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Character Development:

Preparing the Next Generation for Ministry

By Mike Rakes

Winston Churchill reportedly said, “I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” Every generation faces the challenge of personal growth. Long-term strategic leadership for the future of the church requires a more comprehensive approach to character development and an intentional plan to develop sensitivity to character development issues for those preparing for ministry.

The word coach continues to rise in function and importance to the body of Christ. The use of the word signals an awareness that personal change is desired. Nearly every leader admits that in all phases of ministry one must continue to grow and develop internally. Yet, the growth that must not be neglected is in the next generation of leaders who are nearly ready for significant leadership positions.

At the turn of this century, organizations measure their net worth in different ways from those in the 1900s. During the Industrial Age, an organization’s net worth was measured by its real estate holdings, factories and equipment, and warehouses of merchandise. Things have changed. Some organizations are reducing their office square footage and real estate holdings and allowing employees to work from their homes. Organizations now use terms such as virtual teams — groups of people brought together by technology, usually to accomplish short-term organizational goals. This is one signal we have officially moved into a postindustrial society. Words like intellectual capital introduce us to a whole new economy and labor environment.

Church leaders who understand these cultural shifts will be better equipped to prepare the next generation for ministry. Postindustrialism is not only about a knowledge explosion and the change factors in that process, but it is also about the way in which the work force is used. Individuals in each organization now become the important capital — human capital. The personal-growth movement is a result of the way individuals and organizations perceive human capital.

The postindustrial shift toward investing more in personal growth was inevitable. Even a brief walk through a bookstore reveals that the demand for such material has reached a near-obsessive level. What are the implications for current church leaders in preparing the next generation of leaders?

The church can be no greater than its leaders. Therefore, the emphasis on intentional character development of future leaders by the church and its schools and universities cannot be overstated. A clear understanding of Jesus’ leadership principle of investing in key leaders is more important than ever.

Many who have dedicated their ministries to training young leaders know that those preparing for ministry often struggle with basic character deficiencies. George Barna’s research shows no difference between churched youth and secular youth. While most young adults respect the Bible and believe the Bible is accurate in what it teaches, their specific religious beliefs are inconsistent with the Bible. For instance, a majority believes that a good person can earn salvation through good deeds. A majority of born-again teens also believe Jesus committed sins while He was on earth. Further study shows these teens do not think their religious beliefs will change. Although teens can quote biblical facts, less than 1 of every 10 churched teenager has a biblical worldview. In other words, personal faith is not making a difference in how they live. They do not make decisions based on biblical principles.1

When we consider that these teens are the future leaders of the church, we must be concerned about the substance of their faith that will be communicated and practiced as they lead the church. The church must reconnect to the main responsibilities of how to develop those preparing for ministry. Time and resources we spend preparing new leaders should be made with great effort knowing it strengthens our human capital and adds value to the church.

The Almost Ready

In his article, Almost Ready: How Leaders Move Up, Dan Ciampa discusses the vetting process that happens in organizations and who might end up in key positions of influence in the organization.2 The phrase the almost-ready leader describes those in preparation for significant ministry right now.

A vetting process is now happening in churches and universities, but who will rise up and lead the church with purpose, precision, and effectiveness? Who will take on the task of not only leading our churches but also our government, education, and medical fields? Where are those leaders now? They are in your church and our universities. Pastors and youth leaders, then, need to place more emphasis on developing the character of the almost-ready leader.

In the 60s, around the time of the emergence of pastoral counseling as a viable discipline, Howard Clinebell gave a strong, simple formula when it came to developing adults. He said, “Caring + Confrontation = Growth.” Pastors, faculty members, and denominational leaders must prepare, shape, and cultivate almost-ready leaders. The challenge Ciampa pointed out was that the almost-ready leader gets little if any feedback about what habits need to be added or dropped to increase his effectiveness.

One practical thing leaders can do is provide formal and informal opportunities for coaching and mentoring almost-ready leaders. Many different definitions for coaching exist, yet coaching in the classical sense involves “carrying along a client.” My professional experience shows that almost-ready leaders need mentoring (advice given through experience) more than they need coaching. The basic assumption of true coaching is that coaches help clients get what they want. But young leaders often do not know what they want or might even want the wrong things.

Pastors and youth pastors who want to help young potential leaders need to create pathways of growth that can be followed by those desiring personal growth. The doctrinal enforcement officer mentality does not address the deepest issue of motivation. Many character curricula miss the mark because they try the add attributes approach to developing character. Character comes from the inner life of an individual. A person can tie an orange to a tree but doing so does not change the nature of the tree, only the tree’s outward appearance. Pathways of growth, such as Tuesday Night Talks (Q&A events conducted in a talk show format), can help open new ways of developing leaders.

