At the beginning of my junior year of high school, a friend and I decided to join our high school’s swim team. Nothing unusual there, but what was unusual for new swim team members was that neither one of us knew how to swim. Sure, we could move in the water and around the pool without drowning. But, if you’d asked me to swim freestyle across the pool, you would have been treated to a performance that had all the elegance and grace of a cat that’s fallen into a full bathtub and can’t get out. It wasn’t pretty.
The swim coach, who was known for his skill in working with newcomers to the sport of swimming, was immediately treated to wet cat performances from my friend and me and took it all in stride. Would it be OK that we really didn’t know how to swim? Would he still be willing to work with us on the swim team? “Most definitely,” the coach told us. “The best part is that working with you guys will be like working with blank slates. You have no bad habits to break because you’ve never done this before. I can teach you how to do it right from the very beginning.” And so we joined the swim team, and I eventually learned how to swim freestyle across the pool without looking like a wet cat.
When I decided to participate in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod’s Intentional Impact process during my seminary internship year, I thought that my experience would be similar to my high school’s swim team experience. Not so much the part about learning to swim better than a wet cat—but the part about learning how to do something the right way from the beginning, before I’d had the chance to develop bad habits. I jumped at the opportunity to participate in the Intentional Impact process as an intern because I believed that it would help me develop good habits for ministry right from the start—before I’d developed any bad ministry habits.
As it turned out, I was completely wrong. Not about Intentional Impact helping me develop good habits for ministry, as I’ll share some of the good habits I have learned. No, I was wrong to think that, because I was just starting out in ministry as a seminary student and intern, I wouldn’t yet have developed some bad habits for ministry. In actuality, I did have some bad habits for ministry that I’d developed as I worked with people over the years in different life contexts. It turned out that starting out in ministry as a seminary student and intern wasn’t at all like learning how to swim on the swim team—because unlike on the swim team, in ministry I was far from a blank slate. Simply living life and working with people in different settings had provided ample opportunities for me to develop habits for ministry, both good and bad.
So what were these “bad habits” for ministry that I’d apparently already developed before I’d even entered seminary? In summary, to use the language of the Intentional Impact process, I prioritized programs over people—I prioritized organizing programs and activities over relationship-building. Perhaps that’s not an entirely fair characterization, since I sought to use programs as vehicles to build relationships with people—but in the end the result was the same: my energy was directed mostly into organizing and planning programming, which left less energy for nurturing relationships.
Whether I was working as a volunteer leader or a paid staff member of a church, prioritizing programs over people usually looked something like this: I would work to plan an event or organize a program and do most of the work all by myself. My reasoning was that by doing most of the work myself, I could make sure it was done “right” (i.e. the way that I thought it should be done), and I could sometimes also get it done more quickly than if I worked with others. My hope in working this way was to create situations in which the program’s participants could grow in relationships with each other and me as we journeyed together in faith. But somehow the relationship-building element seemed to get lost in the shuffle, and the relationships that did develop during the programs were often not strong enough to last when the programs ended. Eventually, I became stuck planning an endless succession of programs without seeing much real, lasting growth in relationships.
This program-focused model of ministry has numerous shortcomings, most of which I didn’t recognize before participating in the Intentional Impact process. On the most basic level, it’s structured in a way that makes it difficult to achieve the stated goal of relationship-building. It’s also not set up to facilitate growth and expansion. Finally, it ultimately does not allow me to live out my call to ministry as a future pastor in the church—the call to walk relationally with people on their journey of faith. Spending most of one’s time and energy organizing programs doesn’t leave much time to build the relationships upon which faithful accompaniment is founded.
Before my experience with Intentional Impact, I didn’t recognize how my ministry habits prioritized programs over people. But thankfully, the Intentional Impact process helped me to recognize the situation and envision an alternative: a model based on “relational apprenticing.”
So what does this Intentional Impact “relational apprenticing” model of leadership development look like? Relational apprenticing is a process of leadership development that makes it possible to use programs as means to develop and nurture relationships in the church. This model keeps relationship-building front and center; it prevents programs from taking priority. Instead, this model ensures that programs are no more than a means to the ultimate end of relationship development. It does this by embedding an apprentice-mentor relationship-building process in every congregational activity.
The relational apprenticing process begins when a congregational leader recognizes leadership gifts in a person not involved in leadership in the congregation. The leader meets one-on-one with this individual to discuss her leadership gifts and inquires if she would be interested in apprenticing the leader in order to develop her leadership gifts for use in the congregation. If interested, she enters into an apprenticeship relationship with the leader through which she assumes increasing levels of leadership responsibility. Once the apprentice has developed her leadership gifts, the process begins again as she is encouraged to identify another congregation member to become her own apprentice. This process makes it possible for a congregation’s leadership to reproduce exponentially—providing the leadership resources necessary to support and sustain congregational growth.
In my current ministry context, I’ve used the relational apprenticing process to develop an Evangelism Ministry Team made up of four lay leaders. I mentored each person in specific evangelism tasks. For example: one Evangelism Team member is responsible for organizing a team of greeters to welcome visitors to the church; and one Evangelism Team member is responsible for leading a team of mentors who help new members connect to the congregation. As Evangelism Team members develop their own teams around specific evangelism tasks (such as the greeter and mentor teams), they are encouraged to use the relational apprenticing process to identify apprentices in order to nurture the next generation of evangelism leaders. I’m excited by how the Evangelism Team has developed so far using the relational apprenticing process, and I can’t wait to see how it will continue to develop in the future.
It’s never too early in one’s ministry to learn about Intentional Impact’s model of relational apprenticing, a model that makes it possible to prioritize people over programs. When it comes to ministry, none of us—not even a seminary student—is a blank slate. Whether you are a seminary student or long-time leader, volunteer or staff, lay or ordained, I pray you’ll examine your ministry habits to assess which help and which hurt the way you live out your ministry call to and with God’s people. May your assessment open the door to more fully and deeply living your call in God’s church and world.