By Eddie Pipkin

Over the past three weeks I’ve broken down and expanded some of the concepts around the flexibility of discipleship initiatives for local churches that Phil and I highlight in our new Disciple Like Jesus resource.  Those concepts grow out of our conviction that “one size fits all” discipleship models need to be retired and “right-sized discipleship” needs to be embraced.  One of the most compelling ways to re-think intentional discipleship strategies is by embracing a coaching and mentoring model.  This week I’ll spend some time defining that model for accountability and discuss how it can work for congregations of all sizes.  Done well, it is one of the most exciting (and biblical) ways to help people grow in their maturity as followers of Christ.

In the final chapter of Disciple Like Jesus, “Discipling Relationships and Skills,” we focus on the differences between mentoring, apprenticing, and coaching (as well as the functions of other well-known accountability systems such as traditional small groups).  Churches have used other terms to describe some of these same functions, such as spiritual guides, spiritual partners, and sponsors matched with new members.  It’s important to have a clear conception of what those roles will look like – what the expectations will be for those who serve in them and how they will be trained and supported in their mission.

Here are some quotes directly from the chapter which break down our analysis of the effectiveness of each of these types of roles:

Mentoring is a word that is often used interchangeably with terms like coaching and apprenticing.  In the professional coaching world, we make a much clearer distinction between these forms of partnering with someone for their personal / faith / discipleship / professional development.  There is consensus that the terms mentoring and apprenticing are very closely related, while coaching is seen to be a very different tool for personal development. . . .

One of our favorite descriptions of mentoring comes from the master coach, Val Hastings, in his Accelerated Coach Training resource:

‘Mentoring is a process of guiding another along a path that you (the mentor) have already traveled.  The sharing or guidance includes experiences and learning from the mentor’s own experience.  The underlying premise is that the insight and guidance of the mentor can accelerate the learning curve of the one being mentored.’

Mentoring is best understood as a partnership between someone with some expertise and experience in something and someone who is seeking to develop expertise.  It is a pouring into a person by the mentor, drawing on the mentor’s training, experience, and character.  The mentor does not have to be an expert in a given topic, just further down the path toward expertise.”

Jesus is an excellent example of mentoring in action.  We love to point out the way in which this focus on mentoring is different from a “come to a class and gain information” model because of the dramatic difference in outcomes to which it is oriented (with thanks to Reggie McNeal for these realignments noted in his excellent book, Missional Renaissance:

  • From standardization to customization.
  • From scripting to shaping.
  • From participation to maturation.
  • From delivering to debriefing.
  • From didactic to behavioral.
  • From curriculum-centered to life-centered.
  • From growing into service to growing through service.
  • From compartmentalization to integration.
  • From age segregation to age integration.

It redefines our typical approach in bold and ultimately more permanent and life-altering ways.

Apprenticing is a more specialized micro-version of mentoring in that it is focused on imparting a very specific set of skills (whereas mentoring is broader and more all-inclusive in scope).  There are many, many opportunities for apprenticing to occur in the local church, as people with a particular expertise and passion are linked together with people who are eager  to learn more about such essential discipleship skills as prayer, Bible study, service, generosity, and pastoral care.  We love thinking about this process in the following way (a process which Jesus practiced regularly with the original disciples):

  • I do, you watch.
  • I do, you help.
  • You do, I help.

Dave and Jan Ferguson, in their book, Exponential, add a component to this process which helps further our understanding of how it grows and expands the circle of disciples.  After every step listed above, they add an additional element, “We talk,” which means there is an intentional debrief of the process which helps everyone stay on track.  Then they add one final fourth step to the process, “You do, someone else watches.”  This is the expansion, disciples making disciples.  There are multiple Gospel examples of this process at work as Jesus prepares the disciples for their leadership roles in growing the church after he is gone.

Coaching is different than mentoring.  The mentor pours out what they know into the mentee.  The coach helps the person being coached draw out their own innate gifts and undeveloped skills – gifts and skills that the coach may not personally possess:

“Coaching, in its purest form , operates from the understanding that the individual being coached already has within them everything they need to be successful.  The role of the coach is to draw out these hidden talents and secret strengths, helping individuals find the things they don’t know they know about themselves.  This is very different from mentoring, in which the role of the mentor is to pour their wisdom, experience, and expertise into the mentee.”

To talk about the role of a successful coach, we like to use the acronym developed by Steve Ogne and Tim Roehl:

C:  Comes alongside.

O:  Observes carefully.

A:  Asks questions wisely.

C:  Considers options.

H:  Holds accountable.

This acronym captures elements of coaching which are essential:

  • Listening
  • Encouraging / Acknowledging
  • Asking powerful questions
  • Responding appropriately (which can take a variety of forms)
  • Negotiating actions (which is all about what form realistic accountability will take)

Thus, coaching is itself a particular skill and one that perhaps best benefits from organized training in how to do it well – mentoring and apprenticing are perhaps more naturally intuitive.  But the sub-skills bullet-pointed above are important in whatever form accountability and discipleship growth take in your unique congregational context (spiritual guides, small group leaders who have been trained in coaching skills, congregational partners or “buddies,” official mentors, apprentice masters, or skill experts.)  The important thing is an intentional approach to connecting people together in ways that will deliver growth dividends in their discipleship:

  • Relationships that lead to spiritual growth partnerships.
  • Collaborative expectations and support to make those expectations a reality.
  • A model that disseminates the responsibility for these relationships beyond a “clergyperson does it all” mentality.

I like to say that it is all about conversation.  I love that addition from the Fergusons that I wrote about earlier: “We talk.”  People should have a clearly designated talking partner, whatever form that conversation takes, whatever title is allocated to the person who steps up to be our conversational partner, whatever structural context is chosen for that conversation to happen on a regular basis . . . we should be having intentional conversations with someone who is our designated conversational partner, and those conversations should revolve around our ongoing plan to grow as a disciple.

It’s pretty basic, but powerful.  Simple steps that pay off in life-changing and world-changing dividends.  And very few churches have an organized approach to this process.  Yes, it happens in every church everywhere, by serendipity, or as an outgrowth of good programs done well.  But in very few places is this process a goal in and of itself, focused on every unique child of God who comes through the doors, so that he and she can have the customized discipleship process that brings out the very best of who God created them to be.

What’s your discipleship process?  Does every person in your charge have access to a personalized conversation to help them figure out how to be mentored, coached, apprenticed, or guided?  What’s holding your back?