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Missional Mentoring: Encouraging Emerging Leaders to Take Their Next Step toward the Mission of God

Author: Phil Claycomb
Published: Summer-Fall 2016

MD 7

Article Type: Text Article

Missional mentoring is at its best when marked by three core traits: a healthy distinction, drawn on the part of the mentor, between the particulars of his or her calling and that of the younger leader; the fostering of an adventurous, risk-taking faith on the part of the protégé; and the encouragement of a fixed attentiveness to the promises and activity of God on the part of both the mentor and the protégé. This article explores the traits of missional mentoring by considering the examples of three biblical mentors as well as the author’s experiences of mentorship.

Missional mentoring is an intentional style of mentoring that encourages young leaders to embrace change and innovation in their pursuit of God’s mission. The challenge is that missional mentoring requires older leaders to confront their own instinctive resistance to change and instead encourage younger leaders to intentionally pursue God’s mission along new and unexpected paths. Charles Handy focuses on this challenge for older leaders noting, “The paradox of aging is that every generation perceives itself as justifiably different from its predecessor, but plans as if its successor generation will be the same.”1 These words are a reminder that it is one thing to initiate change and quite another to have change foisted upon us by others! Missional mentoring is at its best when marked by three core traits: a healthy distinction, drawn on the part of the mentor, between the particulars of his or her calling and that of the younger leader; the fostering of an adventurous, risk-taking faith on the part of the protégé; and the encouragement of a fixed attentiveness to the promises and activity of God on the part of both the mentor and the protégé. This article examines the examples of three often-overlooked biblical mentors who teach us to transform mere mentoring into missional encounters: Eli, Naomi, and Elizabeth. Along the way I will reflect on the intentional mentoring efforts of older leaders who have blessed my life.

In its simplest form, mentoring is a relational experience in which one person empowers another by sharing God-given resources, such as knowledge, skills, tools, connections, habits, and insights.2 This type of relational connectedness does not happen accidentally. Mentoring is a voluntary relationship that is marked by intentionality, intensity, exclusivity, and persistence.3 Eli, Naomi, and Elizabeth shed light on missional postures that transform ordinary mentoring into purposeful missional relationships.

Eli, Naomi, and Elizabeth shed light on missional postures that transform ordinary mentoring.

Eli: Missional Mentoring as Fostering a Spirit of Healthy Indifference

The reader may recall the night young Samuel was awakened by a voice calling to him within the tabernacle (1 Sam 3.) Samuel awakened Eli three times, mistakenly assuming his mentor had been calling him. Eli finally instructed Samuel to respond to the voice by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”4 When the Lord next spoke, the young man found himself listening to an announcement that would prove unsettling for Eli. God revealed a message of judgment on Eli and his entire family. God had also revealed a divine determination to launch something new in the unfolding story of his mission. The function and status of Eli’s priestly family would soon be obsolete (1 Sam 3:11–14.) Later that morning Eli required that his young protégé reveal everything the Lord had spoken. Awkward!

The details of this story have much to teach older mentors about the importance of maintaining a healthy distinction between the particulars of their own calling and that of younger protégés. Without a proper sense of healthy neutrality about the particulars of the younger companion’s calling, an older mentor may unwittingly hinder the emerging leader from fulfilling his or her calling. The intention is not to foster a disregard for the protégé. It is instead to foster a spirit of neutrality: a calculated awareness that younger leaders are sometimes called to follow God in paths the mentor never imagined. It is easy for older leaders to assume that younger leaders function merely to prop up and maintain the older leader’s plans and purposes. This assumption hinders a younger leader’s ability to freely enter into a new era of missional strategy. Eli’s interactions with Samuel remind us that emerging leaders might be called by God to pursue different paths than that of their predecessors. Indeed, older leaders ought also to be reminded, however painful it might be, that God’s new steps forward may portend the end of their own ministry systems and structures.

Younger leaders are sometimes called to follow God in paths the mentor never imagined.

I suggest that Eli’s finest leadership was exhibited not in what he did but in what he did not do. Once Eli realized that it was the Lord calling Samuel, Eli took a step back and gave Samuel the necessary space to encounter God on his own.

