Asking Tough Questions: What Really Happens When We Train Leaders?

What Really Happens When
We Train Leaders?


Every year a dizzying array of non-formal leadership training programs are offered worldwide. Some of these efforts use Western trainers with local interpreters, others utilize national trainers, while others rely on residential missionaries. Some offerings focus on standardized, programmatic instruction whereas others are less structured. Some efforts seek to replicate a full Bible institute curriculum while others are more targeted, focusing on a particular area of ministry and/or personal development. Some are one-time conferences or seminars while others are on-going, longitudinal efforts. Some depend heavily on technological resources while others rely primarily on either human or printed resources. Some invest heavily in training trainers, others less so. Some have strong institutional connections (e.g. Bible school extension programs), others are denomination-based, others local church-based, and yet others mission or agency-based.

What are we to make of this plethora of training approaches and efforts? On one hand, we rejoice that the Lord has raised up so many to meet the urgent need for church leadership development. Martin Luther, the great reformer, saw equipped pastors as the key to Church health and growth. “I entertain no sorry picture of our Church, but rather that of the Church flourishing through pure and uncorrupted teaching and one increasing with excellent ministers from day to day.”

On the other hand, one wonders, given all of this enormous effort: what are we accomplishing? The foundations and donors who support these ministries are wondering the same. Though a few training programs have clearly defined goals and measurable outcomes, many do not. Assessment and evaluation of non-formal leadership training tends to be sporadic at best.

At the first TOPIC (Trainers of Pastors International Coalition) consultation (Wheaton, December 1997) Dr. Mark Young questioned the efficacy of seminar/conference ministries in Eastern Europe. He suggested that perhaps our non-formal seminars are not as effective as we hope. Dr. Young then asked the provocative question, “Are we confusing response with results?” Response – those immediate and typically overwhelmingly favorable reactions to our ministries may be far different from results – the long-lasting fruit.

Our ministry, Leadership Resources International, equips and encourages pastors around the world to teach God’s Word with God’s heart. We seek to discover what’s really happening as a result of our ministry – be it good, bad, or ugly – and have built research and evaluation into the fabric of what we do. Our commitment to self-assessment has both a personal as well as a theological grounding.

The Question Guy

My earliest memory etched itself onto my 3-year-old brain as I was sitting on a stoop outside our 12-flat apartment building on the south side of Chicago. I remember a young toddler swaying to a halt in front of me. I looked up and simply asked: “Will you be my friend?” My very first memory centered on a question – a pretty good question at that.

Later – perhaps when in 1st grade – I remember asking my second question. Walking home from school with Helen, I stopped and asked her the big question. “Helen, when we grow up, will you marry me?” I’m not sure what came over me…perhaps I thought that you had to get your order in early or they’d run out of girls. As we all know, six-year-old girls are much more mature than six-year-old boys. Helen wisely suggested that perhaps we should wait a while to see what happens.

Have you noticed how important questions are in life? I wonder how many questions you have asked today: When’s breakfast? Who’s speaking? Is so and so here? When’s lunch? Where did I put my notes? Why does he need that? What’s for supper? Some of our questions are of little significance, while others carry enormous weight: What did the doctor say? Will she ever forgive me? How long does he have to live? Questions are an essential part of life. We could well say, “To live is to ask.”

I’m a professional question guy, having spent 15 years working for a survey research company. Our clients hired us to ask questions. Why would companies pay us huge amounts of money to simply ask questions?

My largest client was the Ford Motor Company. Car companies begin designing new cars and trucks four or five years in advance of actual production. They would build full-size clay and plastic models as part of the product development cycle and then have us invite two or three hundred people into a showroom to evaluate these futuristic models. We would ask tough questions. Ford wanted to know what people really thought about their advanced products, because they wanted to know how to improve the design. They wanted designs that would maximize sales.

Some of the auto designers were not very happy if they received criticism and negative feedback. On the other hand, the Ford managers wanted the truth—favorable or unfavorable—for the stakes were too high for anything less than a full and honest appraisal. After all, they were stewards of the company’s resources. The board of directors was expecting the managers of the company to make a profit, so Ford was willing to spend a few hundred thousand research dollars in order to make a good 300 million dollar product decision. They did not consider the research expenditure an expense, but rather an investment.

