Spiritual Fathering

by Anthony Kidd

It seems as if everyone is talking about pastoral mentorship these days.  Not a week goes by that I don’t receive something in the mail at my office that reminds me of the importance of training younger men in pastoral ministry—a task that I embrace and seek to practice wholeheartedly.  But most of the material I read inevitably leaves me feeling as though I’m woefully inadequate at mentoring the next generation of church leaders.  According to one article, if I don’t have a 5-year pastoral residency program, or at minimum a 3-year pastoral internship (curriculum and stipend included), I’m failing in my responsibility to mentor young men in pastoral leadership.

I’m grateful to God for churches that can offer such training; may their tribe increase. But for those of us who can’t, at least not yet, what we can offer young men in our churches is spiritual fathering. Spiritual fathering is a relationship between an older or more seasoned pastor and a younger man who desires to be in ministry, in which the pastor pours his life into his “adopted” spiritual son.  In the same way a natural father shapes, serves, and shepherds his own son so as to reproduce himself in him through the depth of relationship, a spiritual father seeks to reproduce himself through developing that kind of relationship with the young men in his church who are called into ministry.  The apostle Paul’s relationship with Timothy provides a great example for us.

Paul’s relationship with Timothy was one of filial affection.  He never referred to Timothy as his intern or pastoral resident (indulge the anachronisms for emphasis sake), but repeatedly called him his son/child (1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2, 2:1).  This dynamic of their relationship marked the entire process of how Paul mentored Timothy from beginning (Acts 16:1-3) to end (2 Tim. 4:6-9).  And the richness and simplicity of Paul’s spiritual fathering of Timothy is summed up nicely in 2 Timothy 3:10-11 and is worthy of our consideration and encouraging for imitation:

Now you [Timothy] followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, steadfastness, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me!

“Teaching”

Paul didn’t send Timothy off to rabbinic school, but personally instructed his spiritual son in the word of God and the gospel.  Timothy “heard” (2 Tim. 1:13) the word from His spiritual father and “learned” (2 Tim. 3:14) his doctrine from him.  Paul was so confident that he had sufficiently prepared his son Timothy that he charged him with the responsibility of passing on the teachings of the gospel to others as well (2 Tim. 2:2).  Unlocking the mysteries of God and the glories of the gospel for a young man is a task that every pastor can handle in the local church, even if your resources, structure, and staffing are limited.

“Conduct”

Last I checked, there’s no seminary class that can produce godly conduct.  That can only be forged by the fire of the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace in the context of personal discipleship, and there’s no better relationship to bring that about than through spiritual fathering. Paul modelled godliness as his son Timothy lived with him throughout their ministry travels and witnessed Paul’s conduct in both the good times and the bad times (2 Tim. 3:11a).  Timothy was so acquainted with and effected by his spiritual father that when Paul called other churches to “imitate” him, he sent Timothy as an exemplary reminder of his conduct (1 Cor. 4:17).  This kind of life-on-life influence is arguably worth more than a hundred classes on spiritual formation.  Giving young men a book to read on godliness is fine, but giving them your life as an open book to follow is priceless.

“Purpose”

Who else better than a spiritual father can cast the proper ministerial vision for a young leader’s heart?  That’s what Paul did for Timothy.  Through teaching, example, and intimate time together, Paul, with the help of the Spirit, produced in his spiritual son the same Christ-centered gospel purpose that marked his life (Phil. 3:12-14 & 1 Cor. 16:10).   Paul did this without a program or a finely-tuned curriculum, and so can you.

“Faith, Patience, Love, Steadfastness”

The inner spiritual life of Timothy was profoundly impacted by Paul.  The holy sobriety he would need to fulfill his ministry he inherited from his spiritual father and it set him apart from others in ways that no professionalized approach to mentorship could ever achieve.  Paul’s own words about Timothy confirm this:

But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, . . . for I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. But you know of his proven worth, that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father” (Phil. 2:19-22).

Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Lk. 6:40).  I believe spiritual fathering can produce fully trained men who will shepherd the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in the coming generations.  Dear pastor-brother, pick up the mantle of spiritual fatherhood, prayerfully adopt a spiritual son in your church and pour your life into his, and maybe by the grace of Christ, when the “chariots of fire” arrive to take you home, you’ll hear these words from your spiritual son, “My father, my father . . .” (2 Kgs. 2:12).  And may a double portion of your spirit be upon him!

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