The author of this article is one of our Mission Partners serving in South Asia. Due to the location he serves in we need to refer to him and his location vaguely and carefully to protect him, his family and the community where they serve.
Early in my twenties, I signed up to be staff on a mission training school. I found myself responsible for the growth and development of a number of young adults from all over the world. It was on me to support them in their spiritual journey, lead them on three months of cross-cultural mission experiences, and then release them back into the wild as well-formed, mature young adults. After a month’s worth of leadership training, I was supposedly ready for action.
As it turns out, developing people is far more complex than I had supposed – both a science and an art. I felt increasingly incapable and incompetent, fumbling along without knowing what I was doing. I found it pretty easy to meet with those I was responsible for, listen to them process and get them talking. But I found myself tongue-tied when it came to offering profound advice that would solve all their problems. All the while, my fellow staff seemed to be rocking it! They had no problem diagnosing people’s problems, identifying what was going wrong, and telling them what they should do (At least, that’s what I thought was going on).
As it turns out, just like me, all of us can buy into false understandings of what makes a good leader. I had defined a good leader as someone so wise that they always had the right answer to share. And perhaps a better leader would have an answer ready before the person has finished sharing the question. But is that what leadership, discipleship and developing people is all about? Having the right answers?
What Would Jesus Question?
This raises a pretty obvious question: how did Jesus lead? Or more specifically, what was the role of questions & answers in Jesus’ ministry? A big part of my role is applying coaching skills to develop emerging leaders in Asia, and, crudely, we could say that coaching is all about asking powerful questions. So, naturally, I’m very interested in the questions Jesus asked.
Stop and consider for a moment how many questions did Jesus ask?
Think about the question itself. The Son of God, God-made-flesh, is walking the earth. It’s amazing he asked any questions at all! Surely God-in-person would invest all their energy telling people what to do. After all, isn’t a lack of information our core problem? Well, Jesus asked about 307 questions! That’s considerably more than the approx. 183 he was asked, and he only actually answered a handful himself. Whether we can consider Jesus an example of ‘professional level coaching’ or not, he certainly put a lot of value on asking powerful questions.
So what do questions do? Typically we think questions exist to extract information. But questions do far, far more than that! Questions get our minds and hearts engaged. Questions help us see new options and different futures. Questions create space for possibilities. Questions get us out of hard-wired neuro-pathways and onto new ones. When you use powerful questions they turn the focus from your brilliance, experience and skills to their strengths, internal resources and ability. Questions enable others to listen to and follow God for themselves rather than always relying on you.
Let’s turn back to 20 year old me. I thought I had to have the answers to be a good leader, but it turns out I only needed to have the questions. In fact, giving answers can actually undermine the development process and stunt someone’s growth. Stunting the physical growth of a child is something we all find appalling, yet we stunt people’s growth all the time in churches and discipleship groups without giving it a second thought! And amazingly, when my role isn’t seen as fixing things but listening well & asking questions that provoke discovery, there’s a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. In fact, coaching at its best is a “facilitated monologue”; the coach is playing the role of a mirror, disappearing so that the person can hear themselves think and process.
Listening And Mission
It turns out, learning to listen and ask questions can do wonders for our leadership. But it also has huge implications for mission. This paradigm helps us see that our role is to empower other people and to never get in the way of their own development. It also helps clarify the role of the ‘outsider.’ Whenever possible, we shouldn’t be coming in and fixing everything for or doing everything for someone, but finding ways to empower others to ‘do the stuff’ for themselves.
If I can come alongside a person and empower them to reach higher and further, then not only is the task of mission accomplished but people are developed and meaningful partnership is forged. And what I’ve discovered is it’s so much more fun and fulfilling – and honestly easier – when we don’t need to carry it all on our own shoulders but are instead trained in how to empower others. Over one cup of tea, I can help someone influence a network of 130 church planters reaching well over 10,000 people. Just by being deliberately present, listening intently, and asking a few well-placed questions. All over just one cup of tea.
If Jesus would spend so much of his time asking questions, perhaps it’s time we learn to do so too?