The Lord of Questions

If questions are important for corporations, they are crucial for the Kingdom. Have you noticed how often Jesus asked questions? Our Lord asked 99 questions in the gospel of Matthew alone. Why so many questions? The Scriptures suggest at least two major reasons. Firstly, Jesus, as a master teacher, knew that questions are a compelling teaching method. Questions force people to grapple with issues, moving them from passive listeners to active learners. Secondly, by asking questions, Jesus learned what the Father was doing.

Jesus’ ministry strategy was to watch for what the Father was doing. He only said and did what he heard and saw the Father doing. “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees the Father doing.” (John 5:19) “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.” (John 8:28) This was Jesus’ “philosophy of ministry.” Jesus lived and ministered by watching to see what his Father was doing. He kept looking to see where and how the Father was leading. The Father was the initiator, the Son was the responder.

Think about the remarkable words that Jesus spoke on the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30). How could he say that? For every blind man he healed, there were ten more still groping in the darkness. For every disciple that followed him, there were thousands more who did not. How could he declare, “It is finished?” The answer to this question is found in Jesus’ high-priestly prayer, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” (John 17:4) Jesus completed everything the Father had given Him to do.

How did Jesus learn what the Father was doing and what the Father was calling him to do? Of course, it began with prayer. Jesus spent extended time praying, especially when faced with major decisions and before and after momentous events. Jesus listened to the Father by reading and studying and memorizing the Scriptures. Jesus was also a keen observer – he spent time watching the people and the opportunities that the Father providentially brought into his life. Jesus’ understanding of what the Father was doing was shaped as He prayed, meditated on the Scriptures, and observed people and situations. But there was one other way that Jesus discerned what the Father was doing: he asked tough questions.

The Turning Point

Matthew 16 represents a pivotal time in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus poured his life into the disciples for three years, to seemingly no avail. He was perplexed by the density of the disciples’ hearts and minds. We hear Jesus’ exasperation expressed in Matthew 15:16, “Are you still so dull?” Listen to his words in Matthew 16:8-10 as he fires one question after another at his bewildered disciples: “You of little faith, why are you talking about…bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember…? How is it that you don’t understand…?” They still don’t get it. Perhaps he’s wondering if they will ever get it.

Jesus is watching to see what the Father is doing. It must seem as though the Father is not working in the lives of the disciples. Yet, Jesus knows better – it’s not a matter of “if” but “when?” When will the three years of discipling his followers begin to bear fruit? When will his teaching and healing ministry be completed and his ministry of suffering and death begin? Jesus depended upon the Father’s timing.

In Matthew 16:13, Jesus travels with his disciples outside of Israel, to the region of Caesarea Philippi, northeast of Galilee. As far as we know, Jesus had not been in this area before. Jesus begins a little research project by asking the disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” (v.13) He may be asking about the people in this new “market” or perhaps he’s referring to those back in Galilee. Either way, he wants to know how the people view him. “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (v.14) These comparisons, though probably meant as words of encouragement, are far off the mark. After all this time, the people still don’t know who Jesus is. Have you ever taught or preached over an extended period of time and then discovered that your audience just wasn’t “getting it?” We don’t know how Jesus responded, but we can imagine him slowly and sadly shaking his head. Yet, Jesus has learning something from his question: the Father has not yet revealed to the crowds the reality of who Jesus is.

Jesus follows up this first question with two others that penetrate to the core: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter responds with the famous affirmation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (vs.15-16)

We can almost hear Jesus shout “Hallelujah!” Jesus discovered that the Father is working in his disciples after all. After Peter responds with “the right answer,” Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” (v.17) By asking a series of questions, Jesus sees more clearly what the Father has been doing – creating understanding and faith in the minds and hearts of the disciples after all. They finally are “getting it!”

The implications of this discovery are enormous, for it marks the beginning of the end. Jesus was always looking for the Father’s time – the “kairos” time. John tells us, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (v.21) Luke says simply, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) The disciples, the future Church leaders, finally understand. It’s time for Jesus to head to Jerusalem and the cross.

