Leadership Pipeline – How Are Leaders Made?

Charles Kiser —  August 16, 2012 — 9 Comments

I’ve been attending a 3DM Learning Community this week in Pawleys Island, South Carolina with the Mission Alive team. The theme of this particular 4-day immersion is “Multiplying Missional Leaders” (see their book by this title).

3DM’s credentials for leadership development: 30+ years of experience and provenness in the post-Christian context of Western Europe. Hundreds of thousands of disciples made. Thousands of missional communities formed. Global missional movement seen. That kind of thing doesn’t happen without a leadership development engine (and the Holy Spirit, of course!).

It’s some of the best stuff I’ve seen on leadership development, particularly because of 3DM’s ability to overlay several lenses on leadership in the same setting. The synergy of all those lenses together is powerful.

The fundamental process for multiplying missional leaders is what they call the “Leadership Pipeline.” Jesus seemed to have one; Paul seemed to have one, too. The main question of this immersion experience is: do you have one?

The Leadership Pipeline has four basic stages.

1. Recruit. This stage is about picking the right leaders. How do we know who to invest in? Where do we start? What kind of people do we invest in?

3DM offers three incisive filters for discernment, in order of priority: 1) Character (interior life). 2) Competency (exterior skill). 3) Strategy (the ability to lead at least 50 people, called an “L50” leader).

My takeaway: people I choose to invest in have to pass these three filters (to a certain degree) before I invest in them. In Neil Cole’s words: invest in provenness, not potential.

2. Train. The basic framework for training is the Learning Triangle: From Information to Imitation to Innovation.

My takeaway: most leadership development gives information and then releases leaders to innovate without a proper season of imitation. Sharing life in spiritual family with leaders in training is critical to their development, namely because it gives them access to our lives so they can imitate them — which is daunting! Is my life worth imitating?

3. Deploy. This is sending leaders out to give it a shot. First, it entails sending them out in safe environments where winning and losing don’t matter and giving them a chance to fail. Then it involves sending them out into their own ministry.

My takeaway: create spaces in my community where leaders can fail and it’s not only okay, it’s encouraged! Give them chances to practice when there is much less at stake if they fail.

4. Review. The Review Stage reflects the important vacillation between reflection and action. We can’t learn from our mistakes and victories unless we debrief with our mentors and tune into what God was teaching us. The basic tool for this stage is the Learning Circle, which helps leaders answer two questions: What is God saying? And What am I going to do about it?

My takeaway: make space to debrief with leaders I’m investing in! I find this stage easy to omit.

5. Repeat Train, Deploy, and Review again and again. The 3DM team has said repeatedly: this is not a linear process. Developing leaders continually cycle through training, deployment and review. It made me ask myself, Am I continuing to go through this cycle as I develop as a leader?

Doug Paul described a great example of the Leadership Pipeline in action. Consider a Men’s NCAA Basketball Team. Players are recruited based on their competency and asked to join the team (Recruit). The team practices several days a week together (Train). They scrimmage and compete against each other (Deploy in a safe environment). The team then plays games where they win or lose (Deploy when the stakes are higher). After their games they debrief about what went well and how they can improve in the future (Review). Then the team returns to practice (Train), scrimmages (Deploy – safe), plays games (Deploy – higher stakes), and debriefs (Review) again and again until hopefully they win the NCAA Tournament together (Deploy – highest stakes). The byproduct of such a process is a deep bond or sense of family — what Alan Hirsch calls “communitas” and what 3DM calls “oikos” (a New Testament word for family or household).

Leaders also need a “vehicle” (or structure) to drive through the pipeline. For 3DM, that flotation device is called a Huddle, a group of 3-8 people who gather together regularly to answer the Learning Circle questions (What is God saying to me? What am I going to do about it?). Each stage of the Pipeline can be facilitated out of the Huddle setting.

What grabs your attention about the Leadership Pipeline?

How do you see these leadership development stages in your own work or ministry?

Join the conversation!

Charles Kiser


I’m a pastor, missionary, and contextual theologian in Dallas, Texas. I’m committed to equipping and coaching Christians to start fresh expressions of Christian community in Dallas County — communities of hospitality, inclusion, justice, and healing.

9 responses to Leadership Pipeline – How Are Leaders Made?


    The problem with the leadership pipeline (and other leadership development strategies) is that they do not account for the obvious biblical pattern of God choosing people to lead that we would not choose. How many major biblical characters would be considered good choices for leadership today? Peter? Jonah? Samson? Moses? Gideon? Abraham? Jacob?


