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A Case Study of Evangelical, Non-Formal, Leadership Development

David E. Sveen with Mark R. Elliott

Pitfalls of Study Abroad

Many evangelical church leaders in Central and Eastern Europe have expressed reservations about sending their pastors to North America for training. In addition to the high level of English proficiency required and the high cost, home churches suffer when their leaders are away for extended periods of time. Also, church leaders believe it is best for pastors to be trained within their own cultural context. Finally, for those with families, study abroad can mean painful time away from spouses and children. And if families accompany pastors studying abroad, these dependents can become so acculturated to the West that they do not want to return home or have a difficult cultural readjustment upon returning home. Worst of all, in terms of developing the church in Central and Eastern Europe, some trained leaders and/or their families choose not to return home.

Authoritarian Leadership . . .

At the same time, many evangelicals from Central and Eastern Europe have recognized the shortcomings of what they describe as a totalitarian style of pastoral leadership in their churches. According to Nick Nedelchev, president of the Bulgarian Theological Institute in Sofia, “There is a desperate need for change from an authoritarian model toward more shepherd-like leadership. Mainly due to the decades of life under a communistic totalitarian regime, most church leaders in Southeast Europe have adopted the same model within the church. It maintains some structural stability but leads to a lack of true discipleship (since leaders view themselves as rulers rather than mentors or helpers), estrangement from the people, and lack of accountability.” (Sopron, Hungary, “Lessons from European Leadership,” May 2003.)

Fear, suspicion, and a general lack of trust, bred under Communism, continue to afflict post-Soviet societies in Central and Eastern Europe, including evangelical churches. One Western missionary serving in the Czech Republic notes a “hesitancy of men to step up and lead. There’s a picture of whoever steps up will get their head chopped off.” One Czech proverb underscores the point: “The tallest blade of grass gets cut first.”

. . . Versus Servant Leadership

Josiah Venture (JV) is a Western ministry that has seen the need in Central and Eastern Europe for evangelical leadership training that emphasizes serving, rather than controlling, the church. Established in 1993 in the United States, its work originally centered on the development of evangelical youth leaders in the Czech Republic through conferences, retreats, and training programs. An independent ministry since 2001, JV now directs a multi-national staff of over 150 full-time youth ministry specialists working in ten countries: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Moldova, Slovenia, Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Croatia (http://www.josiahventure.com/locations).

The Staz Leadership Internship Program

The present research centers on a non-formal, one-year internship program called Staz, the Czech word for internship, which was launched by Josiah Venture in 1996. Sending churches typically supported their interns up to 30 percent of costs, while Josiah Venture assumed 70 percent of expenses, covering room and board, books, mission trips, and a small stipend.

Findings cover 1996 to 2003, based on interviews with seven of the program’s ten administrators, and 20 of its 114 graduates as of 2003. Administrators, who were Czech (2), Slovak (1), and U.S. (1) citizens, all had university educations, with two having master’s degrees. The seven men and three women administrators ranged in age from 27 to 45. However, findings were drawn only from full-time staff who were all male. All administrators were married with children. Research was conducted in three cities of the Czech Republic: Prague, Malenovice, and Pisek; and two cities in Slovakia: Bratislava and Zilina.

Graduates of this non-formal internship program were predominantly from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with less than a dozen from other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Approximately two-thirds were men and one-third women. Most Staz graduates were between the ages of 21 and 40 during their internships. All graduates had at least a high school degree, with approximately half of those with trade school training in fields such as construction, transportation, and auto mechanics. Approximately 30 percent had university education with degrees in education, physics, chemistry, business management, and architecture. Most became followers of Jesus Christ after the poilitical changes of 1989. All were active volunteers in youth ministry prior to enrolling in the Staz program.

Prior to the Staz program, participating interns had viewed church leaders as unattached or distant from those they led. By way of contrast, Staz administrators modeled servant leadership and evidenced love for those they led. In addition, they demonstrated genuine care for their charges by spending time with interns and serving alongside them on mission trips.

The Staz program intentionally placed interns in close physical, spiritual, and emotional proximity to Josiah Venture administrators and staff. Interns and JV administrators spent a significant amount of time together sharing meals, taking walks, driving together to mission trip locations, and debriefing each day’s events over a cup of coffee at a local café. Furthermore, JV administrators invited interns into their homes for dinner. In contrast to graduates’ previous educational experience involving pronounced distance between students and teachers, the Staz program minimized that distance.

Experiential Learning

The methodology of this non-formal leadership training involved experiential learning with teachers working alongside interns in short-term mission projects. Instructors modeled as well as taught leadership in an atmosphere that encouraged faculty-student dialogue and interaction outside as well as inside the classroom. As one participant reported, “There was a lot of room for practicing things. I was forced to do some things I wouldn’t naturally do or I didn’t think I could do. The leader does something, then the leader does something with me, and then the leader watches me while I do it.” This practical emphasis in the Staz program was reflected in the division of time spent during the internship on instruction (approximately 40 percent) versus hands-on ministry, practical training, and special projects (approximately 60 percent).

Staz instructors questioned and probed interns’ reasoning or perspective on course material presented in formal seminars. They challenged interns to dig deeply into their assumptions and to think critically about what they believed about leadership. The methodology of the entire internship experience hinged on leadership theory demonstrated in practice. For example, as Staz leaders avoided the use of pirated software and bootlegged DVDs, they moved beyond teaching integrity to modeling integrity, thus leading by example, rather than directive.

In summary, the success of Josiah Venture’s leadership internship program centered on the creation of an atmosphere that was conducive to learning and the use of methodologies (infrequently employed in Central and Eastern Europe) that were equally conducive to learning. The educational environment stressed love, concern, collegiality, and care while the learning methods stressed hands-on experience, dialogue, and interchange between instructor and intern, and time together in a variety of contexts involving practical application of theory. F

Edited excerpts published with permission from David E. Sveen, “Leadership Development as a Non-formal Learning Experience in Central and Eastern Europe,” Ph.D. dissertation, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2004.

David E. Sveen is adjunct professor of Christian formation and ministry, Wheaton College Graduate School, Wheaton, Illinois.

Mark R. Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.