Leadership Training in Missions


Editorial Comment: This post is the ninth of 10 articles explaining Reaching & Teaching’s 10 Missiological Distinctives.

If the church is both the means and the goal of missions (see Distinctive #6), then we must train local leaders to be faithful to that mission.

This process takes time and must be done intentionally; it requires carefulness and patience, cultural awareness, and theological training. And yet, it’s also urgent. We must raise up leaders who will pass on their faith to the next generation so that more churches will be planted and strengthened.

But how? Thankfully, the Bible is not silent on this process.

First, the Bible helps us to identify qualified leaders. Qualified leaders are given as gifts to Christ’s church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12). They are men of character.[1] Many passages, including 1 Timothy 3:1–7, Titus 1:5–9, and 1 Peter 5:1–4, make it clear that the most important qualification for leadership in the local church is godly character.

Others have noted that these lists of qualifications are extraordinary because they’re actually quite ordinary. In other words, all Christians are called not to be arrogant or greedy; all Christians ought to be hospitable, self-controlled, and disciplined. Sure, leaders of Christ’s church must be exemplary in these ways, but they’re not called to be another class of Christian. As these qualifications are God-given, they transcend culture and apply to all Christian leaders at all points in history.

Second, leaders must be well-taught. Later in his missionary career, Paul emphasizes the need to pass on the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. He modeled this emphasis by often staying in one place for a long time to teach (Acts 18:11; 19:9–10). In 2 Timothy 2:2, near the end of his life, Paul encourages Timothy to take what he had learned from Paul and entrust it to faithful men who themselves will teach others also.

What did Timothy learn from Paul? In a sense, everything. Timothy heard the gospel from Paul, observed deep discipleship from Paul, and witnessed the planting of new churches from Paul. He saw Paul train those churches in sound doctrine, and he saw him encourage, rebuke, and pastor the Christians there. Timothy was indeed well-taught both in theology and in pastoral ministry. That’s what Paul wanted him to pass on to other faithful men.

Well-taught leaders must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2), “to give instruction in sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9), and to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). This includes both a positive and a negative command. Leaders must be able to teach sound doctrine and defend the truth against false teaching and false teachers (Titus 1:9, Acts 20:28–29). This responsibility implies that identifying and training such men cannot be a quick-and-easy process. You can’t learn how to defend sound doctrine overnight. You can’t learn how to handle God’s word in a weekend. Paul himself modeled this process as he invested in the lives of others who would laters serve as leaders in local churches (Acts 16:1-5).

Third, these leaders must be reproducible. Leaders have the responsibility to raise up leaders “who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). The task of raising up reproducible leaders won’t be complete until Jesus returns. The church in every land and in every generation must take this call seriously so that local churches continue to be led by qualified, well-taught pastors.

Here, we should point out an implication of Paul’s command to Timothy. Paul assumes this training will happen in the context of a local church. Christ gives shepherds and teachers to the church for the sake of her maturity, unity, and health (Eph. 4:11–16). While God may use seminaries and Bible institutes to come alongside local churches, they are not, strictly speaking, necessary for the task. The job of training leaders belongs to local churches, so they need to be careful about how much responsibility they relinquish along the way.

One mark of a biblical church is qualified biblical leadership. The Reformers generally identified three marks of a true church: the faithful preaching of the word, the faithful administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline. Certainly, congregations must ensure these marks are present—and yet, God has particularly called pastors to lead in these endeavors. That’s explicit when it comes to preaching the Word, and more implicit when it comes to guarding the sacraments and leading in church discipline.

Once again, qualified church leaders are necessary for the planting and strengthening of churches. Elders are called to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2). In doing so, they follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who had compassion on the crowds who were like “sheep without a shepherd . . . harassed and helpless” (Mat 9:36). So with this exhortation, Peter calls on all pastors—in every time and through every generation—to protect the flock from false teachers who want to cause division (Acts 20:28–31). This call for faithful shepherds is not based on a pre-existing cultural model but rather is dictated by New Testament commands and patterns. No matter the culture, then, faithful missionary strategies will take seriously the call to raise up qualified, well-taught leaders.

Identifying and training reproducible local leaders requires a slow and steady approach. When Luke tells us that Paul told Titus to “put what remained into order and to appoint elders in every town,” we might assume this was a quick process. But that’s almost surely not the case. Character and competence must be evaluated over time, or we run the risk of having unqualified leaders. This is one reason Paul emphasizes that a leader must “not be a recent convert” (1 Tim. 3:6). How recent is too recent? We don’t know, but this qualification suggests patience over efficiency.

When it comes to training leaders on the mission field, two primary dangers exist. The first error is to make the training process so long and arduous that new leaders are never finally established and the spirit of 2 Timothy 2:2 is never obeyed. If missionaries require extra-biblical standards—seminary degrees, legalistic morals—then they’re set up to say that no one is ever “qualified” to pastor. Good missionaries have realistic processes for training leaders because they are eager to pass off healthy ministry. Good missionaries want to know as best they can that when they leave, what’s left behind won’t fall apart or disappear.  

The second error is the opposite. Some missionaries are so eager to expand rapidly that they short-circuit the training process by reducing leadership training to a series of lessons that can be completed quickly so the missionary can move on to the next unreached group. Often, these lessons teach “leaders” how to plant churches, but offer little on theology, pastoral ministry, or personal godliness. As a result, new believers and new churches are started and then abandoned, or they’re led by men who haven’t been tested or properly trained (2 Tim. 3:6; Tit. 1:9). The church may indeed persevere, but it will be weak or deformed.

To be sure, the Bible doesn’t give us a step-by-step calendar for raising up leaders. But certainly, we must admit that evaluating character and competence requires more time, not less. To avoid these extremes, missionaries must feel the weight and urgency of 2 Timothy 2:2.

We must also consider what it means for leaders to be local, which means we must consider contextualization. Faithful contextualization communicates the gospel compellingly.[2] This desire also applies to leadership training. We want to train local leaders in a way that makes sense in their culture and is conducive to their way of learning. There are two contextualization mistakes we want to avoid.

Some have shied away from providing theological training lest the “outsider” or “Westerner” be viewed as a colonizer. Instead of providing sound theological training, missionaries exit as soon as possible. They leave potential leaders with the Bible and the Holy Spirit and trust that they will arrive at conclusions appropriate for their context. At first, this approach sounds reasonable, even humble. But it seems to undermine the instructions and examples of the New Testament. Of course, the Holy Spirit guides his disciples into all truth. And one of those truths he guides us to believe is that new Christians need help. God delights to use human means to pass on sound doctrine from one generation to another; he doesn’t download it overnight. Missionaries should be aware of outsider influence, but not so much that they leave behind vulnerable churches led by immature Christians.

At the same time, we also must avoid the mistake of simply importing foreign theological education without proper contextualization. In 2024, many North American seminaries now have a significant global reach. While we can rejoice that thousands of people now have access to top-tier theological education, we must be aware of the dangers that come with separating theological training from a local context. While God’s truths are unchanging, the best way to explain and apply those truths can vary from culture to culture. While it’s certainly understandable if a local leader wants to move to North America for seminary, a healthier and more reproducible model would be to train leaders in their local context.

A final missiological implication follows. Missionaries must understand that theological education alone doesn’t fully prepare someone for ministry. Studying systematic theology is not sufficient. Future leaders need training in both theology and pastoral ministry, which includes ecclesiology, counseling, preaching, character formation, and more. It’s one thing for a pastor to learn that he must “shepherd the flock of God,” but it’s another thing entirely to be taught how to do so by someone who’s doing it.

A holistic approach to leadership training will include profound theological training and real-life pastoral training in the context of a local church. Ultimately, leadership training is discipleship. Therefore, effective pastoral development will include an element of personal, life-on-life instruction.

If the goal of our missions strategy is to establish healthy churches full of believers who worship God, obey Christ’s commands, and grow to maturity, then identifying and training leaders must be an integral part of the missionary task. But again, this process takes time. This should not be seen as an obstacle that slows down evangelism and church planting but as faithfulness to God’s good design.

If we’re faithful to share the gospel and serious about making disciples, then we can be confident that God will give his church faithful leaders who will be able to teach others also. 

[1] While we believe the role of pastor/elder is reserved for men, we also recognize the importance of training women for the work of the ministry. This article is focused primarily on identifying and training men for the pastoral office, yet much of it applies to all Christian training.

[2] See Elliot Clark, “Faithful Contextualization in Missions.” https://rtim.org/faithful-contextualization-in-missions/  

Jason Wright

Jason Wright is a missionary in Córdoba, Argentina, with Reaching & Teaching. Jason formerly served as a pastor of Redeemer Church in Abilene, TX, and as Director of Ministry Operations at Reaching & Teaching. He and his wife, Kami, have three children.

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