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Not long ago, my wife and I sold our house on one side of town and purchased another on the extreme opposite side. She was offered a position with a different employer, and we needed to be closer to her job. We hated to leave the church with which we were previously involved, but soon found another. It was a relatively new church plant where weekly services were filled with expectation and it seemed “the Lord was adding to the church” almost every Sunday. Most of the people being reached with the Gospel were ones sociologists refer to as “millennials”– those born between 1980 and 2000 – they were also ones who were never brought up in the church. How exciting!
After attending several weeks, I invited the pastor out to lunch – I wanted to hear more about his call to the ministry and his perspective on the seeming success of this four year old church plant. I was impressed with his creativity and passion, but he lamented the lack of leadership among the people the church had reached. “How are you fostering spiritual growth in the lives of these new converts?” I asked. “Do you have a discipleship program?” “Have you considered mentoring, or coaching?” “Are you creating an expectation of leadership and growth?” After a rather long pause he responded, “You ask really good questions.”
A number of surveys revealed that those of the millennial generation earnestly desire to be under the leadership of older individuals. In the business world, it was determined that half of millennials believe they would benefit from having a professional mentor. Those of us in pastoral ministry and church leadership have always known that a spiritually mature group of lay leaders are essential for the health and success of any local church.
Recently, I’ve reflected on a number of terms used to describe this process. I’ve struggled with the meaning of mentoring vs. coaching vs. discipleship; not really gaining a clear differentiation between the three.
The word “mentor” was originally found in the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey. The story goes that when Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, went off to war, Odysseus charged his trusted counselor, the goddess Athena, to secretly advise and protect his son. To disguise her identity, she was given the name Mentor. Over the years, mentor has come to mean “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.” (New American Dictionary)
The title “coach” was first used almost 200 years ago at Oxford University. Students designated their tutors as those that helped to “carry” the pupil through the exam, much like the carriage or coach carried people to their destination. These tutors were called upon to encourage, probe and challenge the students to recall information they had already mastered. Coaching in the modern context seeks to accomplish the same goals. (Bivins, Coaching 101)
A “disciple” (Greek mathetes) means “pupil,” “apprentice” or “one who is being influenced.” The account in Matthew’s gospel records that after Jesus called them, they “immediately left their fishing nets to follow Him” (Matt. 4:20) In the fourth gospel, the disciples inquired as to where Jesus was making his home. In response he said, “Come and see.” (John 1:39) In both accounts, the new followers spent the next three years learning first hand from Jesus. (Bauer, Arndt, & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of New Testament Words)
Undoubtedly there are those reading this article that would happily help me with the intricate nuances and descriptions of each term, but the common denominator in each is the commitment to develop and equip the learner. Every pastor wants to be able to rely upon and trust the leadership as the church strives to fulfill its role in the advancement of God’s Kingdom. But developing leadership does not happen automatically. It takes time and effort. And while a number of examples from the Bible could be used, I would like to highlight the relationship of Paul and Timothy as a model of this process.
Timothy was Paul’s companion in travel for much of his missionary work. The account of their relationship begins in the Book of Acts. Paul first meets Timothy in Lystra, where he was well spoken of by others. Paul was impressed enough that he wanted Timothy to go with him (see Acts 16:1-3). Timothy’s travels with Paul took him to the synagogues, and later to the churches located in the cities of Asia Minor. Paul was already a seasoned missionary. Undoubtedly, he had the opportunity to share his experiences and insights with Timothy during their travels. I can only imagine what it was like for Timothy, through his years of service with Paul, to hear of the personal joys and victories inherent in ministry experiences. While we do not know exactly what Paul shared with Timothy, it seems safe to speculate, based on the writings of Paul throughout the New Testament, that some of what he would have shared provides a model of a mentoring/coaching/discipleship relationship.