      Thanks for sharing, Gary! I don’t think unexpected candidates for leadership is a problem for the pipeline if discerning prayer is a major component of the Recruit stage. I think If we attend to the Lord in the recruitment stage, he will let us know who he is calling us to invest in. And yes, I think you’re right, many of the people God raises up as leaders are surprising by some standards. At the same time – we are all failures and broken and need to be developed – which is why there is Pipeline!


      Another thought, Gary. Part of what I hear in your comment is that not every leader is a product of someone’s intentional “pipeline” or relational investment. Sometimes God intervenes and develops leaders in various means, through multiple people, and through seemingly unintentional methods. God can and does do whatever he wants in people’s lives. I want to honor that and also hold in tension that God has at the same time called me to participate with him in developing leaders – which is where the pipeline comes in. I want to go after that intentionally, and imitate the way Jesus developed his disciples.


        Nothing necessarily wrong with choosing a model (like the Pipeline) for developing leaders; all models are provisional, our best understanding at the time of what God is doing and what we are called to do. So much of God’s calling and preparation of leaders in the Bible is paradoxical, though. Which makes me doubt whether leadership development is programmable, in the modern sense. After all, Jesus lived and worked with his disciples for three years: an apprenticeship model that is gone with the wind, at least in the West.


        I hear you, Gary. We haven’t seen discipleship and leadership development done like Jesus in a long, long time. That’s part of what excites me about 3DM – I believe their vehicles and language get closer to the Jesus way of development than I’ve seen out there. The pipeline is not novel in itself, but it’s the context of the pipeline for 3DM that’s really unique to me. This has inspired me to write another blog post soon about what 3DM calls “oikos” (the greek word for household or family) – basically a way of living as a family on mission, sharing life together, with frequent, non-programmed relational connection (“play”) in which disciples are made and leaders are developed. Thanks for this good conversation!


    I don’t know if this is was what Gary was referring to me, but this statement: “My takeaway: people I choose to invest in have to pass these three filters (to a certain degree) before I invest in them. In Neil Cole’s words: invest in provenness, not potential.” does not sit well with me. On one side, it completely makes sense, but it does feel more business-like than ministry leadership. Not being at the seminar, I am sure there is more behind the statement, but for one who is reading it for the first time, it doesn’t feel like something I would want to fully invest in as a church leader. I guess I need more of the back story that goes with Cole’s words.


      I think I can see why that wouldn’t sit well with you. It does seem a bit harsh at first glance.

      Let me give some context. One way at it is to ask the question: why didn’t Jesus call more than 12 apostles that he invested in at the deepest level? Simply because Jesus was limited (being human, that is). He only had so much time to give away and had to be strategic about who he poured his life into. I think this is true of most church leaders as well – there are more people in our congregations than we can actually develop ourselves and so we have to start somewhere. I think it’s wise to be strategic in our choices…which is where the filters of character and competency come in. They help us to know where to start.

      None of this is to say that God does not want others to become disciples and be developed into leaders. He certainly does; but timing seems to be important. If they aren’t ready to cooperate with God in that moment, it doesn’t make sense to invest great amounts of energy in training them up into leadership. But perhaps the time will come when they are.

      I think this is what Cole’s axiom is hitting at – run with those who are ready to run. That is, run with those who are already demonstrating characteristics of discipleship/leadership. Don’t burn yourself out on those who haven’t shown that they’re ready to cooperate with God and be developed. And we can pray that God will make ready those who aren’t ready at some point down the road.

      Does this context help?

    gailynvanrheenen August 23, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Charles, this is an incisive blog. Thank you! For you, this process has been integrative: You have brought together many pieces of learning while you were in a learning gathering.

    What you have written might be overwhelming/misunderstood by some who do not perceive the spiritual vitality of the missional shapes to which you refer. The business vocabulary of the 3dm leadership pipeline can also lead some to devalue it. I am wondering if terms like Select (as Jesus selected His apostles) might be better than Recruit. Perhaps Equip might be better than Train because of the wording of Eph. 4:12 (although these two terms are very similar). And I like the more biblical word “Send” rather than “Deploy.” I guess I am of the heritage of desiring to use biblical words for spiritual things rather than incorporating the more business vocabulary of “recruit” and “deploy.” There surely is a process in Jesus’ life of Selecting, Equipping, Sending, and Reviewing.

    You could also add more on both the organizational (the huddle) and the organic (modeling in social contexts) modes of training and explain the roles of each.

    Good reflection: I am always amazed at how quickly and incisively you write. You are leading all of us in many ways. Thank you!!


      Thanks, Gailyn. I like your terms for the pipeline – very good.

      And you’re right – there are so many other factors at play that I didn’t have space to deal with that bring significant context to the pipeline.

      The conversation about this post inspired me to write another soon on Oikos/family as the organic context of leadership development.

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