The text reveals that visions from the Lord were rare in Eli’s days (1 Sam 3:1). Certainly Eli might have welcomed the opportunity to be present in the room when God finally chose to speak. It is highly instructive that Eli did not intrude into Samuel’s experience. Instead of returning to the room with Samuel to “help” the lad hear from God, Eli stepped back. He sent Samuel back to hear God, alone. This should remind older leaders that we are not to be the focus of our protégé’s attention. Mentoring serves to help the leader focus on God, not to focus the leader on the mentor. God is to be the sole focus! It is also instructive that Eli made no attempt to restate, inform, interpret, or control the negative intent of Samuel’s message. Even though Samuel’s emergence ultimately undermined Eli’s leadership, nothing indicates that Eli resented or resisted the new direction God’s mission took through Samuel. Eli appropriately differentiated his calling and functions from those God had assigned to Samuel. This is set before us clearly in Eli’s response to God’s judgment: “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him” (1 Sam 3:18).

Mentoring becomes missional when it prompts young leaders to pursue the next steps in God’s mission. This pursuit must be encouraged regardless of the consequences for the preexisting structures and personnel. To embrace this type of relationship, older mentors must maintain a healthy awareness of the distinctive differences in the shape and contours of the protégé’s mission and their own. Missional mentors understand that what has been true for them might not be true for the next leaders. What has worked in one generation may no longer work in the next. In order to foster this healthy spirit of neutrality, older leaders might find it helpful to reflect upon Jesus’ response when Peter inquired into the particulars of his fellow disciple’s calling. Jesus’s response to Peter was brief and to the point: “What is that to you?” (John 22:22).

Mentoring becomes missional when it prompts young leaders to pursue the next steps in God’s mission.

The mentor who in my life most clearly exhibited an ability to differentiate between his own calling and that of younger leaders under his mentorship was Bob Sloniger, the director of the Chicago District Evangelistic Association.5 Bob led a church-planting ministry that focused on the greater Chicagoland region. It was Bob who hired me straight out of seminary and assigned me the task of starting new church-planting churches in the suburbs North of Chicago. Bob served as my supervisor during my first thirteen years of ministry. My first assignment under Bob was to launch a church for unchurched people, using only unchurched people to do it. Bob, and his board, wanted to see what might happen were a new church to start without taking members out of neighboring churches. This assignment was a daunting task, and it stretched our imaginations, calling many long-held assumptions into question. Many of the methods the resulting new church utilized were unfamiliar and uncomfortable for Bob. But he faithfully provided me with the gift of a healthy indifference regarding my methods and strategies. Over the years I witnessed Bob fostering a studied willingness to allow younger leaders to try new and unproven ideas. He was not perhaps the most creative leader with whom I’ve worked, but he was one of the most open-minded and tolerant. The spirit of Bob’s indifferent perspective toward methodology was summed up one morning when he sent me home from a meeting with these words: “You just do what you’re called to do, and I’ll watch your backside.” I can’t help but wonder how many young leaders have found themselves held back by older leaders who are unable to properly differentiate between themselves and their calling, and that of the emerging leader. May God give us the ability to foster a healthy distinction between the particulars of our calling and that of emerging leaders!

Naomi: Missional Mentoring as Fostering a Spirit of Adventurous Risk-Taking.

As the story of Naomi and Ruth opens we discover that the wheels had fallen off their lives. Their husbands are dead. They are childless, penniless, homeless, and separated from family. In Naomi’s words, her life has gone from being full to being empty (Ruth 1:21). Naomi summarizes this sharp reversal of fortunes by changing her name from Naomi (meaning pleasant) to Mara (meaning bitter). Ruth faced the additional complication of being an outsider in Israelite society. She was from Moab. Upon their arrival in Bethlehem these women faced two immediate and stark challenges: they needed food and sustenance, and they needed to reestablish connection with their extended family. It was not easy for unattached women to navigate Israelite society. Fortunately, Israel’s traditions provided the possibility that a male relative might take them into his household, care for them, and perhaps even provide them an heir who could continue their husband’s lineage. To do so was to play the voluntary role of being their kinsman redeemer.