The critical fact, especially for those influencing young leaders day in and day out, is that these young leaders are not completely ready but are still in the character-development stage. In my first doctoral research program I uncovered the four main ways God works on a person’s character. Every individual has four main components to his inner life that make up his character. The four components are:

A pastor’d ability to provide the right constructive feedback will help build character in the inner life of an almost-ready leader. Character flaws can be mitigated by intentional conversations that lead to the further development of the almost-ready leader. These conversations need to be taking place now. Pastors providing instruction to the almost-ready leader must remember that their ministries are not about themselves but the advancement of God’s kingdom. The development of young almost-ready leaders must be seen as critically important to the health of the church.

Self-Leadership As A Start

Leadership, as influence, demands the expression of one’s authentic self. A leader in preparation needs to show leadership. Self-leadership is concerned with facing the truth about one’s own leadership, emotions, stamina, and spirituality, and constructing ways to develop oneself. Leadership is ultimately about influencing others and helping them live better more fulfilled lives.

Leaders often seek to help people they hardly know. But the one thread that seems to tie great leaders together, whether Christ-followers or not, is their desire to change themselves. Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Self-leadership requires humility and a willingness to learn. While walking through a car dealership, I overheard a man sharing a tip with his 16-year-old son. The young, pimpled-faced teenager nodded his head quicker and quicker as his dad was trying to give him an important tip about driving in the heavy Atlanta traffic. His son kept saying, “I know, I know.”

How many times have pastors tried to save someone some grief, and that person just would not listen? Self-leadership is the ability to learn from every possible source. There will always be those who decide to learn the hard way. The almost-ready leader practices self-leadership through humility in learning and exhibiting personal growth.

We have infused three questions into student life at Southeastern University. These questions provide a working model for the student life team: (1) Who are you? (2) What do you want? (3) What does God want?

Question 1: Who are you?

This question must be asked of the almost-ready leader preparing for ministry. A greater awareness of one’s personal darkness and struggles is critically important to the early development of the almost-ready leader.

Pastors and leaders can help by talking authentically about their own feelings. Online tools are available for growing young leaders. Pastors can lead the almost-ready leader to discover his personality traits through assessments that may have been important to the pastor’s own development. I developed an assessment that helps individuals discover which of the four quadrants need the most self-leadership. This assessment tool evaluates the four main issues at work in a leader’s life (leadership, emotions, stamina, and spirituality). (Note: This tool has not yet been developed for children.)

Educators talk about learning curves. In this generation, there are also awareness curves. Some students come to Southeastern University with an awareness of the inclinations of their hearts. Others, through our discipline process, need help to see their character deficiencies. A key step in learning self-leadership is learning to say as Joseph did, “How … could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). An almost-ready leader, fully awake to his call, must learn to live within the boundaries that call requires. The almost-ready leader needs a healthy awareness of who he is. Pastors and youth pastors should consider requiring the almost-ready leader to state his faith in his own words. Learning to avoid churchy phrases or spiritual clichés is an important part of answering the question, “Who are you?”

Question 2: What do I want?

In a postmodern world where bodily comforts abound, the almost-ready leader must answer the question, What do I want? This question begins the process of sorting through intentional choices the outcome of one’s days. Student culture is shaped at SEU because student leadership and administrative leadership will not ignore issues related to personal character. We are training spiritual champions and refuse to allow silly adolescent explorations into realms of life that lead nowhere and degrade one’s destiny.

Here are three easy steps to begin implementing with an almost-ready leader:

1. Tell them the truth

The almost-ready leader must be confronted about his choices, or the opportunity for character development is missed. Leading the almost-ready leader to repeatedly answer the question about what he wants is a technique that works. When a student fails miserably, ask him if that was what he wanted to do? Help him examine in detail what led to his failure.

2. Challenge his self-talk

Listen to the words leaders say. In consulting and personal-growth language, a person’s words reveal what is going on under the surface. Those who live with severe attachments or even addictions often do not think virtuously about themselves. In other words, the thoughts they have about themselves are not God’s thoughts toward them. Their thinking and ultimately their speaking, which usually result in action, reveal the fallenness of their thinking. Theologians call it the noetic effects of the Fall. People’s ability to think rightly of themselves (see themselves as God sees them) is flawed.

3. Seek to influence them in formal and nonformal ways

Taking time to think of specific leadership messages to send almost-ready leaders can be a profitable way to grow them past internal dead ends that result in a de-energizing effect.

