So You Want To Launch A Mentoring Structure In Your Church?

So you’re thinking about starting mentor structure in your church? I like the number 5 for some reason, so here are 5 very important Lessons that you can glean from our experience as you embark on this journey. It goes without saying that your pastor (if you’re not the pastor) has to be 100% onboard with this idea, or it will fail before it gets out the gate.

Building a mentor structure is a lot like building a fire. The balance of oxygen to fuel and heat has to be managed.

Lesson 1: Start small

Like starting a fire, you don’t grab a lighter and a log and try to set the log on fire with it. The lighter will overheat and all you’ll end up with is a burnt hand and a black mark on the log. No, you have to start with the smallest of kindling and a spark.

It’s easy to see the world “going to hell in a hand basket,” and want to do something about it TODAY, which sometimes looks like an older person grabbing a younger person and letting them know what all is wrong with their generation. That is one method….probably not a good one, but it is one method.

By START SMALL, I mean, don’t try to start 5 groups at the same time, using elders in your church so you can cover more ground quicker. It needs to start with one mentor. Everything flows from that so that the same ethos can be passed down. One group can potentially spread into four groups with each of your apprentices taking on four apprentices.

You may have just one apprentice that you’re pouring your life into. That’s okay. If you have a few (no more than four is my suggestion…Master Splinter was a pretty wise dude…rat…whatever) make sure they are FAT: faithful, Available, and Teachable. How will you know if they are? Article coming out soon.

You’re going to want every session to hit them right where they are…that’s if you’ve made it to the point of meeting regularly. How will you know if you’ve made it to this point? Read this article (the Master’s Method: coming out soon) to find out. That article lays out the whole plan, start to finish with one apprentice. This article assumes that at least one apprentice has signed onto the program and they are eager to learn.
It’s important in this structure that you see it as an ongoing thing. It’s not something they graduate from, necessarily, unless they move to another town, or graduate high school. At that point, make sure they know they can always call you and that you’ll find time for them as soon as you can if they do.

I’ve seen that it works best when mentors are still being mentored so that they don’t get a big head and become power hungry, and or, unaccountable.

Lesson 2: Take your Time

As the spark catches the tinder on fire, give it a few seconds, then add little sticks, then bigger sticks, then branches, then logs.

In our analogy, that means: meet them where they are, not where you want them to be. You are the mentor, you’ll have the end in mind, but they can only see just the next step, so don’t overwhelm them. The worst thing you can do when building a fire is get in a hurry and try to skip steps, so…take your time.

I tell my guys, “be willing to stay in one place for at least 10 years if you want to make a difference.” This is not a sprint, but a marathon. Mentoring is an INVESTMENT. It’s important that you know what you’re getting yourself into.

You may feel the urge to crank out disciples as quickly as you can because it seems strange to put so much energy into one group of four people, but that is the worst thing you could do. Invest deeply into these disciples for at least two years, meeting weekly.

What should my weekly meetings look like? (Mentoring Session Structure: click here). A mentoring structure isn’t built in a day…but it IS built daily. Don’t rush their development. Find them where they are and give them little steps along the way, laced with challenges for them to overcome.

In my “second ring” we would go out to Palo Duro Canyon and climb a different cliff each week. Our lesson time was minimal, and our bonding time was a larger portion of the time we spent together. Hear me now, the Lesson wasn’t non-existent, but it was a smaller portion of our time back then.

It was our goal to map out in our own minds every nook and cranny of Palo Duro Canyon. While we were talking along the trails or weaving through thorn bushes, we’d talk about life and how it was with their souls. And when we got to the top, we’d pull out whatever book we were going through and discuss the principles in that chapter.

Lesson 3: Make Every Session Count

So start small, take your time, and make sure every session is REALLY, REALLY GOOD. It has to be worth their time. They’ll never tell you it wasn’t worth their time…they’ll just stop showing up. Any lame excuse will be enough to keep them from showing up. Listen, people have time for what is important to them…so make it worth their while.

If you want this to work, you have to put your very best into this. Mentor sessions should not be something you just “wing it” on. This is our Quality Control.

Every time I go to that coffee shop in Canyon where I meet my boys, I feel like I’m changing the world. The day I stop believing that is the day I need to retire. Mentoring is a time-traveling-mission-trip. What we do today affects tomorrow, like planting a seed that will eventually show fruit after many years.

So be prepared. Be on time, whether they are or not. Be the Miyagi (from Karate Kid). Say it with me, “Be the Miyagi!” Ask good questions. Look beyond their questions to what they are really asking. Be vulnerable. Let them into your life. Keep some mystery.

Part of making every session count is what happens “outside of class.” Make sure that your time with your apprentices isn’t just “in session” but along the dusty roads as things come up like Jesus did. His class was always in session.

Lesson 4: Start with the end in Mind

Do that….and then work your way backward to where you are now.

With our fire analogy let’s look at it like this. Before you go to start a fire, you need to get the rocks set around the pit to the size that you’re going to want it to grow into, right? You’re may want a really big fire, so that ring is going to be really big. You also have your fire starting material nearby, your fuel set out in stages (kindling in one spot, small sticks in another, branches in another, and logs in another…all within reaching distance). You’re planning for the end in mind….and then you get the smallest pieces, get in the middle of that fire pit, and start a very small teepee of sticks). 

Let me lay out what we do as a Mentoring Structure at the Wesley. It doesn’t have to look like this at all. You can develop your own structure…the point is that it has to be a good structure. Good means that it can be reproducible and exponential.

At this moment, the Wesley has gained so much momentum that we don’t have to talk much about GROW (our mentoring program) because the word of mouth spreads it quicker than our marketing ever could. Momentum is your best friend, but you won’t start with it.

