Editor's note: In this reflection, the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity introduces a series on leadership development and explains why cultivating people is a crucial task for today's Christian leaders.

Years ago, several denominational executives summoned me to discuss recruitment for a yearlong leadership development program for young clergy. As the meeting got underway, it became clear that they were particularly concerned by the fact that the program was enlisting youth ministers.

Why, they asked, did I think youth ministers were leaders?

These denominational leaders believed that leadership is limited to people with certain roles and titles, with work that has particular scale and scope. They were -- and are -- not alone.

Training opportunity: Send your staff to Foundations of Christian Leadership, a formational program that cultivates theological and practical imagination in emerging leaders

In the Industrial Age, American Protestant congregations and related institutions all too often adopted a mechanical view of their employees. Leaders could afford to hire more people and push ineffective or inefficient employees to the side. With labor plentiful, it was far easier to bring in someone new than to cultivate talent within the current employee ranks. Everyone was replaceable.

Today, the distinction between leaders and followers is increasingly complicated in most organizations. In many places, nearly all the employees are involved in producing services, managing budgets and developing relationships.

Given the complexity of the challenges most companies face, innovative solutions are needed in every aspect of the work. Improving services, controlling costs and managing multiple priorities is the work of every employee.

These challenges require employees, across levels and roles, to exercise leadership skills to understand the situation, make sense of how to respond and involve others to make things happen. They also require senior leaders to adopt a new mindset about nurturing talent to prepare employees at most levels of responsibility to work in this increasingly complex environment.

The mindset that informs the way many organizations look at developing leaders is more akin to agriculture than to industry. Those with responsibility for guiding the organization cultivate the con ditions for the work to flourish. This means cultivating the people.

In practice, this means considering every assignment as both a project to be accomplished and an opportunity for leadership development. A critical aspect of developing leaders is assigning all employees work that is small enough to do and big enough to matter. In an interview with Faith & Leadership, longtime Reformed Church in America executive Ken Eriks describes executive team meetings in which senior leaders identify staff members who show potential and then look out for assignments that will stretch them, even if such assignments are outside the individuals’ job descriptions.

In the midst of a massive realignment and reorganization, the RCA invested in sending many of its staff to a single leadership conference. Employees also took the same leadership inventory so that they could help each other understand strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement.

Suzii Paynter, the chief executive of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, describes similar efforts with a feedback tool and seminars for the entire staff. When she came into office a year ago, she tripled the number of staff members who report to her and made a plan to encourage individual and team development. Paynter now has a “senior” staff of old hands and younger people. She is creating the conditions for them to help each other as they experiment, learn and experiment again.

Eriks and Paynter have been shaped themselves by the processes they describe. They are receiving feedback and figuring out their own work in the midst of developing others. Cultivating others and cultivating oneself are interrelated.

The phrase “leadership development” often conjures images of a classroom, a ropes course or a psychological test -- and indeed these are valuable exercises. Many initiatives (including Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, which publishes Faith & Leadership) offer such carefully designed learning experiences.

These experiences are part of Leadership Education’s work, which is to encourage leadership development efforts within the larger, theological vision of cultivating thriving communities that are signs of God’s reign.

In five years of offering such educational programs, we have discovered that congregations and institutions need to encourage particular practices to prepare leaders to navigate current challenges.

Those practices are:

  • Making developmentally appropriate assignments
  • Adopting a common language to describe the vision for the ministry and the current conditions in the world
  • Structuring meetings to reflect the most important aspects of the work


One strategy that does not move the needle very far in developing leaders is performance evaluation. I have been approached many times to share the “best” performance evaluation tool with a congregation or denomination. The fact is that a conversation is the best tool.

Institutions need a simple, fair system for evaluation and goal setting. It is important to solicit feedback from members or constituents. But the most helpful feedback focuses on needs and opportunities, not the performance of an individual for the purpose of determining the person’s pay. No amount of effort devoted to developing an elaborate performance system will be worth as much as what groups like the Reformed Church in America and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are doing.

Meeting the challenges congregations and institutions face today requires a strategy that is more basic, radical and ongoing than annual performance reviews. It requires a mindset that can be cultivated by considering what you are learning in the midst of the challenging assignments you face. How can you encourage others to take on challenging assignments and learn from their experiences?

Those denominational executives that I met years ago did not stop my training for youth ministers and all sorts of other staff people in the denomination. Today, that denomination has a host of leaders now assigned to developing programs and addressing challenges. Leadership development is ultimately about preparing future generations for the work.