Here’s the point: through a series of thoughtful questions, Jesus discovered what the Father was doing and what he, as the Father’s Son, should be doing in response to his Father’s activity.

The BIG Question

We see the early Church asking the same question. The church in Jerusalem heard rumors about what was happening in Antioch and wondered, “What’s God up to?” So they sent up a researcher by the name of Barnabas. Another researcher, Luke, records that “When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” (Acts: 11:23) I love that phrase – evidences of the grace of God. I wonder what Barnabas actually saw. What were these “evidences” of God at work that Barnabas was able to see? There was something tangible, observable about God at work at Antioch. The church at Antioch was not only bearing fruit that would remain, but also fruit that could be seen.

Barnabas then asked himself the important follow-up question: Given what the Father is doing, what should I be doing? Barnabas saw exciting church growth at Antioch, but he also saw needs, especially the need for solid teaching of the Scriptures to establish the disciples and develop leaders.

We know that Barnabas saw large numbers of new believers (Luke mentions this twice.) Church growth is surely an “evidence of the grace of God.” I’ve often thought that church planters have it easier than pastor trainers and leader developers on this dimension – their “success” is more easily measured. Conversions, baptisms, church membership, and new church plants are all quantifiable. On the other hand, measuring spiritual growth and the development of leadership qualities and preaching and teaching skills is more complicated (but no less important.)

Barnabas saw what the Father was doing, but also what the Father had not yet done – what was left undone. So how did Barnabas respond? He went to Tarsus and found Saul and “so for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.” (Acts 11:26) Like Jesus, Barnabas watched to see what the Father was doing and then walked in these things. In response to what they saw (and what they didn’t see!) in the Antioch church, Barnabas and Saul equipped and encouraged a team of pastoral leaders from Africa, Asia and Europe (Acts 13:1) which then set the stage for the first sustained missionary effort of the New Testament Church.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What is God doing in and through your ministry?
  • What fruit is he producing through you?
  • What are the evidences of the grace of God in your ministry?
  • How do you evaluate your own teaching and training efforts?
  • How do you discern what the Lord is doing?
  • What questions should you be asking?

Seeing but the Outer Fringes

Why is it so difficult to discern what God is doing in and through our ministries? The combination of God’s vastness and our smallness prevent us from clearly seeing what God is doing. If indeed God’s activity is infinite and Jesus is “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3) and the Father “is always at work” (John 5:17), then we should not be surprised by our inability to grasp the works and wonders of God.

There’s so much we don’t know. The Father has chosen to reveal to us only a small portion of what He is doing. Job describes the unfathomable workings of God in the heavens and upon the earth, in both the skies as well as the seas, and then concludes, “And these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him! Who then can understand the thunder of his power?” (Job 26:14)

Think of all our human limitations which hamper our ability to discern his ways. We are locked into the here and the now – the past is a fog and the future is unknown. We are embodied creatures, rooted in and oriented toward the physical dimensions of life. Our “bentness” toward sin and self-centeredness form additional barriers that impede us from clearly seeing all that God is doing. We simply don’t have the capacity to fully comprehend his works.

Consider this analogy from science. All energy is expressed as electromagnetic radiation in the form of waves—ultraviolet, x-rays, light waves, and many others. At one end of the wave spectrum are cosmic radio waves – each one is more than a kilometer long. At the other end of the spectrum are tiny gamma rays – each one less than one micron (one millionth of a meter.) In between are others waves with varying frequencies.

Humans only have the capacity to experience a small portion of the wave spectrum: visible light. Though constantly bombarded by waves of waves, we don’t realize it because we don’t have the capacity (i.e. “the tools”) to monitor or observe these. God’s activity on earth is similar: his work is constant. In our days, he is holding all of the atoms of the universe together, providentially working his purposes in the lives of individuals and families, raising up and tearing down leaders and nations, and sovereignly directing history toward his good purposes. Yet, we only catch glimpses of what he is doing. Every so often he graciously lifts the veil to show us some of what he is doing.

“How is God using us?” is a perplexing question that’s tough to answer. Tough, but not impossible. Barnabas saw the evidences of God at work. He didn’t see everything God was doing, but he saw something – enough to recognize God’s handiwork. Barnabas caught glimpses of what God was doing.

