A Curriculum for Developing Christian Leaders

Michael Zigarelli

Copyright 2006, Christianity9to5.org. All rights reserved.

Churches do it. Christian colleges do it. Many private secondary schools do it, too, as does every seminary and Bible school. Each of these institutions is dedicated, at least in part, to discipling Christians to become faithful, effective leaders in whatever role God places them. Whether that role is in a business, a church, a school, the military, the government, a community group, a family, or anywhere else, God calls Christians to positions of influence–of leadership–and He entrusts His institutions to develop people accordingly.

These institutions have responded with a plethora of approaches, some that get good results, others that amount to mere lip service, and still others that may in fact be counterproductive. What I’ll propose in this article is simply one approach–one way to design a Christian leadership curriculum–though after reviewing many models and road-testing a few of my own in Christian higher ed, I’ve found this framework to be superior. It can encourage not just inspiration, but genuine transformation of the person.


The Theory Behind the Curriculum

That’s the goal of any such leadership program, or at least a primary goal: transformation of the individual. The goal is change that sticks–change that’s permanent–rather than change for a mere season. And even more specifically, the goal is change in behavior, not just in knowledge or attitude, since knowing-doing gaps don’t advance kingdom purposes.

Theories abound regarding how to pursue that sort of permanent transformation. The theory on which I’ve built this recommendation derives from Professor Dallas Willard’s “General Pattern of Personal Growth” (note 1). Specifically, Willard says that any lasting, personal change (which includes change in one’s leadership acumen) requires three elements. Boiled down to their essentials, they are:

The Vision to Change: First, if we want to change, we need to see clearly what our changed lives would look like and we must find that to be a desirable life. Unless we have a clear and compelling picture of this transformed life (whether it’s a life without addictions or a life of being in great shape or a life as a more faithful leader), it is unlikely that we will be motivated to pursue this new life.

The Intention to Change: Second, we must intend for the vision to come to fruition. Knowing what a different life looks like is certainly not enough to make it happen; we must also will it. This is axiomatic and perhaps obvious, but it’s also where so many change efforts fail–not from a lack of vision or knowledge, but because we never really intended to succeed.

The Means to Change: Third, we need to know how to get from A to B–from the life we have now to the new life we intend. The “means” are the methods or instrumentalities by which change occurs, so we must engage these means to make progress. The twelve-step program of Alcoholic Anonymous is one example. Others are a rigorous training program for would-be Olympians, the Weight Watchers® diet system, and the spiritual disciplines as a pathway to becoming like Jesus. Once we have a clear, exciting vision for change and the solid intention to achieve that vision, a passion to know and pursue these means naturally follows.

Based on this “VIM” framework, as Willard calls it, one could design a transformational curriculum to develop Christians into influential leaders. Ideally, those completing the program will have a distinct, attractive vision for what faithful leadership is, they will have the intention to grow in that direction, and they will have the means or skills necessary to become that sort of leader. For packaging purposes, we can label these three dimensions “The Call of the Leader,” “The Character of the Leader,” and “The Capabilities of the Leader.” Let me briefly suggest what each component in this “3C” leadership curriculum might entail.


The 3C Leadership Curriculum

Part 1: The Call of a Leader

At the end of this cornerstone experience, however long it is, students should have a stirring vision for the practice and inherent goodness of Biblically-based leadership. There are many ways to achieve that educational objective, but one of the more powerful methods is for students to study in depth several role model leaders–both Biblical leaders and other godly leaders throughout history, especially those in their particular field of study–to understand the characteristics of effective leaders (as well as, perhaps, the characteristics of ineffective leaders). We might even think of this aspect of the curriculum as repeated storytelling, and the more compellingly we present the stories (e.g., through video, poignant guest speakers, great literature, and the like), the more compelling the central point of this “Call” experience will be: There is an ideal and it is attainable, by God’s grace.

There must be more to this cornerstone experience, though. Current and aspiring Christian leaders should also understand as soon as possible the theological underpinnings of what they do and the Biblical principles for doing it. That is, any first course in leadership from a Christian perspective should set out the theology of leadership and vocation, helping students embrace the vision that leading people, organizations, and communities is a sacred task, not a pragmatic one. It has at its heart a divine impetus, as many resources cogently show (note 2). And just as God has revealed through scripture the purpose of our work and our leadership, God has also revealed His principles for these tasks–that is, His guidelines for leading in such a way that people see Jesus through us. We have been blessed by dozens of authors over the past few decades who have culled these principles from scripture, many of whom stand on the shoulders of men and women who exegeted these principles centuries ago. The Appendix to this article lists several of these resources.

“The Call” experience, then, should develop a person who, at the very least, understands what godly leadership looks like, why one should be a godly leader, and what scriptural principles exist to help us become godly leaders.


Part 2: The Character of a Leader

This is also an essential cornerstone of any Christian leadership curriculum. The overarching goal of this experience is to encourage students to develop the intention to think, live, and lead christianly.

