Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

follow-up and reinforcement of training

I don’t really know if the training went well

How can we know if it is effective?

I have spent the last 10 years of my life in training missionaries. Training events have taken me to more than a dozen countries. Through online courses, workers from at least twice that number have participated in training that I have led. Furthermore, I head up our organization’s training department and so have the privilege of leading a great team of trainers and facilitators. But despite my experience and travels, the question does not go away. How can we know if our training is effective?

Recently I saw that the parable of the sower sheds some light on this question.

The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. – Matthew 13:20–21

Biblical understanding

Jesus’s explanation of the seed falling on the stony ground shows us that a joyful response to the hearing of truth is no indication that people have understood the Word. As is clear from Matt. 13:15, a biblical sense of understanding is to understand with the heart, resulting in a change of behavior. We can only say that there is true understanding when the person repents and turns from their previous behavior to adopt new behaviors or habits.

Furthermore, these new behaviors must continue to be exhibited over the long haul. As Eugene Peterson’s book title says, there must be a “Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” This obedience must stand the test of trouble and opposition (the rocks in the parable) and the test of distractions (worries, pleasures, or in other words, the thorns in the Matt. 13:22.)

Joy is not enough

We are naturally pleased when someone is excited about something new that they have learned in training. Joy on the part of the trainee (and the trainer!) is to be expected when there is true understanding. However, joy is not enough. Maybe it would be better to say that we are looking for a different kind of joy. The joy we are looking for is more than an initial emotional response. We want to see deep, lasting joy even in the face of suffering for one’s newfound faith (see 1 Thess 1:6).

True understanding, as seen in Jesus’ explanation of the good soil, is demonstrated by fruit – by life changes in the learner and by life changes in others who have heard and observed the learner’s story.

But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” – Matthew 13:23

Training needs follow-up

If this is true in regards to the hearing of the Gospel, would it not also be true about any topic of training, whether we are teaching a church planting strategy or how to resolve conflict on a team?

We often base our evaluation of whether the training was effective solely on what people say as they walk out the door. But then we are just looking at the joy of the seed sown on the rocky soil. Just because we see a lot of “happy faces” or “5 out of 5” on the evaluation sheet is no clear indication that true learning has occurred. Nor is that “two-thumbs-up” evidence that they really understood the training material. Enthusiastic affirmation of the value of the training does not indicate that there will be long-term fruit from the training.

We only can say that people have really understood if they make positive changes in their lives and lead others to also make changes as a result of what they have heard. But this means that we can only evaluate if our training is effective a significant time after the actual training event. Only after the trainee has put into practice what they learned do we as trainers learn whether the trainee understood.

Trainers must do more than deliver brilliant lectures, prepare riveting presentations, and distribute attractive hand-outs. We must take the initiative to find out whether our trainees changed anything in their lives and ministry as a result of what we taught them. We must take the time to learn how those implementation plans fared in the real world outside the training room.

Training needs reinforcement

Maybe I could stretch the farming analogy a little further. The apostle Paul talks about sowing and harvesting. But he also talks about a stage in between the two, which he calls “watering”.

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. – 1 Corinthians 3:6

According to Paul, both sowing and watering are important human components in the process of planting a church. If you have been a part of a church-plant, you quickly identify the watering with “follow-up.” Ongoing discipleship of those who have accepted the Gospel message is critical. Without follow-up, decisions for Christ often wither away and disappear into thin air.1See my colleague’s blog series on the importance of following-up church plants at https://sendublog.com/tag/follow-up/

But again, the same principle applies to any type of training. We need to provide additional reinforcement of the initial training. Without it, trainees are tempted to slide back into former patterns of behavior and work. Questions and problems they encounter in implementation squash the initial enthusiasm. Unless someone with more experience comes alongside them to answer these questions and encourage them to persevere, the training is not effective. The training notebook finds its eternal home on a dusty bookshelf somewhere. The training is forgotten.

Determining if our training is effective

In our SEND U training, we try to both evaluate the impact of the training over time and reinforce the initial training by providing additional coaching and encouragement along the way. One prime example is our pre-field training, which we call MOP (Member Orientation Program). Two years after the new missionary arrives on the field, we assign them a coach for 3 months. With the help of this coach, the first-term worker does a review of what they learned in pre-field training. They also write up a self-assessment of how well they have applied key principles they learned in pre-field training. We call this second stage of training, in effect a “watering” of the initial training, MOP-up (Member Orientation Program under pressure).

Coaching for first-term missionaries

I have had the privilege of coaching many of these first-termers through MOP-up. This has humbled me at times. I realize how few of my “deep insights” have survived in any shape or form. But it has also been very rewarding to hear testimonies of how the training has been retained. How quickly it can be put into practice with a little bit of additional coaching, encouragement, and accountability.

Joining a learning community

Recently we have added yet another stage to our training follow-up. We are inviting new missionaries to join a “learning community” right after going through the pre-field training. These learning communities are led by a training staff member and meet weekly on a video conferencing platform. Their purpose is to encourage and challenge our new missionaries to both be growing disciples of Christ and developing disciple-makers. This is another way to ensure that training is effective.

Walking alongside your trainees

As a trainer, I still often fall prey to the temptation to judge the value of any training by the number scores on the evaluation sheets filled out hurriedly as people are walking out the door. But I am learning that the real fruit comes when I take the time to walk alongside our trainees in their various places of service around the world. Sometimes this happens when I coach them over the Internet, sometimes when I visit their team and ministry.

When I do so, I see the impact of our training over time. I also have the opportunity to provide additional encouragement and clarification to that which our trainees did not fully understand. I become a better trainer because my observations naturally inform my content with the next group of trainees. Furthermore, I gain the confident assurance and joy that our training is indeed bearing fruit, “yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.”

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1 Comment

  1. Philip Jackson

    Ken, you’re right on here. In two seminars I did last summer for supporting churches, I promised to follow up via email a few months later with a “what have you applied?” kind of question. It was more specific than that actually. Anyway, the initial response to the training as they were leaving the training, was “all smiles”, but the follow up to the email left a lot to be desired. I’m eager to grow in the follow up side of this and would welcome a coaching call with you to talk about this sometime. Thanks for being such an intentional trainer. PJ

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