Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

December 2008
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Church-Integrated Leader Development

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

In our last Letter, we saw that a healthy church, like a healthy body, is one in which every member is functioning properly; this means that every member grows, serves and builds others. If we can create a church culture in which every believer takes responsibility to grow, serve and build, our churches will transform their worlds!

Thus, the primary task of leader development is not so much to implement curriculum as it is to create culture.

“Culture” refers to shared beliefs, values, attitudes and actions. In a healthy church there is a culture of leader development. The primary task of leader development work is to create this culture and then to oversee it, nurture it and protect it.

If we can nurture and sustain cultures of “people-building” in our local churches, then we will be able to effectively address the current leader development crisis.

In Acts, the local churches, or clusters of churches, were the primary units of leader development. Typically, the churches did not send off their emerging leaders to be built somewhere else by someone else. Just as parents are, quite naturally, the best ones to build their own children, so churches in the New Testament themselves embraced the responsibility and privilege of building their own spiritual sons and daughters. Timothy, for example, was built in the life of the local churches at Lystra and Iconium before Paul took him along as part of his apostolic team (Acts 16:1-2; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14-15).

The local church is the most natural and most potent place to build the whole person. In the local church there is an extraordinary transformational environment of spiritual, relational, experiential and instructional dynamics. In the normal life and ministry of the local church there can be leaders building leaders, spiritual mothers and fathers, role models, examples, mentors, coaches, responsibilities, challenges, prayer and worship, the Presence of God, sufferings, instruction in the Truth of God’s Word. All of this is already present in the local church – at least potentially.

Thus, as previously stated, the primary task of leader development is not so much to write and implement academic curriculum on biblical topics as it is to create and sustain culture – a culture within the local church of purposefully and wisely interacting with the spiritual, relational, experiential and instructional dynamics of the organic life of the church.

Before the church was established, Jesus built leaders this way – in His learning community of disciples. Paul did this in his team. The local churches in Acts took responsibility for building their own sons and daughters in an experiential collage of diverse people, relationships, influences, assignments, tasks, responsibilities, duties, opportunities, pressures, crises, blessings, sufferings, rejections, successes, mistakes, etc., that all worked together to build the emerging leaders.

But, how do we get there?

Church-Based Theological Education?

Today, the idea of “church-based theological education” is becoming increasingly popular.1 While this represents a major improvement over the traditional practices of disconnected biblical teaching in remote academic institutions,2 yet it is still not the New Testament paradigm. The New Testament pattern is more along the lines of “church-integrated leader development.” Here are two key contrasts:

First, true leader development is not only a class lecture or a small group session that is “church based” and that occurs in a room in the church building on Tuesday nights or all-day Saturday. Leader development needs to be integrated into the life of the church – truly owned by the church, occurring across the life of the church, all week long.

This is a difference of process. If our purpose was merely to get the right information into the heads of our emerging leaders, then lectures followed by papers and small group sessions to discuss the information (with degrees at the end to prove the information was mastered) would be sufficient. But if our goal is the building of the whole person, then a much more complex process is necessary – we need a transformational collage of spiritual, relational and experiential as well as instructional dynamics.

An effective leader development process is not a neat series of courses but a fiery immersion in real-life, real-time experiences, reflecting the complicated and fundamentally difficult nature of Christian leadership, bringing deep heart issues to the surface to be dealt with, and compelling the emerging leader to look utterly to God for everything in his life and ministry.

We need a culture of leader development – shared beliefs, values, attitudes and actions – across the life of the church, all week long. This is the healthy church: parents building their children (Eph. 6:4; Deut. 6:4-9; 11:18-21), existing believers building the new disciples (Matt. 28:19-20), older women building the younger ones (Tit. 2:3-5), mature men teaching the younger men (2 Tim. 2:2), people building people, leaders building leaders. Thus, church-sponsored is not enough; leader development must be truly church-integrated or church-engaged.

Second, “theological education” of the mind is entirely insufficient. The whole person must be built, with broad and deliberate attention given to the nurturing of spiritual life, relational capacity (including marriage, family, and relationships with others), character, vision and calling, as well as practical ministry capacities. The leader himself or herself must be built.

This is a difference of goal. The goal of New Testament leader development is not merely intellectual mastery of some biblical ideas, but rather transformation of life – the holistic building of the leader.

The Transforming Power of Church-Integrated Leader Development

These are some of the many powerful advantages of this biblical paradigm:

First, in our experience, when local churches rediscover the organic New Testament pattern of church-integrated leader development, it affects the church as much as it affects the emerging leaders. Here is a recent testimony from an Asian church network leader:

When we followed Jesus’ leader development principles, the result has been a great flourishing of vigor and life in the church. All the members are functioning, building each other and growing together, thus bringing great growth and revival to the whole church.

Second, while church-based theological education is usually accomplished in a limited time of training, church-integrated leader development is an ongoing, lifelong commitment to growing, serving and building together.

Third, church-based theological education usually revolves around the set curriculum (“one size fits all”), whereas church-integrated leader development can effectively respond to the individual needs and callings of the emerging leaders.

We recognize that church-based theological education is a sincere and significant improvement over traditional leader development approaches; however, the New Testament model is not so much church-based theological education but rather church-integrated leader development.

If we can shift away from our Greek-rooted fixation on academic curriculum3 and instead learn how to create and sustain organic cultures of healthy people-building within the life of our local churches, then, by God’s grace, we will be able to effectively address the current leader development crisis.

For more on this subject of the role of community in leader development, please see this page. In part 4, there is a link to download chapter 4 from Building Leaders: SpiritBuilt Leadership #4 by Malcolm Webber.

Also, please see our white papers on healthy leader development.


1 The following general comments are not directed at any specific program, whether formal or non-formal.

2 This is not a wholesale criticism or rejection of theological education. Some Bible schools, seminaries and non-formal training programs are very good, some are very poor, and there are many in-between. The ones that are disconnected from the life and ministry of the local church and who are entirely academic in their focus are addressed here.

3 For more on this, please see A Christian Critique of the University by Charles Habib Malik, and The Rise of Christianity by W.H.C. Frend (Chapter 11 is especially illuminating: “The Third Century: Christian Platonism of Alexandria and Its Opponents, 190-275”).

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