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J. Robert Clinton has carried out numerous studies of Christian leaders—Biblical, historical, and living— and has worked at formulating a method of identifying the incidents involved in the development of a leader's capacity to lead, which he calls leadership emergence. A key concept here is the realization that a great leader is shaped over a long period of time, and that this formation is not automatic. He defines leadership emergence as, “the overall process in which God is at work in selecting that leader. It is the broad life-time process in which a potential leader expands capacity for influencing to become the leader God wants him/her to be.” (Clinton, Leadership Emergence Theory, p.69). Throughout the life of a leader, certain incidents happen that shape the leader’s character, leadership skills, and leadership values. This is not a once-for-all thing, but an ongoing process. “Leadership selection is a lifetime process in which God continues to ‘select’ leaders for leadership responsibilities at higher and higher levels.” (Clinton, Leadership Training Models, p.20). Clinton developed a generalized time-line for most Christian leaders which has six phases as listed below. I have in some places adapted them.

Phase I: Foundations

God providentially works through the family and early experiences of the future leader. These all go into making the leader the kind of person he/she will later become. Many of these may not be positive. Many leaders grow up in non-Christian homes, but God is still sovereignly working on shaping the future leader. The future leader has very little control over all this process.

Phase II: Inner-Life Growth

The future leader enters a period when he or she seeks to know God in a more personal and real way and this often results in some feeling of being called by God to special service. Two important experiences of this phase include learning how to pray and hear from God. Often there are some important “tests” to the person’s commitment which help develop the leader’s character. The future leader’s role here is to learn the lessons and respond positively to them. Usually the person also has some initial ministry experience at this point.

Phase III. Ministry Maturing

The emerging leader begins reaching out to others and helping them. The ministry potential and calling to minister to others becomes very strong. But the leader lacks the skills and experience to minister effectively. Many may seek formal training at this point. Clinton notes that in the development of the future leader, two important tasks happen in this phase: 1) the initial identification of the leader’s gifts and skills, giving direction to future ministry. 2) a growing understanding of the Church and learning relational lessons form interaction with other Christians—both negative and positive.

Clinton comments on the first three phases:

During phases I, II, and III, God is primarily working in the leader and not through him or her. Though there may be much ministry activity and even fruitfulness, the major work is that which God is doing to and in the leader, not through him or her. Most often, emerging leaders don’t recognize this...God is quietly, often in unusual ways, trying to get the emerging leader to see that a leader basically ministers out of what he/she is. He is concerned with what the leader is in terms of being (character), more than doing (productivity.) (Clinton, Leadership Emergence Theory, p.316)

Phase IV. Life Maturing

By this point the leader should have a clear understanding of what his or her gifts are and has found a place where these can be used in a satisfying way. The leader learns what they can do and what they can not do in ministry, resulting in greater fruitfulness. The leader’s character mellows and matures. The leader should come to know God in a deeper and fuller way, which will increase his or her spiritual authority.

Phase V. Convergence

God moves the person into a place of ministry where the leader can maximize his or her giftedness. The leader is able to focus on those things for which they have been gifted by God. Many leaders do not experience convergence, perhaps due to a lack of personal development or by the circumstances that surround them. They may not be able to shift to a place of ministry that allows them to focus only on the areas of their gifting. Convergence is not something to be sought, but rather the result of a leader constantly being responsive to God.

Phase VI. Afterglow

Few actually achieve this phase. It comes after a leader has experienced a period of Convergence and has retired from full-time ministry. Though retired, the leader’s influence with many individuals continues. People seek out this leader because of his or her wisdom and experience and the leader continues to be a blessing to others.


Clinton, J. Robert. Leadership Emergence Theory. Altadena, CA: Barnabas Resources, 1989.

________. The Making of a Leader. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1988.

Clinton, J. Robert and Richard W. Clinton. The Mentor Handbook. Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1991.

Concept 3. Clinton's Leadership

Emergence Theory