Four Ways to Mentor Church Planters

by Juha Jones

Jones offers four ways in which church planters need mentoring—and how they correspond to four eras in a church planter’s life.

In principle, I would be willing to mentor someone in church planting; however, I don’t have time, and anyway, we never got mentored, so surely it can’t be that important.” I hear this refrain in the Arabian Peninsula where I live and work; however, I suspect it is heard wherever there are busy tent-making church planters. The reality is the current generation of mission-minded workers are expressing the need for mentoring. And yet the demand for mentoring does not stop with the newbies; veterans on the field are expecting more mentoring as well.

Most organizations already have some form of mentoring in place, whether they call it mentoring or not. Still, increased expectations will place stress on all our current systems for mentoring, because at its core, mentoring is a very personal and people-intensive task. The increased demand for mentoring in church planters does not come just from within the ranks of traditional missionaries: we are seeing more Christians on the field who are not with traditional agencies, but who are nonetheless wanting to “do more for God.” Some have come to the field intentionally to get involved; others hear God’s call while they are on the ground. As a community of God’s people, we need to be finding ways to transfer wisdom to upcoming workers so that God’s diverse community can join in the worship that is mission.

When we stop to think about what people need when they ask for mentoring, we realize they are often asking for very different things. To aid with our listening, I suggest four ways in which church planters need mentoring.

These roughly correspond to four eras in a church planter’s life.

1. Vision mentoring: developing motivation. Imagine a Filipino worker in Riyadh who is worshiping secretly each week with others. God speaks and a new worker is mobilized. The details aren’t clear yet; however, the motivation is there. Maybe the whole church has caught the vision. Maybe the church is not in Riyadh, but in Rayleigh. The problem is the same: they need to understand what God is saying so that they can take his word seriously.

At this early stage, the individual or group needs a mentor who is able to inspire vision. Intrinsic to this is the ability of the mentor to show how the vision can be implemented. What is the practical outworking of this vision? The mentor will also need to know how to motivate the team to learn. The mentor’s primary task is to help the individual or group understand that they need to learn both information and skills as well as continue to develop their character.

The length of the initial vision mentoring could be as short as a weekend; however, it is more likely to be six months to a year as the individual or group digests the enormity of their call and starts to count the cost. Although some quarters have condemned mission agencies for slow recruitment processes, there is a useful side-effect for the candidates in that they have time to get their minds around what they are doing. Mobilization is going to happen more quickly in the current generation (whether on the field or off); however, that just means we will need to be more intentional about the initial vision mentoring. It will likely mean we will have to do repeated vision mentoring as the individual acclimates to one level of cost and needs to be taken further in the process of dying to self.
Vision mentoring can be an intimate process; however, the crucial element is that the mentor has the gifts to speak into the newcomer’s life with inspiration and authority. Some will regard giving vision for learning and enculturation as an exciting task. Although it can be, we will need to keep before us a key proverb: “Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope.”

2. Skill mentoring: developing ability. People don’t just need vision; they also need to develop the skills to be effective in the community. In the Arab world these skills include: Arabic, Islamics, cultural fluency, and ministry skills. Skill mentoring needs to be carried out by experienced, skilled practitioners. In the Arabian Peninsula in Arab World Ministries (AWM), we encourage new personnel to join an Equipping Team specifically for the purpose of developing those skills (usually alongside language study). The Equipping Team is usually led by two experienced couples who are active in ministry and can therefore mentor the newcomers. While initial full-time language study may be for as little as two years, the process of skill mentoring is likely to last longer, usually at least four years.

The mentor will ensure that information transfer is taking place and skills are being developed with some fluency. Some of the skills are more cognitive than expressive. For example, the mentor will also need to effectively transfer frameworks that help make sense of what is going on. These frameworks will be used and refined as the person’s character matures.

One crucial framework provides the ability to understand diversity and conflict appropriately. It answers questions regarding other workers (i.e., “What is our basis for trusting each other?”). This framework needs to be established early so that the people can keep coming back to it when conflict arises. A second framework will be necessary for understanding the local community with its complex relationships. (This is a topic for another article.) Suffice it to say that without relational and cultural fluency, linguistic fluency will be of little use.

The third major framework is required to handle the ethical issues. It will be vital that the people have the ability to recognize when they have made ethical mistakes in the local culture and in their ministry. Without the ability to recognize mistakes, there is little readiness to turn to God for correction. While the majority of this skill mentoring should occur in the early years, all workers will continue to receive skill mentoring in a variety of areas. Through the skill mentoring process, the experienced mentor will need to keep another key proverb in mind: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

3. Peer mentoring: developing application. Not all mentoring is done by more experienced people. Much is done by peers. In church planting, most of the specific development of individual ministries is done through peer mentoring, as fellow team members give feedback and input into each other’s lives. In the Arab world it is likely that this stage will take the worker to the 10-year mark in his or her service on the field. In AWM, this is often the main function of a church-planting team once the person has finished his or her full-time language study. While vision mentoring could be likened to preaching and exhortation, and skill mentoring can be likened to teaching, peer mentoring is primarily about discernment and encouragement (especially to persevere). The first involve intensive input from senior mentors (usually the team leaders). The main source of input for stage three is the ministering community (team) itself. There may be a ministry team leader; however, in healthy teams, most of the help will come from one another. The emphasis here is on how an individual’s or group’s ministry should be worked out in the local community. It will require discernment by the ministering community with occasional input from roving leaders.

The main objective at this stage is to understand each part of the Body of Christ and how it should interact with the other parts. That way, the ministering community can rejoice in the God-given diversity and exploit it for God’s glory. For example, one person might have a ministry that involves ploughing the ground in advance of other church-planting teams to come in and be fruitful. By now you should be able to find your own key proverb for these mentors.

4. Mature mentoring: removing barriers. While peer mentoring is likely to be required throughout ministry, the intensity of input is likely to diminish as the individual or group becomes established in specific ministries. However, this does not mean that no mentoring is required. Rather, it means that the issues of character will be coming to the fore. Some of those issues will relate to the character of the individuals or ministry group. Other issues will relate to the character of the church being planted.

This is not the time to send a mentor with information; instead, it is a time to send someone who can guide the individual or group to address the issues. It is a time to send a retired or mature worker to encourage reflection on the root causes of the problem and to encourage the person to press on through the pain of character development. This is best done by people who have already seen the pain and pressed on through it themselves. This is more of a pastoral role. The mature mentor needs to visit regularly for an extended period each time. He or she will come alongside, look at the ministry issues, and comment on what is happening. He or she is not there to provide information or didactic teaching, but to help overcome the personal and community barriers to ministry.

These month-long visits must be repeated in order to build a high level of trust and achieve a level of correction. This gives the mentor permission to address heart behaviors, to speak deeply into situations, and where necessary, to say when the workers are working against their ministry interests. Repetition will come with multiple visits.

As we look for mature mentors, we may need to look in less obvious places. A mature mentor may not be the public speaker or the up-front leader. It may be the wife of a leader who has spent her life politely helping her husband see his own self-deception. We have many great resources sitting at home, praying in retirement. We need those grandparents to visit and remind us what we are really doing. We need their wisdom and proverbs applied appropriately to our communities so that God’s Church is planted to thrive.


Juha Jones (pseudonym) is Arabian Peninsula area director for Arab World Ministries. He also works as a tentmaker in the Arab world.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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