Nurturing an Organizational Culture with a Developmental Bias

by Steve Hoke

Many ministry organizations don’t seem to fully comprehend the impact of their organizational culture in creating an environment in which people thrive. This awareness is an essential prerequisite to leading with a developmental bias.

People are an organization’s most important resource. A commitment to people development must be a core value, resulting in a culture that values the development of people as highly as accomplishing the organization’s mission. Unfortunately, many ministry organizations don’t seem to fully comprehend the impact of their organizational culture in creating an environment in which people thrive. This awareness is an essential prerequisite to leading with a developmental bias.

Many organizations appear to use people by devoting limited resources to sufficiently developing them. So we must ask ourselves: How do we refocus our organizations to have a culture that features a developmental bias? How can organizations become better stewards of their staff and leaders in their pursuit of kingdom ministry objectives?

Former CEO of World Venture, Hans Finzel, describes the role of leaders in creating the right leadership culture: “Leaders are the main creators, keepers and breeders of the organizational climate in their organizations…Leaders of an organization create the cultural values that are the trademark of the group…Leaders influence the effectiveness of followers” (Finzel 1998). A developmentally-aware organization is one that balances its concern for task leadership, relational leadership, and inspirational leadership that accomplishes its mission, and also develops its people so that they grow toward their divine potential of being and doing. (Note: Paul Stanley, former international vice-president of the Navigators, has popularized this term.)

Organizational culture is the ethos of the place—the combined practices and behaviors that grow out of the core values and attitudes of the leaders. It’s the “feel” of the place; it’s the difference between a free-wheeling, entrepreneurial organization that catalyzes innovative ministry and high loyalty and one in which members feel controlled, undervalued, used, and often abused.  

Culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin in that leaders first create cultures when they create groups and organizations. The bottom line for leaders is that they must become aware of their own organizational culture in which they work, or those cultures will manage them.

Leaders who influence an organization toward developmental awareness help create its organizational culture and lead with a developmental bias.  

It may help to think of organizations along a continuum with high task orientation on the left of the continuum and high regard for people and relational leadership on the right. (See chart below.) Under each extreme are listed the behavioral symptoms of that position (Clinton, 2009, 2).1

Developmental Continuum for Evaluating Organizational Culture


The symptoms help identify what it means to lead from a task-oriented bias (the left of the continuum) or from a relational-oriented bias (the right end of the continuum). Both extremes have their problems. At the left, people are being used, although the task may be accomplished. At the right, people are being developed, although the task is not the only objective. We suggest that a leader with a developmental bias leads from somewhere slightly to the right of center.

It is not difficult to observe certain generational tendencies in these leadership orientations, depending upon the age of the leaders. Yet organizations, like people, cannot be put into a single box or painted with the same brush. And yet we must notice the downside of moving to either extreme. Task-oriented leaders often miss and misuse their people, while leaders who err on the side of being people-friendly often err on the extreme of not keeping a biblical ministry goal clearly in mind. Without a clear vision many people wander in self-absorbed concern about becoming community.  

The latest research from the house church movement reminds us that biblical community is best lived out when the group maintains a sense of apostolic focus. Task and people orientation must find a creative, Spirit-led symbiosis.  

The DNA of Developmentally-biased Organizations
What are the core characteristics of a developmentally-aware organization (i.e., one which has leaders who nurture the organizational culture and lead with a developmental bias)? How can a Christian organization fulfill its biblical mandate to steward the people and their gifts in pursuit of kingdom ministry? The following seven characteristics define the growth-enhancing DNA of a developmental organization.

People Priority
1. People development as a critical priority. See people development as just as important as the tasks the organization is to accomplish. Stewardship of the gifts of staff is just as important as the stewardship of financial and material resources. Creating high-trust, grace-filled environments where people feel safe to fail and succeed is a leadership priority (see Thrall et al. 1999 and Thrall et al 2004).

2. Resource allocation for development. Resources, both financial and human, are dedicated to the development of people. Decisions for their lives are made on the basis of biblical developmental thinking—how can we best steward their lives? How do we best steward the gifts of members in the context of body life relationships? Relational stewardship becomes a biblical priority. This will mean earmarking organizational and individual financial resources for education and development of staff, as well as finding and assigning the right staff into roles that guide and support people-centered development.

Note: When training and development functions or departments are under the same organizational leader as member care, the bulk of the resources invariably go to member care because they are urgent and present. Training and development look to the future and are important, but seldom urgent. They can’t compete for resources in a “tyranny-of-the-urgent” mentality. The easiest solution is to keep the training and development function organically linked in planning, staffing, and budgeting with member care to maintain the critical symbiotic balance.  