Question 3: What does God want?

The Spirit To Serve is the story of J.W. Marriott, Jr. Marriott shares stories and experiences about the early days when his father started the Marriott hotel chain. He weaves his message of humility, hard work, and respect for others throughout the book. He makes a call for servant leadership. He says, “There can be no distinction between a company’s core values and the core values of its leadership. The values originate from deep inside the people themselves.”

If there is no inward transformation, all the programmatic character-building techniques in the world will have no impact on the almost-ready leader. If our goal is to renew our organizations, then we must lead out of a heart authentically devoted to what God wants. Living close to God means caring about what God cares about. The almost-ready leader must answer the question, What does God want for me?

Leaders are ultimately revolutionaries. They were once transformed from darkness to light, and they dream change and bring change wherever they are. They passionately pursue the goal of making things better. Every great leader desires to make a contribution with his life in some way. Connecting with what God wants from one’s life, one’s specific contribution is the guiding factor that keeps leaders of character making the choices they make.

Initially, there is usually an experience deficiency in the heart of an almost-ready leader. Character is not necessarily present in every leader when he starts the preparation. Depending on childhood development and family issues, character may need to be learned at even the most fundamental level. Character must be intentionally shaped, cultivated, and developed through caring and confrontation. The challenge for those currently in leadership is to not underestimate the human capital that surrounds them. This generation of almost-ready leaders is critically important to the health of the church. Each almost-ready leader contributes to the Kingdom’s advancement.

The apostle Paul might have underestimated the impact that a young John Mark would have on the Kingdom. John Mark was present when Peter was miraculously released from prison through the prayers of the believers (Acts 12:12–17). When John Mark left Paul and Barnabas, Paul underestimated John Mark’s future ministry (Acts 13:13). When Paul and Barnabas had the falling out over John Mark, Paul underestimated the human capital that John Mark brought to the table (Acts 15:36–41).

Mark’s Gospel, however, reveals a far different John Mark. Mark’s authorship is placed sometime in the middle 50s to middle 60s. Mark’s Gospel shows a more mature leader. Paul would have never believed that this young man’s writings would be so valued by the church or that they would become canonized.

Mark’s Gospel addresses the themes of suffering, handling criticism, the messianic fulfillment of Jesus’ life, and the supernatural. What great themes for the almost-ready leader to learn. John Mark, if we knew the behind-the-scenes story, probably underestimated his own value to the Church as much as Paul did. A pattern that often plays out in towns and cities across the nation is that leaders in preparation for ministry often underestimate their importance to the future of the body of Christ.

Conclusion

The preparation phase is the serious vetting process of the Kingdom. For decades, the Assemblies of God has emphasized teaching young men and women the Bible and godly principles. We have emphasized life-on-life kinds of mentoring and discipleship, but something still seems to be missing. Here are a few suggestions that a pastor or youth pastor should consider.

The surge of servant leadership training around the country has continued to gain momentum with this generation of almost-ready leaders as a way of developing ministry skills. Local churches have developed or adapted intense training programs for those wanting to respond more fully to the call to serve.

One necessary element in any leadership program is intentional character development. Teaching almost-ready leaders the aspects of making good choices is a critical part of teaching maturity. Some leaders have the mistaken belief that if they get almost-ready leaders spiritual enough, there will be no problems with character. Many leaders, however, have seen to their own embarrassment that this kind of thinking is not necessarily true.

Many good materials deal with what character needs to look like on the outside. A church’s Christian education program should reflect all the aspects of a biblical worldview, and not just facts learned from the Bible. Discipleship at its core is about instruction. Consider pulling together teachers and other learning professionals in your church and community to address the character development issues students are now facing.

Bible colleges and Christian universities cannot assume full responsibility for developing character in almost-ready leaders. Their character is already shaped to a large degree before they ever reach college age. Pastors and youth leaders need to discuss ways to deal with the inner issues of character development. Programs that are intentionally structured to surface the issues of character development are needed at the early stages of a child’s development.

Neil B. Wiseman

MIKE RAKES, D.Min., senior pastor First Assembly of God, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and former vice president of Student Development, Southeastern University, Lakeland, Florida.

Endnotes

1. The Barna Group, “Teens Evaluate the Church-Based Ministry They Received As Children,” 8 July 2003, http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=143. See also, The Barna Group, “Teenagers’ Beliefs Moving Farther From Biblical Perspectives,” 23 October 2000; http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=74.

2. Dan Ciampa, “Almost Ready: How Leaders Move Up,” Harvard Business Review 84 (January 2005).

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