Be sure to leave your light on!

A call to intentionally mentor a new generation of Christian leaders

R. Leslie Holmes, DMin, PhD, is senior pastor of Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church in Lexington, South Carolina.

When Roberto Goizueta suddenly died not long ago from complications with lung cancer, Coca-Cola stock barely flinched on Wall Street.

It's hard to understand why. After all, Goizueta led the Coca-Cola Company for 16 phenomenal years. The winner of the famous cola war, Goizueta was the driving force at the helm during Coke's incredible rise in popularity and financial worth. Under his leadership, Coca-Cola's market value soared an astonishing 3,500 percent!

Yet when the final tally is taken of his reign as cola king, Roberto Goizueta's single greatest contribution to his organization may well not be seen to have been his contribution to the bottom line but rather that he remembered his own mortality. For this reason, he mentored a cadre of potential successors that by some estimates runs four deep. As a result, even if some unforeseen tragedy removes Douglas Ivester, Coca Cola's new leader, there are still Goizueta-trained leaders to step in on short notice. Mr. Goizueta demonstrated a lesson from which Christian leaders might well learn.

Leaving the light on

A mother and her four-year-old daughter visited Abraham Lincoln's birth place in Springfield, Illinois. Unfortunately, they arrived at the house after it had closed to tourists for the day. The mother, not to be undone, stood outside and described Lincoln's life and contributions to America's history. She told her daughter of his rise from log cabin to White House and his sense of justice for all. She spoke of his victory over setbacks and closed by noting how, when Lincoln was assassinated, the whole nation mourned. As the little girl listened, her attention was captured by the glow from security lights inside the house. "Look, Mommy," the child exclaimed, "he left his light on."

Roberto Goizueta, in a real sense, left his light on. His succession plan was implemented years before his death. He did everything in his power to guarantee that the business he led would not go dark with his passing.

Contrast that example with the all too common model of leadership within the church. How many times has the work of great leaders in the Lord's vineyard suffered when they passed from the scene because of an unwillingness, or even an inability, to prepare for a seamless succession? In some denominations there is an unwritten assumption that the person who follows a strong leader will automatically be a short-termer. This reality is a personal, professional, and community tragedy that does nothing to advance the gospel. Indeed, to fail to prepare a new generation of leaders is almost like asking the church to die. Not to plan is to unwittingly conspire with the one who would close our open Bible and silence our preaching; it is to hinder the teaching and mission of the church in the next generation.

Roberto Goizueta believed the final great test of leadership is often what hap pens after a leader leaves. A few days before he died, he even sent a deathbed message to his board. It said, "If you want to worry about me that is okay, but don't worry about the company. When I die, the company will be in better hands than ever." That kind of statesmanlike, big-picture thinking needs to be modeled more often in the church. Be cause he believed this way, Goizueta cared enough about his organization to offer him self as a mentor.

What is a mentor?

In Greek mythology, Mentor was a friend of Odysseus, who became a wise instructor, guide, coach, and encourager to Odysseus' son, Telemachus. At Odysseus' request, Mentor groomed the young man for success and leadership. This relationship was a wise and visionary arrangement that gave Telemachus more than mere book learning.

The mentoring process is almost as ancient as time. Moses mentored Joshua. Hannah entrusted her son, Samuel, to Eli, the elderly priest, for mentoring. Elijah mentored Elisha. Barnabas, whose very name, son of encouragement, implies the mentoring principle, mentored the newly converted Paul, who in turn mentored Timothy. Each in turn intentionally demonstrated the practical skills he had learned.

Not only in the world of business and the church has mentoring been an effective training tool, but in traditional European trades, young would-be craftsmen have for years been assigned to mentoring apprenticeships with a master craftsman. At the end of periods as long as five years, the young men become journeymen who are encouraged to function without supervision, confident they can still call on the master craftsman for advice as needed. After two years as a journeyman and following appropriate professional testing, they are finally received as craftsmen. From the master, the young apprentice learns not only the skills of his trade but some skills of life. Often the bonding that occurs during the mentoring period lasts a lifetime. In some cases, the mentor and his former apprentice became like father and son.

The craftsman mentor's central thrust is to be a coach who motivates his apprentice to excellence. Through practical demonstration, he imparts advice, perspective, practical skills, professional pride, attitude, catharsis, accountability, and plain old-fashioned "know how" designed to help the apprentice succeed at his trade and at life itself.

Mentoring versus teaching

There is a difference between mentoring and teaching, although mentors are always by nature teachers. Teachers tell; mentors demonstrate. Teachers relay important facts, theories, and conclusions; mentors, in contrast, show the way. They put shoe leather on head knowledge. The mentoring role involves teaching plus practical modeling, encouraging, relationship building, and, where necessary, redirection.

My own life and ministry have been, and are, encouraged and enriched by several good mentors. God used two in particular to make me the pastor and man that I am, and I owe them a debt I can never repay. The first, my Uncle Sam Heslip, led me to Christ and then saw the spark of a preacher in me while I was still wrestling with my call in the secret recesses of my heart. He poured long hours into grooming me in Bible knowledge, theology, and the practice of everyday pastoral principles. He provided opportunities for me to minister and was always quick to suggest where I might improve. He made himself avail able until Alzheimer's ransacked his ability to think.

