The Family Tree:
One-to-One Spiritual Mentoring
Rad Zdero © November 2000
The Need for Spiritual Mentors
As we look around us and absorb the entire spiritual landscape of this crazy planet, we’ll notice that Jesus is on the move through his people. The church is growing numerically in leaps and bounds worldwide. There is some good stuff going on and much to be thankful for.
If we take a closer look, however, there is something missing, something that there is a lack of and yet a desperate need for; there is a cry in the body of Christ for spiritual mothers and fathers, also called mentors or coaches, who take deliberate personal interest in individuals and help them grow.
If we turn to the world of sports, many accomplished athletes have personal trainers, whether they compete in individual or team sports. In the academic realm, those pursuing Master’s or Doctoral degrees each have their own supervisor who encourages and guides them in their research. Even families of one or two parents give personal attention and care to their few children, until these kids grow to adulthood and are then able to become parents themselves. Yet, in the Christian community, we have somehow contented ourselves to huddle in large groups, perhaps even in small groups, but have lost the power of one-on-one, feeling perhaps that it’s unnecessary at worst or necessary but impractical at best.
How did we get here? I think the answer is that we’ve forgotten the basic Biblical examples of those who went before us. There are numerous examples from scripture of personalized spiritual training, but let's briefly look at two, that of Paul and Peter.
For instance, Paul the great traveling apostle founded numerous Christian communities in the Mediterranean world of the first century, and his personal letters to churches comprise about half the New Testament. But, he didn't start off to be a spiritual "superstar". In the early days after his awakening to Christ, he was befriended and mentored by Barnabas, a fellow who had been around the block a few times spiritually (Acts 9:22-27 and 11:22-26).
Paul was quick to catch on, though, and soon was investing in the lives of other individuals like Timothy, Titus and Silas, in the context of the daily ebb and flow of life and ministry (1 Cor 4:14-17; 1 Thes 1:1; Titus 1:4). Notice that Paul was always thinking two or three generations down the line, well aware of the impact he could make not only on Timothy, but on those whom Timothy had a chance to apprentice (2 Tim 2:2).
Similarly Peter, the big fisherman from Galilee with a loud mouth and bad temper, was coached by Jesus himself. They fished and prayed together, walked the desert roads side by side, worshiped in the Temple, ate and drank, and slept and talked, together. After several years of investment by Jesus, Peter would be ready to take on the mantle of leadership for the fledgling Christian community (John 21:15-17), which would soon burst out of Jerusalem under the power of God’s lead.
My Personal Experience
“Well”, you might be thinking, “that was then, this is now. That’s all about that ancient stuff. Sounds good though, but what does this have to do with me? Does that kind of stuff actually go on today?” As far as I've got the exact story straight, back in the 1940s Dawson Trotman, founder of the Christian organization called The Navigators, discipled Waldron Scott, who in turn did the same for Leroy Eims, who then mentored a businessman named Bob. Bob then spiritually coached Tom, who mentored Don, the Navigator staff at the university I attended. Dawson Trotman, however, also used to get together on Saturdays with Bill Bright, the founder of the well-known Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC), in order to pass onto him the basics of how to disciple someone.
Now, this is where the rubber hits the road for me personally because a fellow named Dave, whom I met in the first week of my first year of university, was staff with CCC. From that point on for the next 2 years, he and I would get together regularly and frequently to pray, talk, play video games, eat lunch, and study the Bible in the context of campus life and my involvement with the CCC student group.
Then after CCC pulled off the campus, Dave encouraged me to throw in my lot with the Navigator student group. Well, I did. And for the next four years, the Nav staff there named Don (mentioned earlier) took a personal interest in me the same way Dave had earlier. Eventually, I came on as associate campus staff with the Navs and was further mentored at key points in my life by an older and wiser Nav staff named Jeremy. While on staff, I had the opportunity and privilege to spiritually coach a few students one-on-one. One of these students in particular is deliberately carrying on the process by mentoring some highschool kids one-on-one and seeing change take place in their lives. Since leaving staff, I have continued to mentor a number of other people who have caught a passion for discipleship chains.
I didn’t know Dawson Trotman and he didn’t know me, but because of his willingness 50 years ago to be available to God and to invest his energy into a few individuals, my life has been significantly touched by my personal spiritual mentors, Dave, Don, and Jeremy. To them and to the God who worked through them, I’m very grateful.
Some Practical Tips
As we proceed in discipling someone or being discipled by someone a bit further along, there are a couple of helpful tools or tips to keep handy.
First off, choosing who we should invest in is an important decision. Spiritual coaches are needed for:
those on the threshold of faith who need help working through final barriers, whether they be intellectual or emotional
new Christians who need to be grounded in the basics of prayer, scripture, lifestyle choices and trusting God
growing Christians to be matured and challenged to discover their gifts and start applying them to help the body of Christ
believers who are actively trying to share their faith or are in the process of mentoring a younger believer
those in pain or crisis who need support, whether that means just being there to listen, pray, comfort, etc.
emerging leaders to develop in their ability, confidence, and vision to lead
Second, the goals and expectations of the process will vary depending on the people involved and the understanding set out by the mentor and mentoree. It may just be about growth in one area, such as Bible study or a ministry skill. For instance, a friend and I used to meet weekly over a period of a year and a half. We focused specifically on keeping each other accountable for evangelism among our friends. We would pray for specific people and talk about how it was going with these friends one week. On alternate weeks we would be reading through some helpful articles and looking at related scriptures. In most cases, though, the friendship may naturally develop a more holistic tone in which marriage, finances, family, sexuality, culture, career, academics, etc, are addressed. We should not be afraid to share our own struggles and victories in these areas. This will keep it real.
Third, how often and for how long you get together needs to be clear so that the two extremes of burnout and losing touch be avoided. I like to make a weekly time with someone one-on-one for at least an hour or two. In a previous coaching role, I got together with a friend, who was a new believer, every Friday night for dinner, a movie, talk time, and some prayer, over a 9 month period. This usually was an entire evening out. It was both relaxing and invigorating for both of us.
Fourth, know that we will reproduce after our own kind, whether we like it or not. It is important to model things as much as it is to teach because, as someone once said, "more is caught than is formally taught". This is about life-on-life ministry. If we are weak in prayer, then it may not come as a surprise that the person we're helping along will develop the same habits. If we are strong in one area, such as evangelism, then it's likely they will develop the same spiritual muscles. I am not implying here that the person we are coaching has no mind or personality of their own and that they will simply mimic what they see in us. This may not be the case for growing or mature believers, but it is likely with new Christians.
Fifth, the duration of the mentoring relationship is not necessarily meant to be a lifetime commitment. It may be intense with frequent contact only for a season, such as a school year or two in connecting with students in a campus setting. Because the purpose of this process is to nurture and release the person into ministry and life, rather than control and keep, circumstances such as graduation or a geographic move mean that contact will become occasional. Recognize that the relationship needs to change as circumstances do. This is normal and healthy. It may be appropriate at times that the spiritual "coach" and "athlete" discuss the boundaries and expectations of the relationship to ensure it stays healthy.
Lastly, only same-gender mentoring is recommended, unless unusual circumstances exist or there are extremely clear boundaries and safeguards, because of the potential danger of a mentoring bond developing into an inappropriate romantic one.
This all sounds pretty intimidating to be sure. Where do we start if we want to get involved in this kind of process? Don’t we need qualifications or training or experience? Don’t we all need mentors ourselves before we can even presume to help someone else along? Yes, all these things are good and helpful, no doubt, and should be strongly encouraged. But, it doesn’t take a spiritual guru to touch the life of just one person. If we know how to be a good friend, then that’s a great starting point. It only takes regular folk like you and me to grow in our passion for Christ and make ourselves available to God and one other person.
This isn’t to be a mechanical or technocratic exercise. People are not projects. Rather, let us take the apostle Paul’s example who said to his spiritual children: “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.” (I Thes 2:7-8).
In the end, if we take to heart the Biblical mandate for spiritual mentoring, the example of those who went before us, and what Dawson Trotman once asked, “Where is your man? Where is your woman?”, then let’s be prepared to watch our spiritual offspring grow into a family tree beyond our wildest dreams.
Coleman, Robert, et al. (1994). Disciple Making: Training Leaders to Make Disciples, online self-study course at www.wheaton.edu/bgc/ioe/fud/fudtitle.html.
Eims, Leroy (1978). The Lost Art of Disciplemaking, Zondervan,.
Gumbel, Nicky (1993). Questions of Life: A Practical Introduction to the Christian Faith, Cook Ministry Resources.
Henrichsen, W. (1988). Disciples are Made-Not Born, Chariot Victor Books.
Hull, B. (1984). Jesus Christ Disciple-Maker, NavPress.
Kreider, Larry (2000). The Cry for Spiritual Fathers and Mothers, House to House Publications.
Petersen, Jim (1993). Lifestyle Discipleship, NavPress.
Sanny, Lorne. Making the Investment of Your Life, (4 audio cassettes), NavPress.
Stanley PD and JR Clinton. (1992). Connecting: The Mentoring Relationships You Need to Succeed, NavPress.
Zdero, Rad (2004), The Global House Church Movement, William Carey Library, www.WCLbooks.com
About the Author
Rad Zdero, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. He is part of ‘HouseChurch.Ca’, a team intent on birthing a network of house churches in the greater Toronto area. He is also the author of The Global House Church Movement, available from William Carey Library, www.WCLbooks.com. Contact www.housechurch.ca, firstname.lastname@example.org, 905-820-8846, Mail: Box 42067, 128 Queen St. South, Mississauga, ON, Canada, L5M-4Z0.