Life, Theology & Discipleship with Wes Woodell

7 Characteristics of Disciplemaking Leaders: #2 – Disciplemaking Leaders Have Been Practically Trained & Mentored


This post is a continuation of the series Reaching the Missing Generation: Characteristics of Healthy Disciplemaking Ministries outlined here.

Let’s say for a moment you want to become an expert on parenting children – who would you approach to help you? Common sense would tell you to seek someone out who knows what they’re doing, right?

Would you approach someone who didn’t have children? Probably not – they’ve never raised kids.

What about someone who’d raised children to adulthood, only their lives were all a wreck – would you seek advice from them? Hopefully not if you want different results.

This is simple logic: if you want to become a great parent, learn from someone who’s proven themselves to be one. So long as you’re willing to learn and they’re willing to teach, your chances of replicating their results are pretty good. Simple logic, right?

So how come that same simple logic isn’t applied to becoming a leader in the average church?

Leadership Characteristic #2 – Disciplemaking Leaders Have Been Practically Trained & Mentored

Over the course of about six years I performed a series of surveys studying over 70 different campus ministries around the United States. Analyzing that information taught me a whole lot.

2008 CMU Survey Prelim

This is a slide depicting the number of baptisms that occurred within a sample of 74 Church of Christ campus ministries between the 2007 and 2008 school year. For any doubting Thomas who may be reading, these numbers were verified in a seperate study performed the same year by church statistician Flavil Yeakley and found to be accurate.

A large percentage of the campus ministries surveyed hadn’t reached anyone at all that year while the overall majority reached 2 people or less. I termed these “Blue Zone” ministries.

At the other end spectrum 12% of the ministries surveyed (only 9 out of 74) had reached a dozen or more people that year (some of them significantly more than just 12). I termed these “Red Zone” ministries.

What’s not expressed on the slide is that I’d surveyed most of these ministries a couple of years previous to this and again a couple of years after. What I found over time is the number of baptisms reflected on this slide from 2008 stayed fairly consistent year to year. Typically blue zone ministries remained in the blue zone while red zone ministries remained in the red zone.

Those ministries having regular baptisms tended to maintain their evangelistic culture while ministries that weren’t reaching many people tended to maintain their non-evangelistic culture.

Why was that? Why was one group of ministries consistently reaching almost nobody while another group was consistently reaching lots?

The answer to that question came down to how they were being led.

In addition to the disciplemaking focus present in red zone ministries (discussed in a previous post in this series), a primary difference between the red zone and blue zone spectrums came down to how leaders were trained before taking over the reigns of their own ministries.

Simply put, blue zone ministries and red zone ministries were led differently because the ministers in charge of them were trained differently.

What’s the normal way ministers are trained nowadays? Popular thought says to prepare for ministry you should attend a Bible college or seminary to get a theological degree or two before entering the profession.

Of the 74 campus ministers surveyed, a strong majority held theological degrees – about 70% of them.

But there was a small group of ministers who mostly lacked a formal theological education. Guess where they were on the bar graph above?

The mostly “uneducated” ministers were in the red zone.

Only 3 of the 9 ministers in the red zone had a theological Bachelors degree, and only 1 had a theological Masters degree. Most of them had never been to Bible college or seminary, yet they were the ones consistently reaching the most lost people year to year.

Interestingly enough, ministers in the blue zone contained the highest concentration of those with theological degrees. What’s more, the highest concentration of ministers with theological Masters degrees – the highest level of education of all the ministers surveyed – were found in the first bar on the graph! That’s the one representing ministries that reached zero people in ’07-’08!

In my ’07-’08 study I found that the more theological education a minister had, the less likely it was he’d reached anyone that year; the less theological education a minister had, the more likely he was to have reached a lot.


That’s simply what the numbers I was looking at revealed, and it bugged me. After all, I’d performed this study while I was in Bible college.

I felt I was getting a lot of really good stuff from my formal education in Bible, but my goal wasn’t simply to learn to preach and teach – it was to reach people. Was I simply wasting my time in Bible college? I sure hoped not!

I figured I had to be missing something so I made follow up calls to all of the ministers leading groups in the red zone to find out how their training for ministry differed from the guys in the blue zone. Those phone interviews helped me find what I’d missed in the initial survey.

This was the missing piece:

For the most part, ministers leading red zone ministries were trained for leadership within the context of an existing evangelistic ministry or church – not so much in a classroom.

Across the board, red zone ministers received practical training working in environments where evangelism was the norm (i.e. not a typical church, unfortunately). This included intensive training within another ministry or church focused on reaching lost people where the trainee worked directly with people on a regular basis under the oversight of a more season mentor.

Red zone ministers weren’t completely precluded from formal theological training – as I mentioned above 3 of the 9 had a theological Bachelors degree and 1 even had a theological Masters degree, but that formal classroom training was only part of their preparation for professional ministry. The bulk of their training occurred within the context of a local church that was busy carrying out the Great Commission.

The training experience of the red zone ministers stood in stark contrast to the training experience of the blue zone ministers. A small percentage of blue zoners did receive practical training within an existing ministry before taking over their own, but the difference between them and red zoners was the ministries they trained within were not reaching unchurched people or working with new Christians.  If a blue zone minister received any practical training at all it was within another blue zone ministry – they were simply reproducing what they knew.

Besides just a few, however, the vast majority of blue zoners hadn’t received any on-the-ground training under a mentor within a local church before venturing out on their own. Nearly all of their prep was entirely made up of formal classroom teaching at a Bible college or seminary.

What does all this mean?

