Healthy Leaders


Don’t Just Fill the Bucket – Engage Your Leaders!

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

For the building process to be effective, emerging leaders must be engaged in it. They must be active learners. They cannot be passive recipients. They must be learners and not just listeners.

“Filling the Bucket” vs. Engaging Learners

Traditional approaches to training treat people as if they were empty buckets – we just “fill them up” with learning and knowledge.  In reality, people are not buckets; they are more like muscles which need to be worked as well as fed.

Emerging leaders must be engaged:

Jesus designed a series of transformational learning experiences to build His disciples. For example, consider the incident of the feeding of the multitude:

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. (John 6:5-6; cf. Mark 6:37)

Here, we see that Jesus designed a learning experience that intentionally engaged and challenged Philip.

Significantly, Peter’s great revelation about Jesus being the Messiah came as the result of a question from His Teacher (Matt. 16:13-19). Frequently, Jesus asked questions – He didn’t merely list the correct answers for everyone.

When we give people the answer prematurely they continue in the habit of just looking for quick answers; they don’t grow in their own capacities to explore, discover and innovate. Thus, it’s far better to ask, “What would you do?” or “How do you see this?” than to simply say, “Consider this…” and then proceed with giving the answer.

Jesus challenged and engaged His learners. We must learn to do this too.

Designing effective learning experiences is difficult but it is worth it. Of course, it is much easier to simply talk at people. However, people remember:

Consequently, if you spend two hours preparing only to teach, you will achieve “20% success,” whereas if you spend one hour preparing to teach and the second hour designing an effective learning experience that in some way engages the people in the learning process, you will achieve much higher success.

Our goal is to build people. We need leaders who both think and act. This requires engagement beyond filling up someone with right knowledge.

Listening is not necessarily learning; talking is not necessarily teaching.

Jesus was the Master Teacher, yet He didn’t just talk all the time. In fact, a striking reality of the gospels is that, so often, Jesus’ utterances were so brief.

Jesus designed learning experiences for His emerging leaders. Sometimes that involved listening to Him speak, but His strategy for leader development was not limited to that. Jesus used many methods and techniques in His teaching.


We can see this exemplified in passages like Matt. 16:13-18 and Matt. 22:41-46. This was one of Jesus’ most common “teaching devices.” A good question initiates a chain reaction of continuous learning.

Audio-Visual Aids

Jesus never used a PowerPoint or showed a movie. His creative budget was nothing. But He did use “audio-visual aids.” He listened to His Father, and then simply made the best use of available objects, produced at the most strategic moment. Some examples:

As Jesus demonstrated, the effective use of a little can result in significant learning and change. Moreover, Jesus set His learning goals each time and then chose the aids, never the reverse order.


Jesus corrected people in several ways. He did so indirectly by telling a story to correct the proud (Luke 14:7-14), and by speaking of the Gentiles and His own example to correct pride and anger (Matt. 20:24-28).

He corrected people directly as well, giving a warning to the over-confident Peter (Matt. 26:31-35), a simple look to remind Peter of the warning (Luke 22:61-72), and an outright command (John 18:11).

Various Other Teaching Devices

Jesus also taught people through His own example, through stories and parables, through dialogues, contrast (“You have heard that it was said… But I tell you…”) shock factor (Matt. 12:1-2; 15:26; Mark 3:2-5), and hyperbole (Matt. 5:29).

If lengthy explanations are, in fact, necessary, there are many ways by which we can get the information across, like using homework, handouts, visuals, or breaking the content up into questions, etc.

This is not to say that it is always bad to give a monologue. We know that Paul did this in Acts 20:7-11. However, Paul was not merely giving a monologue; he was speaking spontaneously by the anointing of the Holy Spirit to the saints of God in someone’s house.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Cor. 2:4-5, see also 2:13)

In addition, Paul did not speak for hours every day for years at a time to the saints at Troas. His ministry there was very brief. Moreover, as we have seen from elsewhere in the Scriptures, we know that Paul did, in fact, use a variety of learning experiences in his leader development. He did not just lecture his emerging leaders.

If we are going to build healthy Christian leaders we must move beyond teaching to become designers of effective learning experiences.

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