work – perhaps a more realistic hypothesis!

Significantly, this approach requires no “phasing out” or “passing of the baton” since the batons of both design and implementation are entirely in the hands of the indigenous leaders from the very beginning.

And because it’s theirs, they will use it and make it work.

The author had a significant “Aha!” moment many years ago. For several days, he was with a group of top leaders from a large church network in Asia. On the last day, hundreds of copies of the first book written by one of these leaders arrived, fresh from the printers. The author watched as many of the leaders excitedly tore open the packages and grabbed many copies of the book to take home. With animated joy, they threw the packages back and forth to one another. Clearly, this first book was very important to them. As he watched this, it occurred to the author that there existed probably dozens of books by foreign authors that, technically, were “better quality” than this one. But… this book was theirs! They owned it, they would use it, and it would work.

When the leader development program is designed and implemented by the local leaders, it will work much better than any imported system.

At the same time, this approach affirms that outside leader development ministries do have an important role in serving the indigenous leaders by working with them as they interpret and implement biblical principles. This is a true partnership of equals with neither domination nor dependency.

While any of the three approaches, or combinations thereof, might be appropriate in certain situations, an emphasis on the “Build the Designer” approach may provide our best chance of achieving truly indigenized and contextualized leader development in the long-term.

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