Ruth’s passionate refusal to abandon her mother-in-law (Ruth 1:16–17) reveals that a healthy mentoring relationship existed between them. Ruth felt a deep love and affection for Naomi. Ruth’s statement also reveals that her personal faith had been nurtured through Naomi’s instruction, as Ruth referred to God as “your God” (Ruth 1:16–17). But as the story unfolds the reader can witness Naomi’s mentoring advance beyond mere mentoring into missional mentoring as she encourages Ruth to take risky and adventurous steps toward securing a marital relationship with a potential kinsman redeemer.

The barley harvest had just commenced when the two women arrived in Bethlehem. The harvest offered them a lifeline. Ruth took advantage of the opportunity to secure food by venturing into the fields to glean behind the harvesters. This was risky behavior. Naomi and Boaz both confirm that gleaning alone, as a single woman, was dangerous (Ruth 2:9, 16, 22). The dangers associated with gleaning alone in the field, however, paled in comparison with the risks associated with implementing Naomi’s scheme for getting Ruth married to Boaz.

Noticing that Ruth has met Boaz, one of their potential kinsman redeemers, Naomi took it upon herself to initiate plans for Ruth to become Boaz’s wife. Naomi’s strategy was for Ruth to watch and wait until Boaz had properly celebrated the end of his harvest and had enjoyed enough wine to be in good spirits. Ruth was to note where Boaz settled down to sleep so she could later quietly approach Boaz in the dark, pull back his blankets, and settle in beside him until he awakened. After that, well—the plan was risky. Naomi instructed Ruth: “Go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do” (Ruth 3:4). Having executed Naomi’s scheme flawlessly, Ruth returned home to join Naomi as they waited to see what Boaz would do next.

This story highlights a distinction between mentoring and missional mentoring. The missional nature of Naomi’s advice can be seen in the way she fostered and encouraged Ruth’s adventurous spirit of risk-taking faith. Naomi did not attempt to hide or remove the risks she encouraged Ruth to take. Neither did Naomi attempt to artificially boost Ruth’s confidence with a façade of false bravado. She simply pointed Ruth to faint signs of God’s presence and provision. Upon a slight indication of God’s presence and activity Naomi declared that the Lord’s “kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead” (Ruth 2:20). Robert Hubbard notes that the book of Ruth “offers no awesome display of divine might” or “terrifying glimpse of the divine being” but instead depicts God as “present, though invisible to human view.”6 Naomi was spiritually sensitive, showing Ruth how to find faith and courage in dark and uncertain times. As we saw with Eli, Naomi did not presume to act in Ruth’s place. Naomi instead pointed Ruth in the right direction and stepped back to see what would happen. Naomi let her younger companion work things out herself. But she did require that Ruth embrace the adventurous steps needed to prompt Boaz into action.

Normal mentoring can happen without encouraging younger leaders to take risks. But missional mentoring will always involve risk. God’s mission is always moving forward, and those who are called upon for leadership must step out in faith as they follow God’s prompting. The mentors in my life who most fostered adventurous risk-taking faith are the leaders with whom I worked while we launched Stadia: New Church Strategies.7 As our church-planting ministry spread across North America we repeatedly found ourselves facing faith-stretching decisions. Dean Pense, Roger Gibson, Marcus Bigelow, and Dan Converse worked together and mentored me, introducing me to the prayerful process of discerning God’s direction and activity. Under their leadership I witnessed a team embracing God’s next steps forward. And even as I ventured out on my own to launch Nexus: Church Planting Leadership,8 starting churches in partnership with Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, I continued to benefit from their missional mentoring. They encouraged me to embrace the risk that is always attendant with God’s missional ventures. I often wonder how ministry might have been different had I not been encouraged to take risks, try out new ideas, and foster a playful spirit of adventurous exploration. May God give us the ability to foster an adventurous spirit of risk-taking faith in emerging leaders as they pursue the mission of God!

Missional mentoring will always involve risk. God’s mission is always moving forward.

Elizabeth: Missional Mentoring as Fostering a Fixed Attentiveness to God’s Promises and Provision

Luke tells us how John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, found herself unexpectedly mentoring her younger relative Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary’s miraculous pregnancy threatened to derail her marriage with Joseph (Matt 1:18–19). Whereas Ruth had enjoyed the benefit of Naomi’s companionship, Mary initially faced her crisis alone. Fortunately, the angel had told Mary about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy (Luke 1:36). Mary hurried to Elizabeth’s side (Luke 1:39–40), opening the door through which Elizabeth could help Mary fix her attention on the promises and provision of God.

