During the past three decades, we heard Chinese church leaders primarily requesting Bibles, spiritual literature and training. More recently, the two most desperate cries are for cross-cultural missionary training and mentoring. Between these two needs, mentoring represents by far the more difficult request to deliver.
Why do Chinese church leaders so desperately need mentoring? An average Chinese church leader suffers from:
- Not having a loving “father” in his earthly life;
- Not having a godly “shepherd” in his spiritual life;
- Not having a skillful “coach” in his ministry life;
- Not having an intimate “friend” in his social life, and
- Not having a committed “companion” in his suffering life.
Mentoring can effectively fill these five major voids in the lives of today’s Chinese church leaders.
I used to think that children in China were “neglected” by their parents—especially their fathers; fathers are rarely seen interacting with their children. However, as I meet with an increasing number of church leaders who are still carrying deep scars from childhood, I have come to the sad conclusion that fathers are not neglecting their children but are destroying them through misguided attempts to “perfect” them. Most Chinese church leaders struggle with damaged self-images inflicted by their over-demanding fathers whose faces of displeasure are constantly looking over their shoulders.
High expectations: Fathers pile unrealistic expectations on their children (hoping they will achieve at least part of them) and show their displeasure every time they come up short. Fathers firmly believe their rejection "motivates" their children to try harder and eventually achieve the higher goal they have set for them. These fathers do not realize that every rejection actually destroys their children's self worth and the motivation they are intending to create.
Misguided modesty: It is true that some children can be motivated by rejection and will work harder. Their added efforts will bring some achievements. What will fathers do when they see these improvements? Will they give praise and encouragements? Not a chance! In response to their children’s improved efforts and increased achievements, fathers will not show their inner pleasure but will further drive their children using belittlement. They will say the children are dumb, lazy and arrogant, easily puffed up, and will not amount to anything. The fathers are totally sincere and convinced that this kind of put-down represents the highest Chinese virtue—“modesty.” Any form of praise is frowned upon as leading to pride and downfall.
Damaging comparisons: Some children will endure these abuses and have outstanding achievements. What will fathers do then? Since they feel they must protect their children from becoming arrogant and being unable to "sustain" their achievements, they will find others with higher achievements and compare them with their own children, hoping they will never feel they are good enough. This is exactly what many Chinese leaders feel in their ministry today. In their minds, they are never good enough to be loved by God. They serve God in order to be loved instead of because they are loved. These church leaders have an awful time trying to help rebuild the damaged self-images of others because their own self-images have never been mended.
Destroyed self-image: A fifty-year-old church leader once told me with a hopeless look on his face that all the words his father had ever spoken to him could not fill up half a sheet of paper. He had studied the Heavenly Father's unconditional love and had taught about that love to thousands of believers, but he himself could not believe it because he had never experienced such love by an earthly father. Years of mentoring and a deep, inner healing process enabled him to finally say, "I walked into my Father's open arms today. I am loved!” He was a totally different person after that encounter. Today he is using his painful past to serve others.
In China, being a mentor is being a father. Chinese church leaders need to be firmly embraced by a mentor who can help them to experience God’s unconditional love. Without this process, they can only talk about God's love; they are unable to experience and live out the blessings of God’s children who are loved unconditionally. Mentorship is the only way to fill this void.
Most Chinese church leaders did not grow up in a healthy local church with a godly pastor. When these “sheep,” who have never experienced shepherding, try to be shepherds and pastor churches, they are at a loss. They do not know what they are doing. They are one-hundred percent willing and two-hundred percent faithful, but they are less than ten percent equipped. When it comes to pastoring churches, most are "winging" it.
Once I asked a very seasoned church leader how he got directions from God for all his busy projects. With a surprised look on his face he replied, "I never knew that you needed to get direction from God for anything! I thought that I just needed to work hard!"
As urbanization continues, evangelism-based church ministry is shifting towards a shepherding-focused ministry making it even more difficult for pastors to “wing it.” Chinese church leaders need a shepherding mentor who can patiently walk alongside them to encourage personal spiritual growth, explain church growth steps, enhance ministry capabilities, and empower the inexperienced shepherd. Without such mentors, there will be much wasted spiritual energy through confusion, floundering, misunderstanding, and missed direction.
