Written by 2:22 pm MINISTRY

Mentoring Future Ministers Is a Community Project

When I first began mentoring young men who sensed a call to pastoral ministry, my approach was mostly one-on-one discipleship on steroids. I had him read a high stack of books, discussed them with him, and shared how I did my daily devotions, how I sought to love my family, and so on. Before long I realized that, while these were good and necessary things, I was really just transforming him into a “mini-me,” subject to my myriad weaknesses and limitations. He was getting a flat, one-dimensional view of shepherding a local congregation.

My longtime friend Phil Newton showed me a more excellent way. It transformed the way the church I served approached mentoring and internships. In addition to reading and talking about core doctrines, preaching, and ecclesiology, I began to take young men with me on hospital visits, include them in counseling sessions, and let them preach God’s Word to our congregation. I had them spend time with church members in real-life settings. In short, I began to see mentoring future ministers as a community project.

Thankfully, Phil has made available all he told me and much more in his new book, The Mentoring Church: How Pastors and Congregations Cultivate Leaders (Kregel). These are principles he’s honed and modeled with remarkable effectiveness for more than three decades as pastor of South Woods Baptist Church in Germantown, Tennessee. I asked Phil about the book and how he has sought to apply his methods to mentoring and internships in his church.


Your new book is The Mentoring Church: How Pastors and Congregations Cultivate Leaders. What is its central message for local churches?

I put it like this in the introduction: “The most effective mentoring teams together pastors and congregations to help shape those who will serve Christ’s churches.” Every potential leader in ministry—future pastors, missionaries, elders, kingdom workers—needs pastor-led mentoring sharpened by life in the congregation.


You argue the entire congregation should be actively pouring into the lives of future pastors and emerging local church leaders. What are some practical ways we should be encouraging and training members toward this end? How has this worked at South Woods Baptist Church?

While one-to-one mentoring is useful and needed, it can result in a one-dimensional view of Christian living, pastoral work, and family life. In other words, the one I’m mentoring hears my views on Christian living and pastoral work neatly packaged in one-on-one conversation. That’s not a bad thing. But it’s limited. One-on-one mentoring sometimes breeds a sterile atmosphere where we discuss ministry “how-to’s” instead of facing ministry in the messiness represented in the congregation. That’s not a criticism of the congregation; it’s just the reality we face even in healthy churches as we’re being sanctified together while working through our lingering sins, idiosyncrasies, family issues, health concerns, mental and emotional challenges, and so on.

In real-life community the one-on-one lessons and lifestyles begin to shape thinking and hone ministry. For instance, I can sit in a coffee shop with a brother and talk about how to minister to suffering people. But those conversations take on a different dimension when he actively engages with the congregation, where the suffering have faces. It’s not that he’s being verbally instructed by members of the congregation on what to do in a given situation; rather, they teach him by the way they’ve learned to apply the gospel to suffering or by how they’ve found joy amid difficulty. I cannot teach that in a box. It takes congregational involvement in this kind of pastoral work to add multiple layers of understanding and practice. The normal relationships of doing life together in the body quietly instructs. While I might occasionally ask a member to invest time in a young aspiring minister, it’s really built into the church’s DNA to serve, encourage, exhort, love, and care for one another. That’s the atmosphere for mentoring where pastor and congregation partner.

For that reason I don’t want to do anything that isolates mentees from the congregation. I want them in the middle of everything so that they soak up life together (to use Bonhoeffer’s phrase). They do childcare during worship services, serve as counselors at youth camp, visit shut-ins, participate in Sunday school and mid-week classes, sweat on church work days, work with refugee ministry, go on mission trips, and the like. In all of those settings, they’re rubbing shoulders with Christ’s body. They’re watching, listening, and learning how to serve and shepherd his bride. Things we’ve discussed in a room now take on life. The congregation is teaching them, most often without realizing it.


You set forth Jesus and Paul as mentors par excellence. What are some basic things we draw from them that should inform our mentoring?

Let me give five examples from the mentoring of Jesus and Paul.

First, mentoring involves life-on-life, as evidenced by Jesus immersing himself with his disciples. Paul did the same. Unlike the roving philosophers and rabbis of the first century, Jesus called those he mentored “friends.” Paul showed the same with those he mentored. Close friendships usually don’t develop in a classroom atmosphere. It takes life-on-life in other settings to cultivate that friendship.

Second, mentoring occurs in community. Jesus didn’t isolate the disciples to teach them but did so, at minimum, with the twelve or with three, and quite often with many more. We find Paul traveling to Jerusalem with at least a team of eight (Acts 20). Titus and Luke were likely mentored in the Antioch community where Paul and Barnabas served. We certainly find the messiness of relationships in all of those mentoring situations.

Third, mentoring gets close enough to correct and to speak into one’s life. A preacher or teacher can level all sorts of admonitions safely behind his lectern. But to speak into a life, the mentor must build enough trust to address the details of life and ministry. Jesus and Paul modeled this practice.

Fourth, mentors ask questions to stir the thinking and maturing of those they mentor. Instead of an “information dump,” mentoring should be more of a goad toward thinking and biblical application. Jesus did so regularly in his ministry with the twelve. Questions help brothers think in order to learn to shepherd, preach, and serve.

Fifth, mentoring involves raising expectations to minister with excellence. Jesus did that with the twelve and the seventy (Luke 9–10). Paul certainly did that with Titus and Timothy in the pastoral epistles (e.g., 1 Tim. 4:11–162 Tim. 2:1–74:1–5Titus 1:52:1–15).

You also draw deeply from the well of church history to illustrate solid discipleship. Which figure or figures leave us with the best example for raising up ministers to serve in the church?

I love what Zwingli and Calvin did in training up gospel workers. What they modeled through personal diligence in pastoral work, pastoral scholarship, and excellence in preaching bears repetition, even though we will do it a bit differently in our setting. Through the Prophezei with Zwingli and the congrégations with Calvin, men received opportunity to hone preaching skills, learn to take criticism, and discover how to preach Christ from all of Scripture.

Charles Spurgeon and Dietrich Bonhoeffer deeply affect me. Both men modeled life-on-life with those they mentored. They involved the men in ministry, had them in their home, talked life together, laughed together, prayed together, and in some cases, suffered together. Zwingli and Calvin had the structure in place, while Spurgeon and Bonhoeffer, with similar structures, appeared to be more intensely engaged with those they mentored. All four did their mentoring in community rather than one-on-one isolation. The testimonies of numerous men affirmed the effect of not just life with a great mentor but also the impact of mentoring honed in community.

It seems a church of any size could follow your mentoring model—it doesn’t depend upon size or budget. How would you counsel a small church to invest in future leaders?

One of my concerns is that pastors of smaller churches mistakenly think they have little to offer in terms of mentoring. As a young church planter, I called a well-known pastor’s office to see if I could schedule an appointment with him to discuss ministry. His assistant said the first opening was three months out. I politely told her, “Never mind.” What many of these pastors lack due to the large number under their care is a flexible enough schedule to invest in the slow process of life-on-life mentoring. Although busy in their own setting, smaller-church pastors intersect life more often with those they might mentor. Church size should never become an excuse to keep from mentoring. Mentoring is just ongoing discipling. And you don’t depend on a budget to do this. You just do it.

Smaller-church pastors need to look for young men who show an interest in ministry and invite them to begin meeting to read through a book or to discuss preaching or to talk ministry. Then they need to take these young men with them on visits, funerals, weddings, and any other situation where they can better feel what ministry is about. The process need not be overly formal or financially costly. Just do life and ministry together in Christ. Trust the Lord with the results.

How should churches work together with seminaries and Bible colleges to train men for ministry? How does one complement and accentuate the work of the other?

Most local churches cannot do what seminaries and Bible colleges can in offering a broad curriculum of theological, historical, missions, and language studies. A few do, as shown in my book. I haven’t the slightest thought of trying to teach Greek to our pastoral interns. I’m glad to let seminaries do that.

But seminaries and Bible colleges cannot do what local churches do in the experience of life in community. The academic atmosphere, while challenging and enjoyable, does not adequately prepare a young pastor for counseling a failing marriage or coming alongside a couple who’s just lost a child or helping parents deal with rebellious children or navigating the multiplied messiness of relationships. Only life in community under the patient, wise mentoring of seasoned pastors or elders can do that.

So both should work together. Spurgeon and Bonhoeffer understood that those preparing for ministry need the rigor of academic work, but not in isolation from the realities of life in Christ’s body. (See the forthcoming book 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me, edited by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson.)

My dream would be for seminaries to catch a vision for partnering with churches to mentor their students, even to the point of not awarding ministry degrees without mentoring in the local church. Otherwise they are unprepared for ministry. The dropout rate for ministers and missionaries speaks to this issue. Thankfully, several schools appear to recognize that their students need the local church’s honing as much as they need the seminary, maybe even more. They are taking steps to provide internships, engage with churches in offering theological courses, using skilled pastoral theologians in teaching, and so on. May their tribe increase!

Let’s say I’m a pastor with young men in my church who may be called to ministry, but I haven’t been doing much to disciple these men toward ministry. Where should I begin? Where did you begin?

I got started mentoring men when on a church staff in college. It affected me as much as it did those men. That was more than 40 years ago. I recently traveled to speak in that church, and those brothers told me that what I taught them and what we lived together in community still affects them. Some are leaders in their churches. I must say the content I taught was lacking, as was my walk with Christ. Yet by God’s grace, those times bore fruit that endures.

In another church, two teenage guys sensed a call to ministry. I took time with them to talk about the Word, ministry, evangelism, prayer, devotional life, and the Christian walk. I wish it had been more structured. But today, those two guys serve together in a growing church. If anything, the strength of that time was simply life-on-life.

At South Woods, where I’ve served the past 30 years, I got started mentoring when a young man moved to Memphis to attend seminary. He joined our church and became part of my life, my family, and the congregation. We studied the Word, prayed, visited together, talked about life and ministry, and went on our first two mission trips together. Today he is serving as a missionary. Over the years I’ve tried to structure what I do according to the specific men being mentored and according to what I’m able to do in addition to other responsibilities. I keep in mind that I can never do all I’d like to do. I just strive to do what I can.

Also, I’ve found one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. So I value life-on-life that helps hone the approach to what we study and discuss over a semester. We read and discuss books, work through Scripture to sharpen hermeneutic and homiletic skills, and talk about everything that has to do with ministry. Together, we’ve attended conferences, gone on mission trips, and participated in other events so that we develop the life-on-life mentoring relationship. In that process, the men also help to sharpen one another. The best thing is it’s all done in community, so that we’re learning from one another and refining our practice of ministry in the realities of congregational life.

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Tags: , Last modified: May 12, 2023