Elizabeth’s relationship with Mary took on the traits of missional mentoring when she proclaimed Mary to be a blessed woman (Luke 1:41–42). This proclamation helped Mary place her circumstances in proper perspective. Norval Geldenhuys notes that it was not after the angel called Mary “highly favored” that she sang praises to God (Luke 1:28). Mary instead sang God’s praises only after Elizabeth, an older companion, had called her the “mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43).9 Elizabeth’s perspective helped Mary appreciate the fact that God was with her even though events were threatening to ruin her life (Luke 1:45). Missional mentoring helps younger companions perceive God’s present activity in current circumstances.

Missional mentoring helps younger companions perceive God’s present activity.

Missional mentors also help protégés sort through and clarify what they believe about God. It is likely that Elizabeth helped Mary craft the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). Luke places Mary’s song in the context of the three months she spent with Elizabeth (Luke 1:56). It is possible that they coauthored the song during their time together. A handful of manuscripts actually attribute the song to Elizabeth and not to Mary.10 As these two women compared their situations it is likely that they would have sought to discern what their surprising pregnancies revealed about God’s purposes and intentions. The Magnificat reveals an intimate knowledge of God’s word, as the lyrics are comprised almost entirely of Old Testament quotations and phrases.11 It celebrates the Mighty One who has begun to turn human society upside down, ushering in the Messianic age (Luke 1:52-53). The shared knowledge that both of their sons would serve God’s purposes in special ways may have boosted Mary’s ability to trust in God. In light of their shared experiences Elizabeth helped Mary realize, “All generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Elizabeth’s mentoring was missional to the extent that it helped her protégé fix her attention solely on God’s promises and provision.

We should remember to read this story in light of the fact that Elizabeth was herself experiencing a miraculous pregnancy. Her pregnancy, at such an old age, made her the object of much attention. After so many years of being barren, Elizabeth finally had her opportunity to be the center of attention. Even so, Elizabeth focused the attention on Mary and not on herself. Instead of letting Mary fuss over her, Elizabeth fussed over Mary. Once Mary entered the scene Elizabeth’s “baby leaped in her womb,” and in a loud voice Elizabeth proclaimed Mary to be the truly blessed one (Luke 1:41–42). Instead of standing back and expecting to hear how blessed she was to have her barrenness reversed, Elizabeth firmly pronounced Mary—an unwed girl, roughly ranked as the very least in Jewish society—blessed above all women. As with Eli and Naomi, Elizabeth willingly and joyfully vacated the spotlight to focus attention on her young companion. In this vein, older leaders need to approach younger companions with a similar spirit of humility. Younger leaders cannot flourish and discern God’s presence and promises in difficult circumstances when older leaders continually seek to be the center of attention.

John the Baptist, Elizabeth’s son, might later have reflected the humility he learned from his mother when he responded to a question about Jesus’ rising popularity by stating, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30). In saying this John responded to Jesus in similar fashion that his mother had responded to Mary. As Jesus observed, “everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). While we do not know the particulars of how Elizabeth trained her son, it is surely not a far reach to assume that her spirit of humility is reflected in the disposition of her son. Like his mother before him, John’s attention was fixed on the promises and provision of God. Missional mentoring turns everyone’s attention to that end.

Missional mentoring turns everyone’s attention to the promises and provision of God.