People Development Perspectives
3. Lifetime perspective. Take a holistic, whole-life perspective on the development of each individual in the organization. Learn where he or she is in development, what is happening, what shaping is needed, and what developmental assignments (with the appropriate support) will facilitate the person’s growth toward realized potential. Refocusing people to discover their ministry identity (clarify their spiritual gifts, personal values, calling, and ministry burden and passion) enables individuals to discover their role alignment. It is this perspective that leads organizations to track their staff and leaders over a lifetime. It also encourages organizations to create an integrated offering of development enhancing “programs”, including designing growth-filled furloughs, providing study leaves and Sabbaticals, and structuring mid-career assessments in times of life change, transition, and clarified ultimate contribution.

4. Future perfect thinking (see Davis 1987, 8)5 concerning individuals and divisions. What will these people look like when they fully reach their potential? Plan and coach/mentor individuals and groups with an eye on the future—as if it was true. Come alongside staff to empower them to become the people God created them to be. Create space and time for giving developmental assignments to prepare younger and emerging leaders for the decision-making and responsibility for the future. The Jesus model suggests that we also make room for failure and be willing to offer grace and second chances when developmental challenges don’t initially meet organizational expectations.

Means to Enhance People Development
5. Learning posture. The organization maintains and promotes a learning posture. It encourages growth in every way—via formal and non-formal training models—and commits funding to this end (budget, proactive planning with each individual, study leaves, training, Sabbaticals, and modeling of a learning posture at all levels of leadership), without placing undue burden on the individual member. Create organic, relational pathways in which individuals and teams across a wide spectrum of diversity can pursue growth and development in sync with the Holy Spirit.

6. Relational empowerment. The organization utilizes coaching and mentoring to develop leaders by releasing them to discover and accomplish their God-given calling. This operates best in environments of high trust and safety—communities of grace, not those focused on control or performance. This kind of environment recognizes that mentoring is the major means of developing middle and upper-level leaders. Mentoring (pouring in) and coaching (drawing out) is practiced and modeled at all levels of leadership.

Team leaders and supervisors must be equipped to serve as steward-leaders of the gifts of team members in a context of relationships. They rely upon the biblical practice of “sober estimation” (Rom 12:1-3) to know their team members, and “equip and release” them to find their roles of optimum kingdom contribution based upon their spiritual gifts, calling, and passion (see Ford 2013, 219-232).

Retention and Organizational Flexibility
7. Open up new roles and career tracks. The organization is constantly opening new roles and developing innovative career tracks because it believes that “ministry flows out of being.” And as people develop uniquely, they may not find roles that fit them perfectly. Roles must be adjusted to accommodate the growth and maturation of the person. New roles must be created and “sculpted” to fit the developing people if the organization wants to keep them. Such organizations will retain more of their developed leaders instead of training them and supplying other organizations with these highly-qualified people.  

When we talk to existing leaders—regardless of their generation—we find that almost all are seeking developmentally-aware organizations. They want to know if someone will take a deep concern for their long-term holistic growth and development. Will someone take the time to get to know them so they can be stewarded in a context of relationships for maximum kingdom impact?  

If current leaders are to recruit and retain emerging leaders, we must recognize the importance of leading with a developmental bias. We do not say this simply because the rising corps of leaders are expecting and demanding this, but because it is biblical. Developing leaders was what Jesus was about as he prepared the disciples for the most strategic task of history. If God is in the business of developing leaders, perhaps his priority should become the priority of more Christian leaders and organizations.

1. Clinton’s original article, “Leading with a Developmental Bias,” serves as the foundation for this revised and updated version for EMQ, with Clinton’s permission to reflect more recent needs and developments within Christian mission agencies.

Clinton, J. Robert. 1996. Leading with a Developmental Bias. Altadena, Calif.: Barnabas Publishers.

Davis, Stanley M. 1987. Future Perfect. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Finzel, Hans. 1998. “Creating the Right Leadership Culture.” In Leaders on Leadership: Wisdom, Advice and Encouragement on the Art of Leading God’s People. Ed. George Barna, 261-280. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books.

Ford, Paul R. 2013. Moving from I to We: Recovering from Biblical Vision for Stewarding the Church, 219-231.  Colorado Springs, Colo.: NAVPress.

Thrall, Bill, Bruce McNicol, and Ken McElrath. 1999. The Ascent of a Leader. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Thrall, Bill, Bruce McNicol, and John Lynch. 2004. TrueFaced. Colorado Springs, Colo.: NAVPress.


Dr. Steve Hoke serves with Church Resource Ministries (CRM), in the area of leader development and as a strategic life coach. He travels extensively to minister to missionaries, and taught on the former LeaderLINK team, equipping missionaries in Africa, Europe, Latin America, and North America.  He is co-author with Bill Taylor of The Global Missions Handbook: Your Guide to Crosscultural Service (NAVPress, 2009).

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 134-135. Copyright  © 2013 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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