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The two things that contribute the most to the formation of emerging leaders are the mentors and leaders they have known and served and the challenging assignments they were given.
Mark 3:14-15 summarizes these two aspects of Jesus’ primary method of building leaders:
“He appointed twelve – designating them apostles – that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.”
Our processes of leader development must involve significant personal time with leaders and mentors, as well as exposure to many leaders (both good and bad).
But what about challenging assignments? How do we choose the right ones?
A “challenging assignment” is one that is a little bit above the emerging leader’s present capacity. It should not be too far above his abilities, otherwise he could grow discouraged and give up. But it also should not be below or equal to his capacity, because it needs to stretch him. It needs to force him to look to God for help, to learn and grow, and to move outside of his normal actions and reactions. As he succeeds in these stretching assignments, he can move on to progressively harder ones. A series of successive victories will build character and faith, and develop new capacities.
The Bible is replete with challenging assignments, from Abraham’s directive to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22:1-2, cf. Heb. 11:17-19) to the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:35-37, see also Matt. 10:5-10; 17:27; Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-12; 22:8-13; Matt. 3:13-15; 14:29; 21:2; Luke 1:26-38; Acts 17:14-15; 1 Thess. 3:2; John 6:53; 13:8; 21:6, 17; Gen. 15:5; 2 Kings 2; Esther 4:14).
Jesus did not wait until His disciples were perfect. In Mark 16, Jesus gave His disciples an extraordinary assignment (the Great Commission) immediately after they had failed three times (vv. 8, 11, 13-14). And then He left! Two thousand years later, almost 700 million believers around the world demonstrate the wisdom of Jesus’ strategy: ultimately, it worked!
Essentially, a challenging assignment is like a rubber band: Once stretched, it never returns to its original shape. If stretched too far, it will break. If released at the wrong time, it will hurt everyone involved.
Leaders who build leaders must balance current and legitimate organizational needs with their emerging leaders’ needs. A leader who puts the needs of the organization first will play it safe and assign easy tasks. Some degree of organizational risk must be involved if your priority is building people. Those who build people design challenges. Those who build organizations assign tasks.
Tasks benefit the organization; challenges benefit the emerging leader. Tasks focus on the present; challenges focus on the future. Tasks serve the situation; challenges serve the emerging leaders.
True challenges develop all the important areas of a leader’s life and ministry, such as faith in God, confidence, knowledge of God’s purpose, acceptance of responsibility, and discernment. They strengthen the leader’s prayer life, endurance, and practical knowledge. Through dealing with challenges, leaders learn how to cope with ambiguity, analyze a situation, identify what is important, and innovatively solve problems.
Emerging leaders will carry these experiences with them throughout their later ministries. Thus, it is important that stretching assignments be given to them early in their lives – to have maximum effect on their lives and ministries.
This is how people grow – through challenges. Don’t wait until they’re perfect, or you’ll be waiting a long time!