In family life, we call them helicopter parents, because they hover close and swoop in when their wards need rescue. They keep younglings caged and well-padded. They argue over grades with college professors. They sit in on job interviews. They expect daily phone calls and pre-decision consultations.
And these “helicopter parents” run rampant also in Christian ministry. I confess: I am prone to be one of them. But by way of contrast, let me tell a few stories.
I know one guy who served the Lord in a previously unreached part of the world. This community tolerated monotheism, and some folks had been influenced by Jewish ideas. But they had never heard of Jesus or his saving work until this man arrived. His ministry got kicked out of its meeting place several times. He made a remarkable number of enemies. He was even abducted and brought before the local judge on charges of anarchy (thankfully, he was acquitted). But he stayed there for a total of 18 months, preaching and making disciples. When God called him elsewhere, he left a thriving church with regular worship services, a reputation for strong teaching, and a group of pastors and elders to shepherd them.
Did you hear that? This guy trained and launched leaders from unbelief, through conversion, and into competent shepherding in 18 months! If someone new came to my Bible study, I might not even let them lead a prayer time in 18 months. I care too much to allow such reckless indiscretion.
Another fellow in my acquaintance focused on itinerant ministry. He gathered a few trainees about him and poured himself into them, while he hit the preaching circuit. I was amazed by his ability to turn absolutely anything into an object lesson. He coached, explained things, served people, and let his apprentices participate and practice. Within a few years, he began booking his apprentices to preach on his behalf.
While I appreciated the multiplying ministry, I also had significant concerns here. A few of these apprentices didn’t yet have a clear Christology (doctrine of Christ). They hadn’t gone to seminary or received any other formal theological training. But this missionary was convinced their syllabus for learning needed a good proportion of teaching to help them progress faster in their training. It was pretty risky and almost created a disaster.
What Holds Us Back
Why is it so hard for me (and perhaps for you) to let people go, to send them out and let them try their hand at ministry? Why do we hover, hang on to responsibility, and pass things off with stalwart reluctance?
Of course, there are many possible answers. But the main reason for me is that I fear failure. It’s the same reason I hated group projects as a student. It’s why I carry burdens I don’t need to carry. It’s why I find it easiest to do something myself.
Can you relate?
- Do you ever feel like an unskilled apprentice would reflect negatively on your leadership?
- Do you think the stakes are too high for the people you minister to, for a newbie to make mistakes in caring for them?
- Do you believe you’re caring for weaker brothers or sisters when you cushion their fall?
One of the best ways people learn is by feeling the pain of their mistakes. If we are serious about training others to lead Bible studies (or do any other kind of ministry), we must take risks. We must launch apprentices quickly, bring them back to debrief, and send them out to try it again. We need to give them real authority to try things. We must be okay with imperfection. We have to make peace with some people’s needs going unmet while the apprentice figures out how to meet them. We can’t jump in and fix it.
We should be okay with mistakes in the Bible study, mistakes in the small group, mistakes in the pulpit. We should never hammer ministry apprentices for trying and failing, though we might need to admonish them for not really trying.
I was not ready to lead my first Bible study, but I needed that first one so the second one could be better. Someone trusted me enough to let me try it. If I were that leader, training up that younger me, I might not have taken the risk. But I praise God for the courageous leaders in my life, and I want to be more like them.
Postscript: I want my argument to be biblical and not merely anecdotal, so allow me to introduce my two missionary friends from the case studies above. You may find them in Acts 18:1-18 and Luke 10:1-24.