What’s in a Word?: the problem with “Leadership Development.”

I’ve been in the market for a ministry job I have had lots of opportunities to read job descriptions from various churches. Curiously the language of discipleship has all but disappeared from many of the pastoral jobs. Instead, churches talk a lot about ‘leadership development.’ If these were the same thing then there is no harm in new nomenclature. But while ‘leadership development’ and ‘discipleship,’ may look similar they operate from very different conceptual frameworks.

Before you dismiss this as your typical Gen-X Christian rant against leader-driven seeker-sensitive church (why can’t I be nice like kids these days?) let me just say I have read my fair share of leadership literature, listened to talks, gone to workshops and have taken copious notes of ‘leadership’ presentations. I believe in leadership and I certainly want leaders to develop. Personally, I will continue to read and look for ways to develop my own leadership and if you are a leader, I hope you do too.

But the problem with leadership development, is if that’s all you got, you are elitist. When we talk about discipleship, we are talking about followers being formed in the way of the Master. We are helping people follow Jesus with their whole lives. Discipleship is walking with people through their lives and it can look very ordinary and mundane. It also is where the hard work of life transformation happens. Discipleship describes the process of helping people grow in character and in faith in Jesus.

Conversely, when you talk about leadership development our fundamental aim is to help people become better masters not better followers. When we emphasize leadership, we help people be better managers, shrewd and effective. We teach them ‘best practices’ and bottom lines. We challenge people to take entrepreneurial risks and expand their influence.

Everybody wants to lead and no one wants to follow, so discipleship has fallen on hard times. It has none of the glitz of ‘leadership development’ which promises that if you master a set of skills and increase your aptitude you can impact larger groups of people and organizations.

At best, leadership development is a part of discipleship. Clearly we want disciples who will lead others into more of what Jesus has for them. The problem is that leadership has become the whole enchilada. But the problem isn’t just that we lost the language of discipleship, we were confused about discipleship even before our leadership fetish. The discipleship machine which shaped me as a young Christian, told me I should invest in ‘discipling’ (not an actual verb) those that were FAT: Faithful, Available, Teachable (not sure of the origin of this acronym because it is fairly widespead. I know I’ve read it in something Howard Hendricks wrote, but I’m not sure if it’s original to him). Makes sense right? Invest in those who offer you the biggest pay off. Isn’t that what Jesus did?

No. Jesus didn’t do that. He did the exact opposite:

  • The disciples were unfaithful. When adversity came they were scattered like sheep without a shepherd. At Jesus’ arrest the disciples turned and ran.
  • The disciples were unavailable. Jesus did not go pick up some day labors who were waiting for something to come their way. He told a group of fishermen to leave their nets and follow him. He told Levi the tax collector to follow him as he sat at his desk. He took an otherwise engaged group of guys and had them leave their life behind.
  • The disciples were unteachable. Can anyone seriously argue that these guys were teachable? They were arrogant, proud, obstinate and they just didn’t get it. Think of the number of times that Jesus has to drill the idea of humility or service into these guys. They did not learn well or easily.

If the disciples could ever be described as Faithful, Available and Teachable it was because the Master helped them cultivate those virtues in them (with a good dose of the Holy Spirit’s work!).

And it is the same with me. Long before I was a developing leader, or an elite disciple, I was unfaithful, unavailable and unteachable. That I am actively pursuing God’s call on my life today is because people invested in me when I didn’t merit or deserve it. I thought I knew everything, and was pretty resistant to people’s attempts to help me grow in Christ. Lucky for me I had a few friends and key mentors who invested in me before I was leadership material. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.

The kind of discipleship which turns lives around is what are churches need, not just bigger and better leaders.