I’ve spent my fair share of time in a classroom – a lot more than the average person. In addition to spending time studying mass communications, radio/television/film and psychology, I’m an alum of Harding University and Fuller Theological Seminary and have a pair of degrees in biblical studies hanging on my wall to prove it.

In my Bible college and seminary experience I studied the Bible backwards and forwards, read more books than I can count, listened to thousands of hours of lectures, studied biblical languages and sat at the feet of some very knowledgeable men and women.

While there were definitely classes I took and professors I had that were less than helpful to my becoming a good minister, I’m comfortable saying that, overall, investing a few years in formal education has been a blessing to me personally and to my service in ministry.

My point in all this is not to bash theological education or leave anyone with the impression that formal classroom training is a complete waste of time – that’s not what I believe.

But I do strongly believe this:

If your goal is to learn to make disciples as Jesus commanded, formal classroom education by itself is simply not enough.

There are a number of things best learned within the context of 1) working with actual people 2) within a healthy local church 3) under a seasoned mentor with a proven track record of effectiveness in evangelism and raising up new disciples to maturity. Lots of really important things simply can’t be replicated in a classroom.

For ministry students who are reading this: I highly, highly recommend seeking out practical training before venturing in to full-time ministry. Healthy churches are few and far between! It will benefit you and the people you will serve to make sure you’re ready to take on such a task, and Bible college simply won’t prepare you for everything.

To close out this article I’ll leave you with three areas that are of particular importance in personal development as a church leader. In each of these, Bible colleges and seminaries fall short in preparing young ministers, but healthy churches do not.

1) Bible colleges and seminaries are not great at teaching students how to connect with people – healthy churches are!

Bible colleges and seminaries unintentionally teach students how to impress people more than how to connect with them.

You really want to do a good job teaching others, so you learn to impress with knowledge of a subject, command of the language, the ability to present a lesson or to have a ready answer to questions.

While those things can be helpful, they often don’t help in connecting you with those you’re trying to teach. In fact, the opposite is often accomplished if you’re not careful because people are made to feel like you’re on some kind of higher plane of spiritual existence because of your knowledge. You might even believe that yourself since “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1), but it’s not true and simply puts a wall between you and other people.

Here’s a wise saying a mentor of mine oft repeats:

You impress from far away; you impact up close.

What he means is giving a well-researched, well-articulated presentation on a portion of scripture from a pulpit or at a conference can impress people from afar, garner you pats on the back and make you feel really good about yourself, but if you really want to change someone’s life you’re not likely to do that from a pulpit.

If you really want to change someone’s life, you need to get close enough to them to see who they really are, what they struggle with, and what they need. That only happens through personal relationship and an exchange of grace, truth and time with one another.

Learning how to do that well is best done in the context of a local church with a mentor present that can assist you as you grow yourself and as you learn to help other people develop.

2) Bible colleges and seminaries are not great at developing godly character in students – healthy churches are!

True leadership is based upon respect.

A church leader can hold an office (preacher, elder, etc.), but if the people within their congregation don’t like or respect them then they aren’t really leading anyone.

Sadly, I’ve seen this play out with others in many congregations and have also been personally guilty of occupying an office of church leadership without having the character to back it up.

In the past few years I’ve been able to begin work on some of my character flaws that have in the past rendered me ineffective in deeply influencing others the way I believe God wants me to, and that’s because I’m part of a healthy congregation with mentors in my life who know me well enough and spend enough time with me to offer correction and rebuke as needed.

I spent 8 years in Bible college and seminary, and very few professors took the time to directly address any of my character flaws even though they were very obvious. The classroom environment simply isn’t the normal place for that kind of thing to occur, but it is normal with a good spiritual mentor or more mature spiritual brothers and sisters around who love you and care enough to tell you when you’re being foolish.

If you want to learn to effectively make disciples, you have to be someone people can respect who leads out of godly character. That means addressing sin and character flaws, and that’s very unlikely to occur in Bible college. In a healthy church, however, it’s the norm.

3) Bible colleges and seminaries are not great at helping students develop disciplemaking skills – healthy churches are!

It’s safe to say that most of the ministers who were leading groups that weren’t doing well evangelistically in my study were NOT happy about that. Most really wanted to reach people, they just didn’t know how.

Bible college hadn’t even taught them how to do something as simple as sit down with another person and have an evangelistic Bible study!

I understand that can be scary if you’ve never done it before and baffling to figure out how to do well without guidance, but wouldn’t you think something like that would be part of getting a degree in Bible and Christian ministry?

Well, it’s not, and you’d probably be surprised if I told you how many men and women with advanced theological degrees have approached me over the years asking how to study the Bible evangelistically with others because they didn’t know where to start. That’s sad! It’s also one of the first things you’d learn in a healthy church.

Additionally, Bible college will never give students the opportunity to develop new Christians to maturity. That will only happen within the context of a local church, and doing that well takes a lot more than desire – it takes skill – and skill has to be developed. Ideally that’s done under the tutelage of a more experienced mentor. Again, where formal classroom education falls short a healthy local church excels.

In sum, Bible college and seminary training can be helpful, but is clearly NOT enough if you want to learn to lead a disciplemaking ministry.

Seek out practical training under a seasoned mentor with a proven track record of effective disciplemaking ministry behind them – it will make a huge difference for you and the people you will serve!

If you’d like some tips on how or where you could possibly learn, holler at me.

And if you know someone who would benefit from the information presented here, please share!


Subscribe to weswoodell.com


3 Replies

Leave a Reply


Passionate about connecting people to Jesus?

* Get the latest posts delivered fresh to your inbox.
* Qualify for subscriber-exclusive content & freebies.

Never miss a post!

Get the latest content delivered fresh to your inbox by signing up below: