In the decades since China’s opening to the outside world, literally hundreds of organizations, educational institutions and churches have responded to the perceived need for training leaders to shepherd China’s rapidly growing church. The initial response consisted largely of providing materials and direct training by teachers from outside China. The provision of materials was considered crucial, given that no Christian literature or other resources had been produced in China for at least three decades. Training, mostly in the areas of biblical knowledge and practical theology, was ostensibly directed toward leaders who could then pass on what they had learned to others.
In the past two decades a maturing has taken place both within the church in China and among outside entities seeking to assist in the development of leaders. As one experienced trainer put it, we are learning what it means to go from being a “parent” (deciding what is needed and delivering it to under-resourced leaders who accept unquestioningly its relevance and validity) to being a “partner” (bringing in needed resources but working together to assess and address the training needs of the leaders) to finally functioning as “peers” (equal and self-sufficient, but choosing to be interdependent in pursuit of a common goal). Most, if not all, of those involved in leadership training in China would agree that the end goal is to foster the development of indigenous training efforts sufficient to meet the current and future needs of the church and able to be sustained without ongoing outside support. Practically speaking, how does one move toward this end?
The following considerations were developed through dialogue over the course of several months among numerous individuals involved in serving the church in China through a variety of leader development programs. Divided by categories relating to different aspects of the leader development process, they are offered here as a starting point for identifying best practices that promote a culture of indigenous reproducing leaders. Recognizing that there are many types of leaders and many types of training, these considerations are positioned as broadly as possible and as such will need to be applied specifically within different training contexts.
Philosophy and Planning
Before jumping in, one needs to have a clear idea of who is being trained and for what purpose. While this point may seem obvious, it has often been overlooked in the rush to meet the urgent leadership needs of the church. The training or resources provided should fit into the long-term plans of the church or organization giving assistance as well as the church in China, both the specific local body and the larger church as a whole. To know whether one is indeed making a valid contribution requires a well-researched understanding of the local needs and opportunities for involvement, which means getting to know situations and people over time. Simply desiring to meet the immediate need of leaders in a given context is not sufficient motivation for getting involved. As mentioned above, the goal should be indigenous leaders reproducing indigenous leaders, a goal that should be reflected in all aspects of the training undertaken.
Ask: What is our long-term vision for involvement with the church in China? Have we done our homework and thus have a thorough understanding of who we are working withtheir background, history, leadership structure and key relationships (both within China and with outside entities)? Have we spent time with them in dialogue about our shared long-term objectives and appropriate strategies to reach them? Have we identified existing indigenous resources or Chinese resources borrowed from other contexts that can be utilized? If none are currently available, are we moving deliberately toward delivery of programs in Chinese? What means are we using to continually seek to understand the social, political, economic and spiritual context in which we are working?
Leader development is holistica fact that seems to have gotten lost in the West and in Western-influenced societies that emphasize academic achievement over other areas (not to mention the high value put on education in Chinese culture). Intellectual development is but one part of a process that should also encompass the spiritual, relational and practical aspects of the leader’s life and work. As Dr. Robert Clinton has pointed out, the development of the leader starts even before the point when the individual is aware of God’s working in his or her life and continues through a variety of life experiences. In this sense the notion of “training leaders” in a few days’ or weeks’ time is preposterous. It may be possible to impart specific skills or knowledge during this period, but any specific program, resource or tool must be seen as just one element in God’s ongoing development process.
Experiential learning takes place in the context of ongoing ministry responsibilities, with skills imparted through modeling and supervised assignments. Leaders are developed in community, as they serve together. Because of the importance of peer mentoring and interaction with other leaders in the process, leaders are developed a few at a time, not in cookie-cutter fashion through large-scale programs. Herein lies one of the paradoxes of leader development in China: the numbers of leaders needed are huge, yet individual and small group methodologies are essential for holistic leader development.
Ask: Recognizing that leader development is ultimately a work of God in the life of the individual, do we seek to identify and build upon the previous experiences of those being trained? Do we incorporate prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the process? Do our programs reflect an understanding of which methodologies are appropriate to the particular Chinese church situation in which we are involved? Are these methodologies closely tied to our own culture or to tools or technologies available to us, or are they easily reproducible by, and within the context of, those being trained? Do our trainees interact not only with the material presented but also with one another, in the course of learning and serving together in teams?
