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Non-formal training for leaders

In this article Dr Sam Thomas shares his experience of training Christian leaders

2010 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Good leadership creates strong groups. Photo: Geoff Crawford/Tearfund

From: Leadership – Footsteps 84

Considers the questions 'Who is a leader?' and 'What is good leadership?'

A mentor stands alongside and encourages a person to develop vision for future change. Photo: Richard Hanson/Tearfund

A mentor stands alongside and encourages a person to develop vision for future change. Photo: Richard Hanson/Tearfund

Our beliefs shape what we think leadership should be like and how we lead. For this reason leadership principles are often taught from the perspective of a particular faith. In this article Dr Sam Thomas shares his experience of training Christian leaders. 

I work with small groups of leaders in different locations. We try to limit the group to 25 people. Over the years, I have realised that 'one-off meetings' are less effective for producing long-term change in people's lives. So I visit the same group about three to four times a year. On each visit I spend about three days with them, the last one being a family time. During these visits, we learn together through an interactive teaching style, with a special emphasis on practical living.

In the sessions we learn about the following principles:

  • changing our perspective: who we are is more important than what we do
  • leading a disciplined life
  • setting aside personal objectives and gain to serve others.

The impact that we desire through such learning is to multiply servant leaders with integrity and effectiveness.

Teaching style

The setting of the classroom is for small groups of five, sitting around a table. Even the setting surprises many learners as they are used to sitting in rows and listening to the teaching and taking notes. We also keep changing the setting from time to time depending on the content of the teaching and the context. We often have dramas, short humorous sketches and amazing stories. We demonstrate points by using different kinds of media - things to listen to and to watch, cuttings from newspapers and so on. It is very creative and it drives the message in deeply.

The whole emphasis is on the learner and not the teacher. Learning for impact is the goal. The teacher's role is to facilitate learning and evaluate the impact at every stage. Learners look on the teacher as a facilitator and not a professor.

All learning is based on the Bible, but not in the form of a traditional Bible study. Let me give you an example. For teaching servant leadership, I may give a brief introduction to the group on leadership as we see it around us today. I may be dressed up at this moment as a big boss, with someone carrying my bag and two people standing on either side with flowers - it is fun! I may do some drama which makes people laugh and prompts them to think of the need for a different type of leadership. Then I will ask them to draw pictures of the current leadership they experience, showing some of their concerns. They use so much imagination and produce colourful pictures. Each group will present their findings. By the end of this session, I can see they are emotionally affected. Then I will ask them to draw a picture of a leader using Philippians 2:5-9, which describes Jesus as a servant leader. This picture is also presented by each group. When the two sets of pictures are looked at side by side, I will ask them to describe the contrast. Then I will present a set of scriptures and in groups they discuss the style of leadership found in each set. The answer will be invariably, 'servants or steward leaders'.


Accountability exists at different levels. The first level is within the group. We change the groups every day so that the participants will have a chance to meet with different people. They share their experiences in groups.

The next level of accountability is that each of them will have to choose their own personal mentors and share what they learned and the decisions they have made. The mentors hold them accountable for a season of learning. All of them are required to teach what they have learned so that there is a ripple effect of this learning.


I as a leader will be vulnerable before the group. I have found that the people slowly realise that they can take away their masks. The teaching style requires them to speak within groups and they begin to realise that they are among people who make mistakes as they do. This brings openness.

I think vulnerability is of primary importance. People try to imitate the leader. If a leader presents himself or herself as the perfect person, people struggle and close themselves. Jesus had no difficulty in telling his disciples, 'My heart is deeply troubled'. The early Christian leader Paul presents his own struggles and admits that he is not the perfect person. It is good for those who are following us to know that we are touched by the same pain and sufferings and temptations as others. We need to be people of integrity, and integrity demands that who we are inwardly is the same as what we express outwardly. I think that is vulnerability. I have seen in my own personal life that my vulnerability and openness with people has helped them more than all my teachings.

What brings success?

  • Frequent meetings with the same group
  • Personal interaction
  • Teaching style suitable for adult learning
  • Purposeful learning towards transformation
  • Building groups for people to be accountable to one another and for mutual encouragement
  • Being vulnerable by building community
  • Including evaluation as an important ongoing part of the training
  • Assignments provide an opportunity to practise the learning during the gap between two meetings and teach it to a group of 10-20.

What people said after the training

  • 'I was afraid that if I develop other leaders, my significance will be lost. Now I realise that it is my calling to release others.'
  • 'I was afraid of accountability. Now I realise the importance of it. I have found an accountability partner.'
  • 'I find myself to be a deeper person now. My many wounds are healed.'
  • 'Asking pardon and forgiving others have become easier for me.'

Dr Sam Thomas is a Senior Consultant for Development Associates International in India.

The Development Associates Initiative E 15, First Floor, Sector 40 Noida, Uttar Pradesh India

Email: [email protected] Website:

About the course

The training course described here focuses on discipleship, which is following Jesus. It is central to any Christian leader's growth and experience. Readers who do not share the Christian faith will nevertheless find important principles and practical ideas for leadership training in this article which can be applied in any context. 

My own journey 

I have been involved in Christian ministry for over 30 years, and for more than two decades I have heard the jargon of 'finishing the task'. This raises the question: what is the task? My highest calling is to be like Christ - to be his follower. Ministry is not what we do, ministry is who we are. Ministry is not what we distribute, but what overflows from our life as a result of intimacy with God. Ministry is not what we do for God, but what God does in and through our lives. We need to be motivated by love, not duty. To be a good leader we must be a good follower - this is what the discipleship programme is all about. I moved into leadership training after giving up my excellent surgical career at the very peak of it. It has been very refreshing for me - I love what I am doing. 

Dr Sam Thomas

We need to be people of integrity, and integrity demands that who we are inwardly is the same as what we express outwardly.

Learning through discussion. Photo: Sam Thomas/DAI

Learning through discussion. Photo: Sam Thomas/DAI

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