Notes for mentoring someone in Christian work

Anyone who does something a lot internalises the processes that stand behind their actions. They act by instinct and long-learned habit and its important that they do. If I need urgent, life-saving medical help I don’t want the doctor to have to stop to consult the manual

Sometimes, however, there are helpful reasons to stop and consider our habitual practice. Two spring to mind: first to see if, on reflection, there are ways to improve and, second, in order to be able to teach others how to do what we do instinctively

One of the things I get to do a lot of is mentor people in Christian work. I know what to do instinctively through long practice. But the other day, as part of reorganising some documents I thought it would be a good idea to joy a quick proforma down to bring a bit more structure to my mentoring notes and then thought that someone else might find it helpful.
Good note-taking in order to be able to encourage a person further on down the line is simply part of honouring and loving them well

You can find the document here

A few points to bear in mind:

  • It is very much “notes to self” rather than a professional proforma. There are probably such things available that will help you do a better job than this but I haven’t looked hard

  • This is to help me mentor someone. That is, to help them reflect on their life and practise of ministry

  • The exploratory questions are not the be all and end all, just a few categories to help prod a conversation along

  • It is not the same as the notes I would make when discipling or coaching someone

Taming Ministry Chaos

This is a very quick and superficial response to a question I received on Twitter about the kind of systems and structures that someone in Christian work can use to tame the chaos that frequently accompanies it. Others have written more at length, but the below gives and indication of the things I find helpful

I hope someone finds something useful from the thought I have had to give to this for my own use over the years. Mainly I hope you will read this and take comfort from the fact that you are far more organised and far less of a basket case than I am, and don’t need to do any of it because you find it so blindingly obvious

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I can't be honest

Here are two situations I encounter reasonably frequently as I talk to church leaders

1. A leader has become overwhelmed in their ministry situation. There may be a whole raft of factors including:

  • progressive job creep so they are now doing an unsustainable quantity of work
  • the perception they can fulfill a whole range of roles they never originally signed up for and are outside their gifting and calling
  • trying to sustain too wide a range of personal relationships
  • changes in life circumstances, aging and decreased energy levels while they still try to run at the pace they could 15 years ago
  • helping other people in their discipleship walk and ups and downs of life but nobody helps you

The list could go on and on. Often many of the factors will coalesce to form a toxic - and potentially explosive - mixture if not worked through with the help of others and the development of a robust enough support structure.

I have had several similar conversations recently and when I have pointed out that the person is carrying burdens that are simply unsustainable (by anyone) and that something will have to be renegotiated if a health is to be recovered, they have all said the same thing: “I cannot renegotiate because the church will say that I am the one who is paid to do all this.” In other words they feel no choice but to continue to juggling the impossible because it is too threatening to do otherwise. Self-destruction (while trying to look outwardly serene, in control and competent) feels like the line of least resistance.

2. A leader finds themselves involved in a pastoral or disciplinary situation where it is impossible to explain all the details to the church. They take decisions that they have to take knowing they are unable to defend themselves and that criticism they can do nothing about will come their way. An especially difficult version of this is when leaders are under personal attack from people who are happy to spread their side of the story widely but there are good pastoral reasons why the leader is unable to reveal what is really going on. I remember personally one individual behaving atrociously to church leaders (including me) while adopting a totally different character with everyone else, and there were good reasons why it was inappropriate to reveal the person’s true character to the church.

The thing that connects these two types of situations is that in both cases the leader struggles with circumstances that are incredibly personally debilitating but is either unable or feels unable to act to resolve their debilitation. They are vulnerable by dint of being unprotected - they perceive they have no defense against the situation - and undefended - nobody else can come to their aid because nobody else knows about it. And so there is a difference between their public persona and their private struggle. In the first case they feel they can’t be honest and open because it potentially damages them and their ministry. In the second because it potentially damages other people and the wider church.

As I said at the start, I think this is comparatively common. Everyone in Christian ministry will meet these things sooner or later. What is also common is that we only discover whether our support structures - our scaffolding if you like - are adequate and robust enough when the difficult circumstances happen - and in many, perhaps most, instances they aren’t.

Almost all ministry situations begin happy and fulfilled. It is frequently described as a honeymoon - with the slightly cynical expectation that it will wear off sooner or later. But, less cynically, everyone starts off with happy assumptions of the best case scenarios - and therefore rarely put in place robust enough support structures for the worst. Why would you when all has begun so well?

The reason to do so, obviously, is that it is almost impossible to do so when you find yourself in the difficult times. You got used to operating in isolation when your environment was positive and supportive and used your environment as your scaffolding. But when you are debilitated and one of the main debilitating factors is precisely what you used as scaffolding in place of more thorough-going support structures then at one fell stroke you lose the thing that helped you and find yourself in that moment without the emotional resources to construct a positive alternative. At exactly the time you most need it.