Following are some practical suggestions to help you discern some of what the Father is doing in and through your ministry. We’ve also developed a simple tool (Leadership Resources’ Program Design Grid) to help establish clear goals and appropriate ways to evaluate what’s really happening. Though designed for pastor-trainers, it can easily be adapted for other cross-cultural ministries.

Three Other Questions

Three questions can help us answer the BIG question: what is God doing? This set of questions can be asked about a course you teach, a group of pastors that you are equipping, or any other ministry effort. As you think about a specific area of your ministry, ask:

1. What do I hope to see happen?

A question of intentionality. Too often we undertake ministry without a clear sense of the specific results that are we aiming for. Have we defined our goals and intended outcomes? For example, think about an upcoming pastor training course. You’re offering this course for a reason – you want something to happen. There’s a response, a change that you’re looking for – a “so what?” As you prepare, you might ask: How specifically do I want pastors to respond to these lessons? What impact do I want to see in their walk with God, in their relationships, in their heart for ministry, in their ministry competencies, etc? What long-term changes do I hope to see?

Here’s another way of thinking about it: if the Lord were to answer all of your prayers for this training course, what would happen? What would it look like in the lives of the individuals you are equipping, and their churches, and their communities…next month, next year, ten years from now? What glorious transformations do you believe that the Lord wants to work through this specific training effort?

2. Are these things actually happening?

A question of impact. Too often we assume transformation in those leaders we are equipping, without really knowing. Did the things you were praying for and working towards happen? How do you know – what are the indicators, the “evidences of the grace of God,” that you see? What did you see God do – and not do – at least as far as you can tell? This question begs for both humility and honesty.

3. What should I do differently in the future?

A question of learning—not so much what others learned—but what we, as the teachers or trainers or church planters or ministry providers, learned. Of course, God desires to transform others through us, but he’s just as committed to transforming you and me in the process. Every ministry opportunity is a chance for us to grow, to get sharper, and to become more effective. After every pastoral training event our staff undertakes, I encourage our team to first rejoice in what the Lord accomplished, and then ask, “What did I learn? What worked? What didn’t work so well? What needs to change so that I can be even more effective next time?” These are the questions of a steward seeking to serve his master well. They, too, call for honest humility.

Keep in mind that these three subordinate questions serve the first question: what is God doing? We need to set goals, but goals that flow out of what we see the Father doing. God’s goals are far more precious than our own. Ecclesiastes 3:14 reminds us, “I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken away from it. God does it so men will revere him.” If our ministry flows out of our dreams, the effects won’t last. Only what the Father does lasts forever. We do not initiate ministry – we walk in the things we see the Father doing. Like Jesus and like Barnabas, we are to do what we see the Father doing, we are to speak the words we hear our Father speaking, we are to align ourselves with His providential purposes.

In Summary

Asking tough questions is essential to effective ministry. The most important question is this: What is the Father doing? But the follow-on questions are critical as well. Learn to ask tough questions. What kinds of changes are really happening in the lives of those we teach and serve? What kinds of changes should we consider in terms of content, technique, focus, skills, and so on? Surely our ministry efforts will have greater impact, as we become…

      • More reflective – asking ourselves the hard, poignant questions
      • More intentional – what are we really trying to accomplish?
      • More informed – how do we know what we are accomplishing?
      • More flexible – how ought we change in order to improve our ministry?

Remember the electromagnetic radiation spectrum? We have physical limitations that allow us to only see and experience a small portion of it? However, scientists have developed special tools to monitor other portions of the spectrum. Amplifiers, special scopes, satellite dishes and other types of technology enhance our capacity to “see” more of the wave spectrum. Asking tough questions is a way for us, as servants of God, to see more of the spectrum of what God is doing in and through us.

Tough, thoughtful, penetrating questions can become tools to help us observe “the evidences of the grace of God.” Might the Lord give each of us the wisdom to ask the right questions, the honesty to search carefully for the answers, and then the humility and courage to change, so that the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ might flourish more fully, to the glory of God.

Craig Parro
Leadership Resources International

This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of EMQ, P.O. Box 794, Wheaton, IL 60187,