While much attention has been given to developing training materials for the church in China, the curriculum does not begin to represent the whole picture when it comes to leader development. Nevertheless, a biblically sound curriculum is an essential part of the process. A balanced treatment of doctrine has the ability to promote and even restore unity within the body of believers, while an over-emphasis (or deliberate de-emphasis) of one interpretation can sow seeds of division. The church in China has enough internal threats to unity of its own and does not need well-meaning outsiders to bring in more dis-unifying factors.
The curriculum should have a balance between “head, heart and hand” or the knowing, being and doing, aspects of leader development. It should address not only biblical knowledge and ministry skills, but also character, relationships and the leader’s responsibilities to oneself, God, family, co-workers, other believers and the larger society. The curriculum should ideally be developed in consultation with local leaders such that there is no question about transferability; it is theirs, and they are fully capable of taking and using it later in their own training context. A proper understanding of this context will help ensure that the curriculum is appropriate on several levels: it fits the culture (for example, urban or rural, Han or minority), educational level, existing skill level and individual callings of those being trained, and it is financially within their reach to reproduce without outside support.
Ask: Does this curriculum promote historically orthodox doctrine, biblical literacy, study skills and application to daily life, while leaving out pet doctrines and biases? Does it address stewardship of time, resources, gift, and relationships, as well as core character issues? Will the effectiveness of the curriculum end with the leaders we train, or are they being equipped as lifelong learners to develop new and relevant training experiences for their next generation of leaders? Is it “packaged” in such a way that it can be readily passed on to others? Is our curriculum based on a needs assessment of current and desired competencies, defined in terms of observable behavioral changes which can be later measured (see evaluation, below)?
It is often said that leaders train leaders. Simply being able to preach or to teach the Bible does not qualify one to equip church leaders in China. Since much of what is learned comes from the person, not the material, trainers should be selected whose lives demonstrate the qualities ultimately desired in the trainees. In order to realize the benefits of real life-on-life mentoring, the trainers should be committed to building relationships with trainees over time. They should see themselves not simply as purveyors of skills or knowledge, but as partners with the local body in a process that is owned by those whom they serve. Where possible, trainers should already possess a working knowledge of the local context and needs; if not, these issues should be addressed in a thorough orientation. Keeping in mind that the end goal is indigenous leaders who can multiply themselves through others, trainers should anticipate gradually decreasing their involvement (or changing the nature of it) with a particular leader or group rather than seeking to perpetuate their involvement. Finally, not only the trainers themselves, but also the churches and organizations to which they belong, should seek to model principles of effective leader development, such as those set forth in this document, throughout their work.
Ask: Do our trainers exhibit the fruit of a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ? Do they demonstrate a working knowledge of the training context and trainees? Do they have a proven track record of cross-cultural effectiveness? Are they able to demonstrate emotional stability across a variety of situations? Do they recognize their role within the larger leader development context? Are they committed to a long-term relationship with leaders they help train?
Perhaps the most oft-quoted biblical reference to leadership training is 2 Timothy 2:2. Here Paul instructs Timothy to entrust what he has learned “to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (NIV). His instructions imply a definite intentionality, the goal being not merely the instruction of others but rather a process whereby the teaching will be ongoing and leaders will multiply. If one does not first identify those with the gifts, calling, character and commitment needed to reproduce themselves in others then it is not surprising that the results of one’s training efforts fall short of what was expected. Many in China are eager to receive training, but all are not equally qualified to utilize it. Nor is all training equally relevant or appropriate for all believers. Ideally, the existing leadership who knows the potential trainees the best should identify within the context of the community the unique gifts and callings of each and then consider which training experiences are best suited for them. Careful consideration with these leaders of the selection criteria can help to ensure that those who receive training are able to fully utilize it to the benefit of the larger body.
Ask: Have trainees been chosen prayerfully and strategically? What criteria are used? Are they recommended by their relevant leaders? Do they demonstrate spiritual maturity and have proven ministry experience? Are they willing and able to develop others? Are they committed to a defined, personalized process of development?
