Passing the Baton through MentoringBy Trent Griffith
April 28, 2021
The U.S. 4×100 Olympic Relay team was fast. Maybe too fast. The U.S. team has won the gold medal in the event more 15 times, far more than any other country. In fact they almost always win…except when one of the team members fails to pass the baton.
I remember staying up till 2am to watch the 1988 team race live from Seoul. Anchored by Carl Lewis, the 1988 team had assembled the greatest group of sprinters in history. But the baton never made it into Lewis’ hand. Before he got it, someone before him dropped the baton. It happened again in 2008. When trying to explain what happen, Tyson Gay, who was to run the final leg, simply said when he reached back to grab the baton “there was nothing.”
Church planting is dependent on pastors who can successfully pass the baton to others. It doesn’t matter how fast you run your leg of the race. If you can’t transfer what you have faithfully carried into the hands and hearts of others, church planters can’t win.
In one sense, discipleship, leadership development, and mentoring are just a willingness to pass the baton. It starts with a humble acknowledgment that someone passed the baton to us and I have a responsibility to pass the baton to others. It’s healthy and humbling for pastors to be reminded often that our mortality will one day pry the baton out of our hands. But you don’t have to wait until your leg of the race is almost over to ask, “Who’s next? Who’s hand is open ready to take the baton and run the next leg while planting new churches?”
Paul’s second letter to Timothy is a beautiful portrait of a well executed baton pass. Paul knew if the gospel was going to advance beyond his life, he must pass the baton to Timothy. Every Paul needs a Timothy to pass the baton to and every Timothy needs a Paul to receive the baton from.
Some mentoring relationships are rather formal with established meeting times, reading assignments, and growth metrics. To be honest, I’ve always been a bit intimidated by those kinds of formal mentoring relationships. I have much to learn from pastors who have established formal residency programs with clearly defined goals and objectives for budding church planters. But my lack of formality has not prevented me from embracing the responsibility to invest in other pastors/planters.
As an aspiring pastor/planter, I never benefited from a formal mentoring relationship. I just tried to get close enough to guys in ministry I respected to “absorb” them. That is what I have welcomed men to do with me. “Absorb me.” I have found I do my best mentoring by just making myself available. I love building organic relationships with hungry guys who bring me their questions. I don’t always have good answers but I have almost always asked the same questions. That alone is an encouragement to planters as they learn they aren’t the first one to be perplexed by the complexities of church planting and pastoring.
When I read Paul’s letters to Timothy, it seems like a pretty organic relationship to me.
- “Hey, Timothy, remember how your grandma and mama passed the baton of their faith with you, pass that on to others.” (2Tim. 1:5)
- “Hey, Timothy, I know ministry can bring you tears at times. Keep going. God is using you. It’s worth it.” (2Timothy 1:4, 2:10)
- “Hey, Timothy, I see a gift of teaching in you. Fan that into a raging inferno because the church needs good teachers to correct doctrinal error.” (2Timothy 1:6, 2:25)
- “Hey, Timothy, the things you have heard and seen from me, say that and do that with others.” (2Timothy 2:2)
I am convinced those kinds of words in Timothy’s ears, and succeeding generations of pastor/planters after him, is the reason the church is still alive and the gospel continues to advance decade after decade. It’s a relay, not a 100-meter sprint.
Even with informal mentorship, pastors and church have to be intentional about making it happen.
First, we pastors and elder teams must be clear that replication is an essential role of the lead pastor.
I’m grateful that my elders have written into my job description “Gospel entrepreneurship” as one of my essential functions. That tells me that I am not only free to pursue relationships that have a multiplying effect, I am expected to. I am always looking for opportunities to invest in gifted guys who are hungry to learn. Our elders have even built into our church budget compensation for aspiring church planters to join our team as “church planters in residence.” Not all churches can afford to do this but all churches can do something to be open handed with assets and resources to invest in church planting/church planters.
Second, understand that pastoring/planting, like parenting, is more often caught than taught.
Welcoming the next generation pastor/planter into the space of your sermon preparation, elder meetings, grief counseling, and balancing the responsibilities of homelife are classrooms that teach more clearly than sermons or lectures. This is actually quite humbling for me. This exposes my weakness and underdeveloped pastoral skills. But this also gives me an opportunity to teach humility to others…by seeing my weakness. It seems to be a comfort to those I’m mentoring that I feel as inadequate as they do. That is a sense that no pastor can afford to lose. It drives us to the Lord. I hope every greatest lesson anyone learns from watching me is, “God’s power is made perfect in his weakness.” (2Cor. 12:9)
Third, we have to be willing to take the risk that a guy might actually drop the baton.
Pastor/planting are high callings for gifted and qualified men. No one should enter it without the examination and affirmation of an invested elder team. But, we shouldn’t make the bar so high that mentoring becomes a bottleneck. We need more imperfect, unfinished, but qualified men in the race. They may not have perfect form while they run, but can they advance the baton in their leg of the race? If so, give them a chance. Give them some responsibility. Give them pulpit opportunities. Give them the freedom to fail. Not until those we mentor are actually doing the work of ministry will we discover how effective they can be. And, it’s not until we see how they lead, preach, and shepherd that we will have the opportunity to offer constructive criticism. Everyone who passes a baton is taking the risk that the next guy will drop it or not carry it as effectively as we do. But we can’t run forever. We need to trust the Lord will carry the guy while the guy carries the baton.
One of the greatest benefits I have experienced by mentoring others is how they end up mentoring me. After a season of pouring into them, it comes time to send them out. So often, I found myself reluctant to let them go, not because I was afraid they would know how to pastor, but because they had become a pastor to my own soul. I was going to miss how they helped me see things I couldn’t see on my own. I wondered who was going to fill the role they had played in encouraging me. But, when you make yourself available, the Lord seems to keep sending the next guy with an open hand and heart wondering if you will pass the baton and let him run.
Mentoring is not only gratifying and necessary, it is biblical. May it never be said that when the next pastor/planter reaches his hand out to us, there is no baton to receive.
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