On Leadership Training

As a pastor and missionary I think a lot about leadership training. I am interested in more than just doing it however. I want to train leaders in a way that is most effective.  

When it comes to training leaders, our minds often run first to the classroom. And yes, of course this aspect of leadership training is essential. But I wonder if we sometimes put so much emphasis on beginning classrooms that we neglect another vital aspect of leadership training.  Actually, I think you can read that sentence again with the ‘But I wonder if…’ taken out.  

I am talking about mentoring or discipleship.  

We sometimes act as if all there is to pastoral training is setting up a classroom and gathering a few students and teaching. While this kind of training does some good, it is not nearly as effective as it could be when it is not combined with aggressive, intentional mentoring relationships.

Look, I know, what I am saying is very difficult for some people to hear, because they think, oh but we have discipleship labs in our schools. No, please understand this, random groups of three to five people who meet for a half hour or hour every once in a while to talk about how they are doing in school is not the same thing as aggressive, intentional mentoring.  

Far from it.

Now,if we were going to prove the importance of mentoring, the best place to go is the Scriptures of course. And I think we do find lots of proofs there. After all, how did Jesus train leaders? How did Paul? 

But as at least an illustration of the value of mentoring, we can look to leadership development programs and what has actually worked.  Makes sense, right? I recently read an interview where a sociologist and college president who researched leadership development mentioned something very interesting that communicates the concern I am trying to express.

He is talking about what makes for successful leaders and he writes,

“What we found, however, is that there is absolutely no statistically significant relationship between what you do before age twenty and your likelihood of assuming a very senior leadership role later on in life. It doesn’t matter where you went to school. It does not matter what grades you made. It does not matter if you were in extra curricular activities. It does not matter if your family was wealthy or poor. It does not matter in what city you were born. None of those things matter.

At the same time, there are certain things that happen uniquely in Christian institutions of education that make a profound difference in your likelihood to succeed. Principally, it’s about having a formative relationship with a mentor.”

Now, think about that.  Think about your own life.  You know the value of good instruction in the classroom I am sure, but you also know how profoundly influential a mentor can be.

I am convinced if we are going to do effective training in Africa we can’t look at mentoring as an incidental. It must be a key component in our training programs.

What does that look like? How do we accomplish it?

The author I quoted goes on to say,

“What we found is that a lot of schools and businesses try to create structured mentoring programs…say, a management training program where you take twenty new people and you match them up with a senior executive; or in my church youth group, we had basically a system where adult volunteers agreed to mentor a Bible study fellowship format with young people who wanted that. Those are all well and good, but actually those don’t work very effectively.

The real way in which mentoring works effectively is through organic relationships.

One of the most important things that Christian institutions can do is create the ecosystem of opportunity out of which those relationships can develop. Unlike state-run institutions of learning or public schools in this country, which have a pretty bureaucratic approach to relationships, Christian institutions recognize we’re really about transforming the individual. We’re in this work, not because we’re trying to pass down a certain body of knowledge, but we’re really invested in this young person. I care deeply about this particular student. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to try and help them, if it means helping them get a job, if it means helping them navigate a family issue, if it means helping them learn a subject.

So a lot of your major demographic characteristics do not matter on your likelihood to succeed. What does matter is the formative influence of an adult who speaks into your life and who has a sustaining relationship with you that you carry with you. Each of us could identify one, two, or three people outside of our family who had a formative influence, and my hunch is that the relationship you had was not for months, or for semesters, but for years. That’s what Christian Institutions can create and that’s one of the things that we found that was really special.”

Now I hope you are following.  He is talking about the importance of mentoring relationships and he is saying that institutions can play a part in encouraging these kinds of relationships, in fact they must, if they really want to develop leaders, and yet the way in which they can best develop these kinds of relationships is not through a simple program where you say to someone, ok, go meet with this other person for three weeks.

Then how do we do it? Consider what he says,  

“I’m a big believer in institutions. I think institutions play a very formative role. What I don’t think works are the structured mentoring programs where, as president of a college, I go in and say “Look, we need to have a mentoring program, so we’re going to get 200 of our best students and we’re going to match them up.”

That almost never works.

You tick all the boxes and say you have a mentoring program, but actually the relationship investment you’re trying to do, that doesn’t work. What institutions can do, however, is introduce people and then stimulate experiences where relationships will flourish…You’re looking for opportunities where those bonding experiences can occur.”

For me, and you knew I was going to get here, this is where mercy ministry often comes in.  Sometimes in the past people would suggest because I was interested in mercy ministry, I was less interested in leadership development, but really I feel like it is just the opposite.  I believe engaging in mercy ministry creates opportunities for working alongside future leaders in such a way that a mentoring kind of relationship can flourish.  I also think this is one of the great strengths a strong mercy ministry can bring to the church, if leaders are thinking proactively and intentionally. Mercy ministries can introduce people to each other and provide experiences where discipleship relationships can take off. 

Now of course, that’s not the only way to do it.  There are other ways to promote these kinds of relationships, but if we are interested in leadership development, however we do so, we absolutely have to be interested in finding ways helping our students develop friendships with people who will be able to speak into their life in ways that will impact them and turn their ministry and relationships upside down.  

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