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Side-by-Side Leadership Training

Moody alum turns master’s thesis into international ministry for mentoring Christian leaders

Written by Miriam Parrish | ~ 5-minute read

Retired Moody professor Ray Badgero used to say, “If you want to be an effective missionary, you need to do three things: you need to walk where the people walk, you need to eat what they eat, and sleep where they sleep.”

These words have stayed with Steve Meeker ’90 MA ’14 in the decades since he studied International Ministries at Moody Bible Institute. Badgero, former chair of the department, told stories in class about his years walking, eating, and sleeping as a missionary in the former Yugoslavia, which included Croatia. Little did Meeker know then that he would end up serving in Croatia, repeating that same phrase when teaching others how to enter into a new culture as a relational disciple maker.

“Only God could have orchestrated that,” says Meeker, the director of Leadership Lab International (LLI), a that provides experiential learning, mentoring, and discipleship for Christian leaders in training. LLI has team members and trainers in many nations, such as Australia, Croatia, India, and South Africa.

Modeled on mentorship

Ranging from young adults to middle age, interns and Christian leaders come to LLI to sharpen their leadership and intercultural skills. Students from dozens of countries have registered for LLI’s programs while many others participated in virtual training courses and webinars. LLI connects in-person students with a local Croatian ministry—like a summer camp or sports ministry—and provides trainers who meet with students weekly, offering a chance to process and debrief their experiences.

“That emphasis on mentored training is one of the things that’s unique [about LLI],” says Steve. “The trainers care about your life. . . . We intentionally meet with every single student every week. We’re asking questions that help surface what’s really going on in the heart. . . . We take that very seriously.”

This side-by-side discipleship model is something Steve experienced as a Moody student but also from his father, who became a believer when Steve was four years old. Soon Steve’s mother also turned to Christ, and from then on Steve was raised in a Christian home. He received Jesus as a young child.

“My dad was with the US Fish and Wildlife Service,” says Steve. His father would use examples from God’s creation to explain spiritual concepts. “That was definitely foundational in what I do in ministry. We don’t just teach the sport of rock climbing; we use that to teach biblical truths.”

A heart for missionary kids

Because of his father’s job, Steve never lived anywhere for longer than five years as a kid. This background has given him a heart for missionary kids (MKs).

“I can relate to missionary kids, being a kind of third culture kid myself,” says Steve, referring to children who spend their formative years in more than one distinct culture. MKs are “kind of a forgotten culture,” Steve says.

This year LLI students will serve at Send International’s first MK camps since COVID, and Steve is excited to welcome six student leaders who are MKs themselves. “This is the first time we’ve actually had so many MKs who are going to serve at the MK camps.”

Called to follow Christ

More than his third culture kid background, there’s a reason camp ministry is so close to Steve’s heart. Although he received Christ as a young child, he went through a stage of rebellion as a teen. But at a Christian camp God grabbed hold of his heart and led him to repentance.

The following year in his church, Steve committed to following God’s call to serve Him anywhere and to live for Jesus daily. His decision led him to Moody in 1986, where he relished the four-year period of studying God’s Word in depth and preparing for ministry. “I hungered for that,” he says. “And God did bring professors in both those categories that really helped lay that foundation.”

The last course Steve took with Dr. Badgero, Teaching Cross Culturally, was instrumental in helping build the groundwork for how to teach, he says, “and to see how to adapt teaching so that it would relate in not only Croatian culture but other cultures as well.”

Steve Meeker hanging out with friends during his days at Moody Bible Institute.

Seeking direction

During his senior year, Steve served as a resident assistant and asked several missionaries for advice: Should he pursue a master’s degree immediately, or would it be better to gain real-world ministry experience? The response was unanimous: gain ministry experience, then pursue further education to sharpen those skills. So Steve graduated in 1990, married his sweetheart (also an International Ministries major), Jenny (North) ’92, in January 1992, and the couple went off to SEND International’s candidate school.

One day Steve and Jenny asked SEND’s director where he would send missionaries and why. He promptly mentioned Croatia—a small, war-torn European country that had recently seceded from the Yugoslav federation.

“Isn’t that a little dangerous?” asked Steve.

“Yes,” said the director. “But there is this spiritual openness that I haven’t seen in the last few years of my time there.”

The Meekers agreed to pray about it, and ultimately God led them to accept a position in Croatia. They spent the next 27 years serving in camp ministry, disciple making, hospitality, church planting, and post-war humanitarian aid.

They had the privilege of serving alongside their brothers and sisters in Christ as the Lord grew the ministry. In fact, this summer they are celebrating 20 years of the camp training center and 30 years of DPB (Scripture Union Croatia).

Over the years, some students were assigned to programs like Croatia’s Camp on Wheels, taking VBS to local churches and helping them with their outreach. Others learned sports like archery, canoeing, and rock climbing along with faith-building truths.

“As students were hanging from a rope, we'd ask questions on the wall, ‘So where do you put your trust?’” Meeker says. “It would be a real good bridge-builder into teaching biblical truths.”

Steve is a big believer in camp ministry after so many years leading camps.

Return to Moody

In 2003 Steve returned to Moody to get an MA in Ministry. Between family life and full-time ministry, it took him several years, but Steve completed his degree in 2014. That same year he started Leadership Lab International, the subject of his master’s thesis, in partnership with SEND International and Scripture Union. Through these partnerships, the ministry would expand internationally.

“We saw this huge attrition rate that would happen with young leaders in the church and in Christian organizations,” Steve says. “We wanted to address that and provide a mentored, experiential-learning training where we could step alongside them to help them be disciple makers for life.”

The impact of LLI

Roberta Dirgėlaitė from Lithuania is one disciple maker who has benefited from LLI training. She met Steve at an international ministry meeting, where he invited her to attend an LLI event in Estonia.

“At the time when I participated in training, I really needed to grow in a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ,” says Roberta. The weekend with LLI in Estonia was so beneficial that she returned for several more programs, including a nine-week internship where she greatly benefited from the mentorship she received.

“Loving relationships with the trainers helped me to feel more comfortable in my own skin, to discover and start using the gifts and talents God has given me,” says Roberta, who returned to Lithuania as a volunteer and began mentoring a young girl. “After being mentored for the whole summer, I had a much better idea how to do it myself.”

Now the chairperson of Scripture Union (SU) Lithuania and a psychologist working in an addiction recovery center, Roberta remembers Steve fondly. “Steve is a great leader, mentor, follower of Christ, and a great father figure,” she says with a smile. “Every time I had to work with him he would encourage me and mentor me—teach me not only how to do a task but also show me how to be Christlike.”

To Steve, LLI is all about discipling believers like Roberta to become better leaders and disciple makers in their own communities, ministries, or organizations. Students have come for in-person training from more than 20 nations, and those seeking online training hail from more than 40 countries.

“Nobody has to ever remember Leadership Lab International,” Steve says. “We’re not about that. Our heartbeat is to equip and empower a new generation of disciple makers for life no matter where they go and no matter what organization they serve with.”

Steve says LLI is all about discipling believers to become better leaders and disciple makers in their own communities, ministries, or organizations.

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