Think about going water skiing. When you say, “hit it!” and the boat takes off, you feel like you’re going to be pulled in half. The pressure is intense…but if you hold on long enough, you get pulled up on the top of the water’s surface tension, and when you do that, it’s so much easier. Now with the flick of the ankles, you can go flying one way or the other. This is what John Maxwell called in his book 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, “The Law of the Big Mo.” Once you have momentum, you can do so much more….but that’s why you have to start small, take your time, and make every session count. All of those steps will begin to gain you momentum.

So imagine that you have that momentum. Close your eyes. Take a look around at that snapshot. What does it look like?

For us it looks like this. I am mentoring 4 guys. We call this a “Ring.” These four guys mentor four guys, who mentor four guys. We are three rings deep, and sometimes four. We have established a “High Council” of our top mentors who conduct “The Trials” which apprentices go through to be “Green lit” to be mentors.

This High Council also looks at all those applying for GROW (personality type, disposition, work ethic, interests, etc.) and the makeup of the mentors to see who all would fit with whom. On this, we look at chemistry between the mentor and the apprentice, as well as the chemistry between the four “brothers” or “sisters” in that “ring.”

Now days we have about 40 who apply for GROW each spring semester, so the High Council deliberates who would fit with who for the better part of a day in December. They call the mentor and ask them if they’d be willing to take on these four people, and that deliberation goes on as we switch people around until all the ranks are settled.

After this, we let the mentors know who they have (which the High Council has on a Google doc to keep it all straight). The mentors then send out an I-C-N-U letter to their apprentice anonymously. They usually say what they see in them and what they are looking forward to in the next semester, serving as their mentor but they don’t tell them who they are yet (that’s the mystery). Over Christmas break, the apprentices get these letters and are anticipating who their mentor is going to be.

Now this would never work without the momentum that I’m talking about. Starting fresh, you would have to approach this much differently. It would probably look something like you going up to four people individually and telling them that you see great potential in them, and that you’re looking at starting a special group aimed at developing spiritually and in leadership development. If they seem interested, then ask them if they’d like to go out to lunch with you sometime. Do this one at a time and be measuring their interest level to see if they’re really “in it.” We’ve been doing this since 2008, and so it operates differently on a big scale than on a first ring.

And it’ll never be perfect…I’ve had many, many apprentices walk away from me or the faith. But failure should never keep us from getting back up and trying again.

So, in Januarys, we have a huge meeting where all those who have been accepted into the GROW program come together.

All the mentors are up on the stage with lit candles. As the apprentices come down the stairs, we hand each of them an unlit candle. And as they are seated, I begin to tell the story of how mentoring changed my life, how Dennis Warren, my mentor, knighted me. I hold up the sword that he knighted me with, and with which we have knighted hundreds of mentors over the years.

We knight the new mentors who have just passed the trials. Then, almost in an NFL-draft-sort-of-way, we have the new mentors stand in the middle of the stage and call out the names of the new ring. Everyone cheers as she lights their candles and the other mentors circle around them and pray over them. After we pray, they go out and stand in what we call “the great ring” all around the room, candles lit.

After all the groups are matched up (we call these “combos”) the mentors go to predetermined locations around town to get coffee, or dinner, and the mentors get to know their new apprentices. They usually start by telling their testimony and then go around the circle telling their stories as well. They give them their “Master Plan of Evangelism” books and lay out the plan for the semester.
That’s our snapshot. You may start with that, or some other snapshot in your mind and then start working your way backward.

For so many people to be placed in a ring, we need a high council-type-thing that can organize it so no one falls through the cracks.

5. To need a High Council, you’d have to have a lot of people being mentored.

4. To have a lot of people being mentored, we have to have more mentors.

3. To have more mentors we have to have someone who is creating mentors.

2. To create mentors it’s probably going to take at least two years of one mentor, meeting with 4 apprentices in weekly sessions.

1. To start mentoring, you’d need to know what your core values are that hold everything together. Those will lead you to that snapshot at the end.

Seeing the picture?

Lesson 5: Hold the Line on Mentor Quality Control

Whoever is “green lit” to be a mentor has to be the banner wielder of your CORE VALUES. (Look forward to This Article on Core Values that will be released soon). If you have different values as you begin to spread, the thing will crumble. You’ll be working in opposite directions and won’t have the synergy you’ll need to push to the next level.

Whoever is the the first mentor has to select the most faithful, available, and teachable apprentices…people he can see who could possibly “teach others also.” Keep the standards high. Never cancel a meeting for anything less than an emergency…like someone dying.

When they are ready to be Green lit, just remember, this isn’t about “Fair.” Fair doesn’t help anyone. If you have two guys who are really into it, and two who are dragging behind, don’t green light those two. This can be a great teaching moment for the two who didn’t make it, while honoring those who took the challenges and succeeded. That will not be comfortable for you to do, but remember there are four people that are going to be counting on this mentor. Whatever you create will reproduce because “we teach what we know, but we reproduce who we are.” These are going to be the first DEMONSTRATORS. If there’s ever a break in the chain of quality, you will only be as strong as your weakest link.

I know…I know. WHAT ABOUT GRACE, MIKEY? Agreed. Grace is for all of us….leadership is not according to 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, and Titus. No, my friends, leaders are held to a much higher accountability. Always remember however, every leader is also first just a Christian.

Just think, you don’t want someone operating brain surgery on you who has an “honorary doctorate degree” do you? What could be more important than spiritual mentoring? So give it your very best, and you be the “keeper of the Vision.”

So, to sum it up:

  1. Start Small
  2. Take your time
  3. Make every session count
  4. Start with the end in mind, and work your way backward
  5. Hold the Line on Mentor Quality Control 

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