Add in the often-observed fact that people in Christian ministry cannot demarcate various areas of their lives in the way others do: it is possible for work, leisure, community, personal spiritual life, family life and church to all merge together. Therefore anything that damages church-as-support-structure has the possibility of damaging all the other areas as well. Areas that for anyone else would be separate from difficulties in the work place. Is it any wonder that many Christian leaders become cagey about trying to protect or draw boundaries around personal life? They have much to lose if things start to go wrong in their ministry sphere and domino into every other area.

Therefore it is important to develop those structures of support when the sun is shining. Needless to say the things that help best when stormy clouds loom are also pretty good when everything is bright. Good support structures include:

  • prayer-filled, worshipping ministry fraternals of depth
  • good rhythms, habits and patterns of rest, refreshment and worship
  • mentors
  • friends
  • accountability groups for leaders and spouses outside of the ministry context
  • opportunities for personal and professional development
  • clarity with the church about expectations of what they expect and what they should not expect, usually set out in a clear job description
  • clarity about the hows and wherefores of how to renegotiate those expectations when necessary

And probably most of all good team life. It is hard for a paid minister to talk about everything with unpaid church officers. For one thing it is unusual for officers to understand the ministry job (even if they think they do). There is just so much you only get to understand from the inside. And, second, the relationship isn’t 100% symmetrical. A paid minister who struggles with a pattern of sin feels far more vulnerable than an unpaid elder or church warden with the same struggle. Nevertheless team - especially elders or the equivalent in your church stream - that prays together, is dedicated to each other and loves each other well is a key means of unlocking the necessary honesty, transparency and help that stop toxic situations turning into explosive ones.


Tips for healthy sabbaticals

I am asked reasonable frequently how ministers can make best use of a sabbatical. A second question that almost always follows quickly on is how can they justify it to church members who never have a similar opportunity. The implication being that it is a luxury, a guilty pleasure that shouldn’t really be considered by those who work hard. Perhaps even an indication of laziness. “People in the church will tell me they don’t have that kind of paid leave so why should I?”  

It isn’t uncommon for those who voice this concern to also indicate that they rarely have genuine sabbath in any form. There is a common temptation to use a time of sabbatical to try to compensate for not having had holy margins of leisure, rest, hope and joy in God for a number of previous years. Needless to say such sabbaticals rarely work well for encouraging the soul, marriage and family or for energising the next period of leadership. They are more commonly unstructured, used for col

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The Heart of Biblical, Spiritual Leadership

As I write this I am looking forward to a week of training junior church leaders at Living Leadership's Formation Trainees Conference.

You don't have to look far in the Bible to find teaching about godly leadership, about godly and ungodly leaders, instruction on leadership for leaders and for churches. There are role models and examples a-plenty and lots of images of leaders: hardworking farmer, athlete, soldier, builder, fool, guide, under-shepherd, labourer, workman, servant (and scum of the earth!). Plenty of teaching to help us understand the spiritual gift of leadership (Romans 12:8).

My favourite verses to begin exploring what the Bible says about leadership in Jesus' church are Philippians 1:25-26:

Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again you will glory abundantly in Christ Jesus on account of me.
— Phil 1:25-26

What would the imprisoned apostle tell a church he would most like to achieve with them on his release and return? Them making progress in the faith and having joy in God so that they are full of delight in the glory of Christ. This is similar to Peter's description of the persecuted Christians in 1 Peter 1. They were full of "joy inexpressible and full of glory" because they were receiving the goal of their faith, the salvation of their souls. It isn't hard to see why a church is effective for God if they are all bursting with joy in Jesus. And it isn't hard to see why a church isn't effective if it isn't.

Of course it begs the question of how to work with people for their progress and joy. What might that look like in practice. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Helping people to delight themselves in the Lord. Helping them love God, love the Son of God, love the Holy Spirit, and to give expression to their love. Leadership is making worshippers
  • Helping them love the Word of God. Which flows from leaders doing so and not coming to the Bible merely as professionals to help others
  • Helping people appreciate the benefits of Christ. Adoption, forgiveness of sins, a home in heaven, entrance into God’s family, freedom from guilt and the curse of the Law, the gift of the Spirit, a new heart, new desires, a Heavenly Father, a great high priest through whom we have redemption. And on. And on!
  • Helping people see the glory of God in the gospel of his grace. Romans 5 says we reign in life by receiving of his grace and the gift of eternal life. Helping them know how to receive and seek God for his grace with them. James 4:6 says "God gives more grace". 
  • Loving people at all times and do them good, especially those in difficulty and distress
  • Having ambitions for where God might take people. Showing them some of what is possible in the Lord if they live and act in faith, especially in world mission
  • Helping others pray. Praying with them. Showing them how we pray. Telling them what we pray for them