Sustainability vs. Dependency
A long-term focus in leader development aims at promoting an ongoing process whereby leaders multiply themselves through others. Without this long-term outlook, the infusion of resources and courses will be ineffective in satisfying the growing need for leaders. Ultimately this need must be satisfied from within the church itself; thus the value of any contribution from outside must be evaluated on the basis of whether it helps or hinders the church in meeting its long-term leadership needs. Financial incentives (direct or indirect, such as travel opportunities, provision of materials or other resources, or introductions to donors outside China) may appear to speed up the leader development process in the short-term, but in such situations it is highly questionable whether leaders will continue to be developed once these incentives are withdrawn.
Ownership and direction from leaders at the appropriate levels are key. Considerable damage has been done by outside trainers who engaged at the local or regional level without realizing that the group or groups they were serving were part of a larger network. As a result, the delicate power relationships among leaders were upset and jealousies ensued over the fact that one part of the body had access to outside resources while others did not. Contributions from outside must strengthen the whole community not just individual leaders or particular groups of believers. Leaders need to agree together on the direction they wish to take in leader development in order for outside resources to be appropriately utilized; only then can true partnership take place in co-creating long-term solutions that will outlast the outsiders’ involvement. If this local ownership does not exist, experience shows that outside programs will likely be discarded after a few years, or sooner if outside support is withdrawn.
Ask: Do the leaders with whom we are working have a long-term commitment to a culture of reproducing indigenous leaders; do they value participating in producing more leaders? Does our involvement strengthen indigenous church-based institutions and respect existing authority structures at all levels? Do we refrain from hiring individual leaders to carry out work in country unless church leaders at the appropriate levels agree and are active participants in the ongoing working arrangement? Do specific programs complement the wider leader development efforts carried out in the locality, region or country? Does our involvement facilitate linkages across existing networks to promote leader development and sharing of development resources (as opposed to fueling territoriality by creating a “haves” versus “have-nots” situation)? Is this leadership development effort scaleable in the hands of local leaders?
A commitment to leader development includes a commitment to defining desired outcomes and evaluating results. Results are seen both in how the outside entity functions in providing the leader development assistance and in the lives of the leaders at various levels in country. The EvaluLead guidethe product of extensive research on leader development by a number of NGOs and foundations under the auspices of the Sustainable Leadership Initiativefurther breaks down the impact on the leader into three interpenetrating domains: individual, organizational and societal. Desired changes in each of these domains should be stated up front and then appropriate measures designed to ascertain whether these changes have taken place. Measurement of results should be both evidential (hard data that enumerate what is different as a result of the training), and evocative (impressions about what has changed either from trainees themselves or from those whom they have influenced). Although a full exploration into the methodology of evaluation is beyond the scope of this paper, suffice it to say that effective leader development requires evaluation of both processes and outcomes.
Security concerns have often prevented those involved in leader development from sharing methodologies and results with one another, much to the detriment of the larger community and ultimately to the church in China itself. Outside organizations and churches that have a learning mentality acknowledge these concerns where valid but are also willing to share knowledge with and seek input from others, believing that doing so will enhance the effectiveness of all involved.
Ask: Is a learning assessment program incorporated into the development process? Are systematic records kept of development activities and documented results? Does the evaluation process include pre- and post-testing; feedback from peers, supervisors and subordinates on the leader’s performance following the development activity; and longer range evaluation of the quality of the leader’s work? Do evaluation efforts reflect an understanding of the culture that is sufficient to know what measures are appropriate to assess significant outcomes? Do outside entities and local leaders cooperate in evaluating the effectiveness of the program? Are trainees involved in self-evaluation as part of the development process? Is there a means of measuring whether leaders are actively involved in reproducing themselves after receiving training?
Not the Last Word
For those on the frontlines, these considerations may seem idealistic. In many situations some of these points may be difficult or highly impossible to carry out. Yet, after three decades of outside involvement in leader development in contemporary China, it is worth evaluating the effectiveness of these efforts and reflecting upon what has worked and what has not. This draft is presented as a starting point in this process in the hopes that it may lead to a shared understanding both outside and inside China of how best to serve the church as it develops leaders for the future.
Draft compiled by Dr. Brent Fulton, editor of ChinaSource. Comments are welcome and may be directed to BFultonATchinasource.org.
Image credit: 寺贝通津 by toto lee, on Flickr
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio