“I need your coaching and advice,” is an email I often receive. Sometimes I can help, but many times I cannot. So my response is usually, “Have you called your denomination, network, or fellowship leader or partner?”
You see, one of the advantages to being in a denomination or network of churches is the accessibility of mentoring relationships. However, despite these advantages, evangelicalism has witnessed an explosive growth in non-denominational churches and movements in the past two decades. As I wrote about for Christianity Today and CNN, even as denominational membership, baptism, and attendance have declined, evangelicalism has actually grown.
While there are many reasons for this shift, the choice to go it alone has had the unintended consequence of producing pastors without access to the networks of pastoral mentoring denominations provide. As a result, pastors who go it alone are missing out on one of the great benefits of pastoral community.
Deprived of a built-in mentoring system, pastors in need of peer counsel (which should be all pastors) have to seek it out and forge these bonds themselves. Below, I want to give some helpful tips for non-denominational pastors on both the why and how of pastoral mentoring.
How I Deal with Pastors Seeking Mentoring
As the phenomenon of non-denominational pastors has grown, I’ve tried to encourage pastors to develop their own networks. Too frequently, pastors want guidance from leaders or authors instead of seeking out community as a place for effective mentorship. When pastors confess that they have few or no relationships within their community, I explain that that is exactly why they need to be in community with others.
For a long time, denominations have served this purpose and I often encourage pastors to join denominations or networks where this relationship can be developed on the basis of shared theology and mission. I’m always glad to call leaders of these organizations on behalf of pastors and they are enthusiastic about partnering with churches on the frontlines. Ultimately, we all need to be on a team and live on a team with other people.
Leaders Have A Responsibility
This redirection can be a challenge.
At first glance, directing people towards community with others (instead of ourselves) can seem unloving. But instead of seeking the good of others, we must seek what’s best, and that can sometimes mean we say no so that those who need community say yes to what will ultimately lead to greater discipleship, mentoring, and learning opportunities.
Pastors who have chosen to go outside the care of denominations, networks, fellowships, or movements often find themselves outside of the relationships they will need.
Moreover, it isn’t fair to either party to expect someone to speak wisdom into a life he or she does not know well. Counsel given without the pertinent details and/or without a deep relationship with the pastor is like shooting a gun blindfolded. To use another comparison, it’s like getting medical advice on the radio. Likely the generalities will work, but until we know the person, we may make the situation worse. Far more damage and hurt can be caused by some factoid initially thought irrelevant or from hearing only one side of the story. This creates undue pressure on a person trying to advise a pastor that he or she doesn’t really know.
We have a responsibility to help people seeking mentoring to get it from people who can best give that mentoring.
God Designs and Blesses Mentoring Relationships
It is a blessing to walk in relationship with people.
One benefit is shared experience and purpose. These are valuable when seeking and giving guidance. The Apostle Paul provides us the model. Speaking to the Philippians he says, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Phil. 3:17). And again to the Corinthians, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:16-17).
While Paul had taught and established an example for these two churches, he exhorts them to be led by those who were mature in the faith and present.
Just as Paul loved these churches, I love every pastor that calls and every church that pastor serves. And, to be honest, I would love to take every call from a pastor seeking advice. (This is one of the reasons I sometimes offer random advice calls over Twitter.)
But I can’t generally do so on a regular basis if I am not in community with those people, which is why pastors and leaders need to find the best mentoring in their networks, denominations, and friendships.
Perhaps you don’t have a community like that. My advice for evangelicalism’s growing population of non-denominational pastors is this: “Get yourself into nurturing network relationships.”
The technical term for this is not denominationalism. It is connectionalism. You have to be connected. You cannot be responsible for people for whom God has not made you responsible. You should not expect someone to be responsible for you if you aren’t willing to live in accountability with them.
If you want to take steps to partner with an established denomination, there are many options you can explore to find the best theological and missional fit. If you intend to remain non-denominational, then perhaps a network is right for you.
But, for all of us, we need some form of community and accountability. That’s where the best mentors are.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.