The second was my predecessor in my first congregation after seminary. For 31 years, wise and greatly beloved, Arthur Schneider devoted himself to pastoring the First Presbyterian Church of Pascagoula on Mississippi's Gulf Coast. He gave me the benefit of his wisdom, support, and relationships. He graciously but firmly passed the leadership mantle to me before a packed congregation on the day I was to succeed him. Because of his willingness to identify with and endorse me, my ministry developed a credibility that was much greater than would have been possible otherwise. The Kingdom of God is richer in that part of the world because of that kind of dedication to the future by one of God's choice servants.

Sam Heslip and Arthur Schneider did more than teach me principles. They modeled how those principles work in day-by-day ministry. Their unselfish perspectives and generous grace enhanced my spiritual and professional growth.

Roberto Goizueta knew that one characteristic of good leaders is that they are always looking for successors. When they find someone they believe possesses the requisite qualities, they invest their hard-earned time and energy in preparing that one to do everything they have been doing and more. They are not threatened by the notion of a new generation surpassing their own achievements, for they do not view them selves as competitors but as father figures and elder statesmen.

How to find and enter a mentoring relationship

How does one find and enter a successful mentoring relationship? I suggest three steps: first, pray for God's Spirit to guide you to the right mentoring partner; second, ascertain that person's willingness to be mentored; third, agree on expectations, including how and when you will interact, how you will communicate, the level of accountability, and when and how you will meet to evaluate the relationship.

Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (John 14:12, NIV). From the beginning of His ministry on earth, the Master Mentor prepared his disciples to take His place. He proved His commitment to the principle of mentoring by pouring His life into the Twelve, eleven of whom subsequently mentored others to mentor others. As a result, the church is still alive 2,000 years later. Here, alone, is sufficient evidence that mentoring works.

The apostle Paul was a born mentor. He mentored Timothy: "The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Tim. 2:2). Although a hasty reading may make this seem like an instruction to teach, a closer look reveals more than a "do as 1 say" proposition. It called Timothy to act out what Paul had demonstrated.

Paul also calls for mentors: "I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy... He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor. 4:15 - 17). "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (11:1). Later he com mends the Thessalonians, not for their high level of knowledge in Scripture but because they "became imitators of us" (1 Thes. 1:6).

In similar fashion, the writer to the Hebrews encourages us, "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Heb. 13:7).

In each case the Greek text calls for imitation over recitation. The most frequently used verb is mimeomai (which gives our English word mimic). It means to act like someone rather than merely quoting him or her.

The four principles of effective mentoring

There are, I believe, four principles that undergird effective mentoring relationships.

(1) The principle of possession: Each of us must recognize that what we possess in this world is not finally ours but God's. This is clear when Jesus says such things as"... I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18). Jesus let us know from the beginning whose church it is. A departing pastor once said, "I have fallen so deeply in love with this congregation that I cannot bear the thought of anyone else being their pastor." I was con strained to remind him that such a love went beyond the bounds of pastoral propriety. It is our job to direct them to Him who loves them most of all.

(2) The principle of perspective: We are wise to recognize our own mortality, and plan for successors. One day, so far as this world is concerned, each of us will be no more. What do we want to happen to the work in which we have invested ourselves? "Entrust these things to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others," Paul told Timothy, in recognition that one day even his successor would have a successor.

(3) The principle of priority: There is a sense in which this third principle stands behind all the others. Each of us decides where our primary ministry focus will be. Jesus said, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt. 6:33). If we are kingdom seekers, we will be focused on what is best for Christ. It is not easy handing the reins of leadership to another. Yet Christ asks us to do it. If His kingdom is our first priority, we will invest ourselves in it and bring every desire and every action under subjection to it.

(4) The principle of permission: As the old European craftsman allowed the apprentice to try his hand at performing the task, good mentors give their charges freedom to try their newly learned skills along the way. In this way they will be encouraged to develop their learning and skill development in order that they might measure up to God's high calling. My first preaching invitation came while I was still in the business world. Before I said Yes, I discussed it with Sam Heslip, who encouraged me to accept and then offered to oversee my preparation. When I was almost ready, he invited me to "practice" before his own congregation. Good mentors know that the best way to hold on is to let go.

More than three years before Roberto Goizueta's lung cancer diagnosis, he endowed Douglas Ivester with the presidency of the Coca-Cola Company. From that point on, he introduced Ivester at every opportunity as "my partner." Employees, investors, customers, and corporate analysts saw them as a team. Competitors knew they were a dyad to be reckoned with. That single action on Roberto Goizueta's part made their company a more powerful force to consider in the face of corporate friends and foes alike.

How long will your light shine?

How long will your light shine? To a large degree, each of us decides that our selves. Abraham Lincoln's light still shines because he took every opportunity to advance his dream for America's future. Roberto Goizueta's light will, in all prob ability, continue to shine in the corporate world for a long time. Our own lights can shine for a long time too. Now is the time to take hold of the future. If the work in which you are investing your life is significant enough to last into a new generation, begin praying for God to guide you to someone He has already chosen who would appreciate inheriting the practical principles God has entrusted to you. Then, as God directs you to someone, enlist that per son and offer yourself to him or her. In this way alone you can be sure your light will shine for a new generation.


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R. Leslie Holmes, DMin, PhD, is senior pastor of Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church in Lexington, South Carolina.

November 1998

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