Each mentee needs a mentor who, as a father, helps to establish the fundamental assurance of being loved unconditionally and, as a shepherd, provides patient, daily guidance and direction. With modern communication technology, mentors can easily provide mentees with these in a timely manner as needs arise.
During the Sichuan earthquake, a large number of task forces were established. I had the privilege of mentoring a couple who were in charge of one such working team. They worked hard and the team was effective. One complaint they had was that these team members (who came from all over China) did not always submit to their authority which made them quite upset. I quietly reminded them to lead the team in love and patience. Even after repeated corrections and rebukes, the situation did not improve much. I continued to remind them to be loving and patient. One day they burst into our meeting room quite upset and said, “Don’t tell us not to get angry. It’s impossible to not get angry with those team members. After so many repeated reminders, they still do not do what we told them! Don’t tell us not to be angry! That’s impossible for anyone!” So, I looked at them both and said, “I told you not to get angry so many times. You still do not do what I told you—but I am not angry with you.” They looked at me, then said, “Oh, okay.” They had gotten the point. I used to train hundreds of pastors in five days, but helping this couple learn God-given patience took twelve months. Mentoring is far more time consuming than training; many key lessons are learned only when we invest the time.
Although many leaders are under equipped, they are highly teachable and excellent self-learners; however, they have not been privileged to have someone take an interest in them, listen to them, and show them how to improve and grow. If mentors are willing to prayerfully listen to them as they share their hearts and skillfully identify the areas of their lives where God is working, they will be able to identify enormous areas for further growth and development. Mentees will often respond with immediate obedience to the Spirit’s correction, willingness to change unhealthy habits, and aggressive implementation of new, suggested activities. Effective coaching can truly help Chinese church leaders to grow and reach their full potential.
I think of one Christian leader who is an excellent learner/leader with God’s special favor clearly upon him and his ministry. It seemed as though he was doing well without mentorship. When he asked for mentoring, I was not totally sure what more we could do for him. However, once we began a mentor-mentee relationship, we were in for a ride. Near the start of our first meeting, I was thrilled to hear him say he was facing a new challenge which needed coaching. After many get-togethers, he said his eyes had been opened to critical blind spots he had not previously realized. Coaching enhanced an already strong ministry and prevented it from falling into ministry traps.
Many believers forget that their pastors are also human. One church member went to a hospital for treatment and saw his pastor receiving treatment. With bewildered eyes, this believer said to the pastor, "I just had no idea that even pastors got sick."
Many believers have unrealistic mental pictures of pastors, and many pastors try to live up to these false pictures. Often Christians wrongly believe that pastors do not sin. As a result, church leaders will do anything to hide any sin in their lives. Very few pastors have soul-friends with whom they can honestly share the deepest matters of their lives. This makes their lives isolated and their ministry ineffective. Being unable to share their innermost feelings and needs will force their ministry to become superficial and take away the important “one-another” aspect of their ministry.
Effective mentoring will open a new world of “true friendship” for most Chinese church leaders who have never had the courage to become vulnerable and share their true, innermost selves and then receive the joy of unconditional acceptance. They need to be around a mentor who knows how to be friends and can show them how to have transparent interaction and community life. This is key to enriching, deepening, and renewing all of a leader’s interpersonal relationships—including his personal relationship with the Lord.
Over past years, while Chinese Christians have experienced greater “wiggle room,” restrictions are still very real. When various restrictions are placed on church leaders, mentorship is the best way to help them face suffering and then to rebuild their lives after the ordeal. Hardship will expose every weakness and vulnerability inside a leader. Having a mentor makes the process bearable as one goes through such trials.
When one Christian leader suffered severely inside a prison, he was reminded by the Spirit how his mentor’s earlier imprisonment had already prepared him to face this trial. After his release, three years later, he continued to be affected by constant fear and unexplainable anxiety. What troubled him most was his uncontrollable anger towards his innocent family members. His mentor explained to him that living with criminals for three years had hardened him, causing him to respond to everyone harshly. His mentor likened his situation to a man who was forced to hold a rock in his hand for three years; then suddenly the rock was replaced by an egg. The egg would crack because he had forgotten how to hold an egg after being forced to hold a rock for so long. His mentor taught him he had to relearn how to hold an egg. He visited him regularly and spent days with him watching and gently reminding him when anger crept up inside him. This leader relearned how to hold an egg without cracking it.
Image credit: "Into the Sunset . . ." by David Robert Bliwas.