As such, it is an experience that could blend worldview formation and spiritual formation. The former structures their thinking so they endeavor to see the world as God sees it. Moreover, it contrasts this perspective with other worldviews that compete for our minds, especially secularism, the chief Western competitor to a Christian worldview.

The latter–spiritual formation, or what some call “character development”–entails several cumulative components. Specifically, this part of the curriculum should help students understand (1) the imperative to cultivate character (i.e., that character is a foundation for Christian leadership); (2) the targets (i.e., ideal character traits God wants us to cultivate: fruit of the Spirit, compassion, humility, forgiveness, gratitude, etc.); (3) the gap between their character and the Christian ideal (i.e., personal assessment and deep reflection on the greatest opportunity areas); and (4) the process for growth (i.e., how to close the gap between who they are and who God wants them to be).

Again, through worldview and spiritual formation, the goal of this experience is to shape the intention of students to be the person and the leader God wants them to be, as well as to teach them how to become that person. It is not a skills development experience, but one that should develop their inner selves–that should renew their minds so that they will consistently use for God’s purposes the skills they gain in the next curricular component.


Part 3: The Capabilities of a Leader

This is the “skills-development” component of the curriculum–the largest component by far–and we can conceive of it as having two related parts. The first part entails developing skills that every leader needs. As such, these skills should be taught in any leadership development program. A non-exhaustive list includes influencing and inspiring people to action, communicating effectively, diagnosing problems, making decisions, and resolving conflict. Each of these areas is essential for effective leadership, regardless of where or whom one leads.

The second part entails the development of skills that are specific to the leader’s vocation or specialty or geographic location. Here one would gain the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in his or her particular setting, whether it’s educational administration, or healthcare, or urban development, or government, or business, or church ministry, or family leadership. It builds off of the many context-specific examples provided in “The Call” course and raises again many of the implementation challenges covered in “The Character” course, thereby reinforcing and applying all of the concepts covered in these prerequisites.

Frankly, this two-part skills development approach is nothing new or novel. It’s simply what labor economists call “general” and “specific” training, providing on one hand the core competencies necessary for excellent leadership, and on the other hand the customization required for leaders to excel in their field or culture.


A Versatile Curriculum

There’s surely no limit to the material that one could cover in each of the three areas, and there are no bounds on the level at which this material can be pitched, so this 3C curricular design may be versatile enough to use in almost any context. We could profitably use it whether the participants are age 8 or age 80 and whether they reside in Pennsylvania, Paraguay, or Portugal. One could build with it, for example:

  • a one-year high school elective course
  • an undergraduate major or minor
  • the leadership component of a seminary curriculum
  • a college certificate program for non-degree students
  • a degree-completion program for adult college students
  • an entire masters degree program
  • a series of corporate training seminars
  • a weekend leadership retreat

Regardless the audience or the length of the experience, the mission of the curriculum is essentially the same: “To develop people who have the call, the character and the capabilities to be faithful leaders”–people who have the vision, intention, and means to pursue God’s ministry through God’s methods.

Appendix: A Sampling of Contemporary Books that Present Biblical Principles for Leading People and Organizations

(alphabetically by author)

  • Loving Monday (John Beckett, InterVarsity 1998)
  • Spiritual Leadership (Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby, B&H 2001)
  • Lead Like Jesus (Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges, Nelson 2007)
  • Leadership by the Book (Ken Blanchard et al., Waterbrook 1999)
  • The Leadership Lessons of Jesus (Bob Briner and Ray Prichard, B&H 1997)
  • Business By the Book (Larry Burkett, Nelson 1990)
  • It’s Easier to Succeed than to Fail, (S. Truett Cathy, Nelson, 1989). See also Eat Mor Chikin, Inspire More People, (S. Truett Cathy, 2002)
  • Business Through the Eyes of Faith, (Richard Chewning et al., HarperCollins, 1990)
  • God is at Work (Ken Eldred, Regal 2005)
  • Business for the Glory of God (Wayne Grudem, Crossway 2003)
  • Just Business, (Alexander Hill, InterVarsity 1997)
  • Courageous Leadership (Bill Hybels, Zondervan 2002)
  • God is My CEO (Larry Julian, Adams Media 2002)
  • Church on Sunday, Work on Monday (Laura Nash, et al., Jossey-Bass 2001)
  • Believers in Business (Laura Nash, Nelson 1994)
  • The Soul of the Firm (C. William Pollard, Zondervan, 1996)
  • Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics (Scott Rae and Kenman Wong, Zondervan 2004)
  • Doing God’s Business (R. Paul Stevens, Eerdman’s 2006)
  • Basic Christian Leadership (John Stott, InterVarsity 2006
  • Management By Proverbs (Michael Zigarelli, 1999)


1. Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, © 2002 NavPress, pp. 85-91.

2. See, for example, several of the articles in the 9 to 5 Library.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the former dean of the Regent University School of Business. He is also the editor of Christianity9to5.org