We can see first of all, the importance of disclosing some of the experiences of one’s walk with Christ. The Book of Acts often records Paul speaking of his conversion experience. This was not the only part of his testimony. Paul struggled with some very personal issues. In my mind, it is very likely that Timothy heard Paul talk about his struggle to do the right thing, when he usually ended up accomplishing quite the opposite. This lament is recorded in Romans 7:14-25. I can also see Timothy coming to understand that personal struggles are normal, by Paul’s willingness to talk about his “thorn in the flesh,” as well as the sufficiency of God’s grace in overcoming this suffering. (2 Cor. 12:7)
It is important that younger followers of Christ see how older ones practice their faith, and how the ups and downs of their life’s journey have strengthened that faith. They need to see a transparency about a genuine relationship with God. They need to hear about a passionate relationship with God, which brings a calm assurance in the face of life’s struggles. In short, younger ones need to hear older ones talk about what God has done, and is doing in their life.
Secondly, it is also important, for the older Follower of Christ to convey a genuine commitment to the church and its ministries. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote of the struggle between the choice to die and go on to be with the Lord, or to remain. He concluded that it was more necessary for the church at Philippi that he “remain” (Phil 1:23-24). This commitment is also expressed in Second Corinthians 11, here he lists all of his external hardships and added to the list was his pressure of “daily concern for all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11:23-28).
Honestly, in the average church, it is more likely that the lay leadership will have a longer tenure than most pastors. While this is not something to be held over the pastor, a long time leader can facilitate long-term stability through the changes in pastoral leadership as a result of a mentoring/coaching/discipleship relationship. I have met some dear saints of God who have served in church leadership positions for several decades. I have heard stories describing days of struggle and sacrifice, as well as days of revival and renewal, all of which gives birth to an expectation of hope and dream for the future. Many of these folks genuinely love Christ’s church and her people. They want the best for all. In a mentoring/coaching/discipleship relationship, it is important that the older ones convey both a sense of history and hope to the younger. History, in order to pass on the rich heritage of its past, and hope to encourage faith in God’s leadership in an ever changing world.
Third, while we may not have any direct evidence of this from Paul, it is important that older leaders convey a sense of respect and love for the pastor. Love for the pastor does not have to mean that we always agree. In fact, loving the pastor may mean offering constructive criticism. The Bible tells us to “speak the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:15) But remember, truth always needs to be tempered with grace. That is why Jesus was described as “the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”(John 1:14, emphasis mine)
During my days on local church staff ministry, I felt greater freedom to lead the church knowing that I had the love and support of the lay leadership. Potential leaders need to learn that loving the pastor means getting to know him, praying for him, lovingly confronting him, expressing appreciation for the work he does and actively participating with him in servant leadership.
Finally, Paul demonstrated a willingness to invest in the life of his mentee. It is apparent that Paul took the time to listen to and get to know Timothy. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he mentions his desire to see him even as Paul remembered Timothy’s tears. He knew about his family, he mentioned the strong faith of his mother and grandmother (2 Tim 1:3-5). It is important in this type of relationship that the mentor seek to listen to and get to know the mentee.
The goal of Paul’s relationship with Timothy is made manifest when Paul writes to Timothy toward the end of his ministry. Paul begins his first letter to Timothy by reminding him of his desire that he remain in Ephesus in order to “instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines” (1 Tim. 1:3), while Paul journeyed on to other responsibilities in Macedonia. Paul had the confidence to let Timothy take on responsibility for the church in Ephesus, and was in many ways, passing on the baton of his ministry.
A mentoring/coaching/discipleship relationship, like anything else worth doing, requires time and effort. A mentor needs to meet face-to-face and one-on-one with his mentee on a regular basis. I suggest a “guilt free” approach to this type of commitment. Older leaders need to prayerfully consider how much time they are willing to spend in this process. It is also important to determine the duration and frequency of these meetings. After you determine this, make a commitment to the younger one and keep that commitment. It is that simple. The older leader is the most experienced and as such needs to take responsibility for holding each other accountable. If a church or leadership body can commit to a mentoring/coaching/discipleship program, in the spirit of Paul and Timothy, everyone involved will find it personally rewarding and profitable for the church’s entire ministry.