For the past several decades, developing leadership among people in congregations has been the “hip” thing to do, and many strategies and planned activities have been put in place to promote leadership development. However, what often passes for leadership development is merely another activity that brings people together for fellowship and service to the church or to the community-at-large. Great things are accomplished, and other goals might be met, but at the end of the day, can it be documented whether people gained leadership skills and developed themselves in their leadership capacity?

Developing leaders within a Christian setting begins with defining what is meant by Christian leadership. Ask a dozen people what that idea means, and a dozen (or more) different answers are most likely emerge. Much that has been written or discussed on this topic defines Christian leadership as “moral leadership” or “servant leadership.” While both of those are good leadership models, this author believes that they fall short in defining Christian leadership (or what might be referred to as “leadership through Christian lenses”). Christian leadership begins with the person and attitude of Jesus Christ, who had compassion on the crowds, who sanctified the nature of work, who held those in authority to be accountable, whose mission was to bring the Kingdom of God to this earth, who gave hope to the hopeless and freedom to those enslaved, and who provided the ultimate example of servant leadership–even willing to go to the cross for those he served. For a fresh approach on this topic, read In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (Nouwen, 1995).

Once a definition of Christian leadership is in place, it becomes imperative to adopt and use a model of development that will guide one’s strategies and activities. A model that has been adopted by the College of Business at Concordia University Texas is best explained by the following diagram:

leadership chart

Knowledge AND experience PLUS individual readiness OVER time leads to development–what does that mean?

KNOWLEDGE: Once it is understood what Christian leadership is, then helping others understand that concept is the first step in development. Knowledge of a subject comes from various sources–books, journals, lectures, mentors, etc. Defining what should be known, and then creating a curriculum in which others receive that information are the first two steps in this area. A leadership development curriculum helps students build on previous knowledge and keeps stretching them to consider and wrestle with new leadership concepts on a regular basis. This knowledge provides a language and thought process through which students will be able to better reflect on their experience as they practice what they have learned about Christian leadership.

EXPERIENCE: Knowing about leadership and DOING leadership are two different concepts that are best paired together. If one aspect of leadership is influencing others toward a common goal, then after learning how that is done, young people need to be put in a situation where they actually GET to influence their peers. If another aspect of leadership is goal setting and planning, then young people need to be put in a situation where they get to PRACTICE those tasks. If part of Christian leadership is the ability to have compassion on the crowd, then students need to be put in situations where they COME FACE TO FACE with others in difficult situations. As students go through different experiences, they will need new and expanded knowledge to support those experiences. While the voice from the past says “experience in the best teacher,” a better voice proposes that “experience with the appropriate knowledge is the best teacher.”

INDIVIDUAL READINESS: The question here is not whether someone is ready to lead, but are they ready to develop as a leader? Opening up oneself to develop as a leader assumes the ability to look critically at oneself and the willingness to change. Development means growth–and growth means change–and sometimes this growth and change can be painful. The ability to learn from mistakes is a part of individual readiness. Taking a leadership inventory such as the Leadership Practices Inventory–Student Edition is a part of individual readiness. Journaling about one’s experiences as a leader is a part of individual readiness. Having a mentor or coach is a part of individual readiness. Volunteering to take on more comprehensive leadership positions is a part of individual readiness. Once students tread into this area of development, they will need more coaching and support as they begin to come face-to-face with their own strengths and limitations.

TIME: The term development implies that it occurs over time, so developing students to be Christian leaders must be more than a one-shot experience. Multiple opportunities for learning should occur; multiple leadership experiences should take place; and multiple opportunities for individual reflection should be provided for students. As students age, the learning, leadership, and readiness experiences should increase in length, in depth, and in intensity. One of the benefits of leadership development occurring over time is that room can be built in for failure–both on the part of the teacher and the learner. Just as the baby will fall down when learning to walk, so will the young adult fail in their efforts to lead. What a great opportunity to learn about and experience grace and forgiveness during their development. Perhaps failure should be intentionally built into the development process, precisely to learn the leadership skill of practicing grace and forgiveness with others.

So how might this model of leadership development play itself out within a given ministry, team, or class? Using the example of regularly occurring servant events, here are a few concepts one might employ in the process of developing Christian leaders:

1.      Involve members in the planning of all aspects of the event, from the choosing of the site to the minute details of the event. Be sure to include the process of how the event ties into the mission, vision, values and strategy of the organization itself. Younger students act as observers…older students lead the meetings.

2.      Delegate, delegate, delegate. For those who are doers themselves, this may be the most difficult part of helping others develop in their leadership. Consider how knowledge and experience work together in this arena. From the smallest of tasks (younger students) to organizing entire events (older students), allow those you are developing to practice what they have learned. One important aspect is putting students in charge of areas where they will be expected to influence their peers to accomplish assigned tasks.

3.      Using TEAMS is critical in helping to develop leaders. This is a good place to provide knowledge about how good teams function, experience in working as a team, and then reflecting on how the team actually performed. Be sure that teams are comprised of people who are at different stages of their own leadership development. One way to determine teams is to have all members of the group take personal inventories such as Strengths Finder, then mix and match team members according to their individual strengths.

4.      Many people in leadership positions are there because they like to lead and have been successful in their leading. If we are to develop others, then it will be important to step back and put others in leadership positions. One way to determine if one is successful in this is to look at how many times students are in front of the group compared to the adult leader. Again, providing knowledge about how to speak in front of a group, experience of speaking in front of a group, debriefing afterwards as to how it went, and doing this multiple times will develop them in this leadership skill.

5.      Planning for failure is not often encouraged, but leadership development almost demands that some type of failure occur during the process. Leaders of student groups do everything they can to make sure that everyone is happy and functioning as a smooth machine. Perhaps one could consider that when things seem to fall apart, it is okay to stand on the sidelines and simply watch–and wait. Allowing seeming catastrophes to happen may not be written in the job description, but if developing Christian leaders IS a part of the job description, then this aspect becomes important. Be sure to debrief afterwards with the designated leader and the group as a whole.

6.      Don’t confuse activity with leadership development. Swinging a hammer for eight hours or serving at a homeless shelter for a day may not develop leaders. Organizing others to come together to build a home–and finding ways to keep them motivated to swing a hammer for eight hours a day is leadership development…bringing together a group of students to fundraise and provide financial support for a women’s shelter over time is leadership development.

7.      Allowing students to act on their ideas will not only provide leadership development, but also create a place where members are excited and committed to the mission and vision of the organization. Become a permission-giving organization where ideas are always welcome and encouraged to become a reality. As students approach with new ideas in how to improve the event, say to them, “That’s a great idea–how can I help you make that happen?”

Once the concept of leadership development is understood, then it becomes important to put a LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT PLAN into place. This plan should include the development of the developer, so consider what steps need to be taken for that person who is called to develop leaders to develop herself or himself as a leader along the way.


Nouwen, H. (1995) In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian leadership. Crossroad Publishing: NY, NY.

Kouzes, J. & Posnere, B. (2008). The Student Leadership Challenge: Five practices for exemplary leaders. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Rath, T. (2007). Stengths Finder 2.0. Gallup Press: NY, NY.

Easum, W. (1995). Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers: Ministry anytime, anywhere, by anyone. Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN.