blank-timetable“How do you introduce spiritual mentoring into a church without adding more items into the church programme?”

I was having a meal with the senior pastor of a fast growing church recently and he asked me the above question. I was giving him my usual spiel about how I saw relational ministry as being at the heart of Christianity. He basically bought the speech and asked me how to do it without adding new programmes.

I haven’t gotten back to him but I thought I’d use this ecommentary as the beginnings of an answer.

First off I need to define what I mean by spiritual mentoring. This is my definition:

“An intentional, relational process for spiritual formation by which one person becomes a spiritual guide for one or several others.”

This definition is not original of course. It is culled from various books on spiritual mentoring. As it stands the definition is less threatening than the term “mentoring” itself. In the various classes I have conducted on spiritual mentoring, I find that people fight shy of the word mentor.

Perhaps it sounds too much like “guru” in the Asian context. Perhaps there are too many terms flying around that mean more or less the same thing, like coaching, spiritual direction, spiritual friendship etc., so people are confused. Maybe spiritual mentoring as I define it is just another way of describing discipling as it was meant to be.

It is Jesus Himself who modeled the fact that lives are changed primarily through relationships. His first call for His disciples was for them to be “with him” (Mark 3:13-19). Jesus and His disciples lived under the authority of the Word but the Word was learnt in the context of deep personal relationships and rooted in daily life.

It is ironic that the business world has latched on to this truth with a vengeance while the church of God has moved so far from it. Much of Christian education today is done through sermons and lectures, and while there is a place for them, especially for instruction and for inspiration, both Scripture, experience, and the business world tells me that significant life change takes place when people invest themselves in the lives of others.

So how do we do it? Is it just another programme to be added on to an already packed church programme? Is this is the case I will understand if pastors will be hesitant to consider introducing it to their congregations. Hence the pastor’s question.

When I see him, I will suggest the following:

1. Make spiritual mentoring a life style in the congregation.

Indeed helping others grow through relationships is not a programme. It should be a way of life for every believer. Every Christian should be involved. Paul calls Christians to build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

All of us should be looking out for the spiritual potential in those around us and in safe accepting relationships, encouraging people to grow in Christ. Parents should begin with their own children.

2. Use the leaders of existing small groups to do spiritual mentoring.

By now most of our churches have small groups of some sort, for e.g., cell groups. The leaders of such groups should be enlisted to provide spiritual mentoring to those in their group. Sunday school teachers too could do this if their classes are not too large.

This is not as simple as it looks. Sunday school teachers have long been trained to be content dispensers. Not all Sunday school teachers will be comfortable with, or know how to walk in close relationships with their students.

And cell group leaders may know how to run good meetings or help their groups reach out but not all will be comfortable in being spiritual guides to their group members. If the group is healthy there should be peer mentoring encouraged among the members. But someone must first show how it is done.

[At present I have the privilege of leading a group and I try to get to know my group members individually, to know the contours of their life so that I can encourage them to grow in Christ in the particularity of their lives. This is hard work and I do not know to what degree I am succeeding but I try.]

3. The pastor and other key leaders must lead the way.

If the pastor is serious about embracing spiritual mentoring as a way of life, he must lead the way. I was glad that the pastor I was talking to had already planned to meet up with his elders on a regular basis for spiritual mentoring

It is very hard to be a pastor today. He is expected to play so many roles, ranging from inspirational preaching to strategic planning. Spiritual mentoring takes time and may not show immediate results. It’s much easier to give a lecture than to go deep into the lives of people. Letting people closer to you may reveal that you have clay feet. Not all pastors are ready for that.

Sometimes it is the congregation that may not appreciate the primary leader taking time out to shape the lives of key people. People may accuse the pastor of favouritism. If he is guilty of that, then so is Jesus! It is clear that He focused on the twelve, and three within the twelve, even as he ministered to the masses.

Sometimes it is the leaders themselves who do not want to be mentored. Perhaps we should make that as part of the job description. To serve as a leader you must be prepared to be mentored. It might be easier to start a church based on spiritual mentoring then to introduce it to a church where the leaders have never had to have relational accountability before.

4. Encourage the starting up of small accountability groups.

There is much value in small accountability groups. They are a key way to do peer spiritual mentoring. Encourage members to find two or three like minded people. Any group bigger than three or four will find it hard to find common meeting times especially in large urban cities.

Such groups should meet at least once a month. When they meet each group member will share about key developments in his or her life while the rest listen attentively. Appropriate self disclosure and loving attentive listening are two key skills of spiritual mentoring. Richard Foster makes some observations of spiritual formation groups that I find very useful. Here are some of them:

a. I (Foster) like the sense of community. None of us are supposed to live the Christian life alone.

b. I like the nurturing character. The rule for our meetings is a good one: give encouragement as often as possible; advice, once in a while; reproof, only when absolutely necessary; and judgement, never.

c. I like the intentionality. Our purpose is to become better disciples of Jesus Christ.

d. I like the loving accountability. I need others to ask the hard questions about my prayer experiences, my temptations and struggles, and my plans for spiritual growth.

Reading, Foster’s observations, you are struck by two things. One, all Christians should be in such groups, and two, most Christians are not.

Many of our churches are hives of frenzied activity. But we seem to have lost the script when we forget what is our primary business — making disciples, and how we are supposed to do it — relationally. Many are trying to make their churches more productive. The world is waiting to see a new type of humanity.

These then are four things one can do to introduce spiritual mentoring to a church without starting a lot of new programmes.

1. Make spiritual mentoring a life style in the congregation.

2. Use the leaders of existing small groups to do spiritual mentoring.

3. The pastor and other key leaders must lead the way.

4. Encourage the starting up of small accountability groups.

I don’t have time to go into the details of implementation. I am waiting to get back to the pastor. I hope to do some brainstorming with him.

Watch this column for updates.

Your brother, SooInn Tan

Write me! At:

PS. I stand corrected. Dr. James Houston is 83 years old. I knew that yet I put him down as in his seventies. Boy as you get older, your memory begins to play tricks on you. Dr. Houston is one of the people whom God has used to promote spiritual mentoring, especially among evangelicals.