The mentor who best helped me learn to discern God’s promises and provision was a former seminary professor, Dr. Bill Bravard. Bill surprised me after graduation by calling each month. My surprise grew as he continued, calling each month for the next twenty-five years. I admit that I did not initially warm to Bill’s calls. I was too busy. Too focused by goals. Too captivated by accomplishments. Moreover, Bill’s calls were not designed to encourage work-focused sensitivities. He never asked about my ministry. He always asked about my wife, our children, our marriage, and what I was learning from the Lord. Bill eventually helped me realize that life consists of more than task-oriented pursuits. J. Robert Clinton points out that younger leaders often focus on their accomplishments. They should instead focus on the transformation God is accomplishing within them. This is because healthy leaders minister out of who they are, not out of what they do.12 Bill’s monthly calls weaned me from being focused on my own achievements and quietly led me to focus on the identity I have in Christ. Instead of fixating on what I was doing I learned to give attention to God’s promises and provision, and ultimately to God’s plan. Interestingly, it was not the specific content of Bill’s calls that made the difference. After twenty-five years of calls, which ended last year with Bill’s death, I am unable to recall the specifics of any particular conversation. Bill did not exert his influence in any particular thing he said, but by what he did not say, or more specifically, what he did not ask about. His missional mentoring gradually shifted my focus from my own purposes to the promises and provision of God. May God give us the ability to foster within young leaders a fixed attentiveness on the promises and provision of the God who calls them into his mission!


I have suggested that missional mentoring is an intentional style of mentoring. It is a mentoring posture that encourages emerging leaders to embrace change and innovation as they pursue God’s mission. We can glean from the examples of Eli, Naomi, and Elizabeth that missional mentoring is at its best when marked by three core traits. Eli highlights the importance of mentors maintaining a healthy distinction between the particulars of their calling and that of the younger leader’s calling. From Eli we learn that sometimes the next step in God’s mission might involve the closure of the older leader’s systems and structures. Eli also reminds us that sometimes our best leadership moment comes not in what we do but in what we permit. From Naomi we learn that older leaders best serve younger protégés when they intentionally foster within them an adventurous, risk-taking faith. The steps God wants us to take to pursue his mission will likely require faith, which in modern vernacular might be best identified as risk-taking. Finally, from Elizabeth we learn that missional mentoring involves both the mentor and the protégé meditating on the promises and provision of God.

These three missional mentors filled critical roles in the unfolding drama of Scripture. Eli and Naomi served during the transition from the period of the Judges into the Davidic monarchy. Elizabeth played a vital part as the Davidic kingdom found its ultimate fulfillment in the arrival of the Davidic Messiah. In each instance these mentors had no way of imagining how impactful the mentoring they accomplished with young and unproven leaders might prove to be. They did what they needed to do by helping the next generation do what it needed to do.

I reflect again on Charles Handy’s words: “The paradox of aging is that every generation perceives itself as justifiably different from its predecessor, but plans as if its successor generation will be the same.” Perhaps a slight alteration of his wording better captures missional mentoring: The advantage of missional mentoring is that every generation perceives itself as justifiably different from its predecessor, and makes proactive plans to ensure its successor generation does the same! May God raise up mentors who empower the next generation to passionately pursue the mission of God!

Dr. Philip Claycomb is the director of Nexus: Church Planting Leadership ( Nexus starts churches through collaborative partnerships between Independent Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and other like-minded congregations. Nexus is based in Texas but currently works in fifteen states throughout the central portion of the US. Phil and Barb have been married thirty years and have invested their energies in starting new churches. They spent their first thirteen years of ministry starting four new churches in Chicago. They then worked with Stadia: New Church Strategies for five years (during which time Stadia started seventy-two churches.) Since starting Nexus in 2006 they’ve been blessed to see forty-three new churches launched. Phil spends most of his time mentoring emerging leaders, creating church-planting partnerships, coaching churches and networks, and teaching leadership and spiritual formation courses at Cincinnati Christian University.

1 Charles Handy, The Age of Paradox (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1994), 37.

2 Paul D. Stanley and J. Robert Clinton, Connecting: The Mentoring Relationships You Need to Succeed in Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1992), 33.

3 Walter C. Wright, Jr., Relational Leadership: A Biblical Model for Leadership Service (London: Paternoster Press, 2000), 44.

4 Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

5 The C.D.E.A. (Chicago District Evangelistic Association) is today known as Ignite Church Planting. See

6 Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., The Book of Ruth, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 69.

7 See I was with the initial Stadia team as we launched our national initiative, starting 72 churches in 54 months. My role was to oversee the training and coaching/mentoring provided for these emerging leaders.

8 See Nexus is a North American missions agency that starts churches through collaborative efforts of Churches of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and other like-minded congregations.

9 Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 84.

10 Geldenhuys, 87. Although, the textual evidence strongly supports Mary as the author.

11 Ibid., 84.

12 J. Robert Clinton, The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988), 32.

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