I have been fortunate in my own life to have had some wonderful spiritual mentors, without whose guidance and counsel I may never have decided to surrender to God’s call to enter full-time ministry. Now of course a mentoring relationship never should take the place of one’s personal study in Scripture, nor should a mentor’s advice or influence exceed the counsel and guidance which we can only receive from the Lord, speaking through His Holy Spirit. But a Godly mentor can have a formative effect in shaping one’s spiritual growth, and can greatly assist someone to discern their gifts and talents, and how those gifts may best be used in the service of the Kingdom. A mentor can also, like Paul with Timothy, serve as a sending agent, encouraging their students to go forth in a missionary spirit to carry the Gospel to new places. The Christlike mentoring of one man in fact, Max Barnett, has had a profound impact on Baptist Campus Ministries from Norman, Oklahoma to Los Angeles, and many places in between, including CU-Boulder. For 37 years, Max was director of the Baptist student ministry at the University of Oklahoma. But in addition to discipling thousands of OU students, his legacy extended far beyond the Norman campus. That’s because Max was a man who had a vision of what a campus ministry should be—a group that didn’t just organize Bible studies, social events, and evangelize fellow students—but one that also made disciples. And Max knew that disciple-making is best accomplished when Christians become intentional about fostering mentoring relationships. Max would mentor young people in his ministry, and when he sensed that they shared his heart for connecting college students to Christ, he would then encourage them to go forth and establish ministries on other campuses. Two of Max’s “disciples”, Bob Anderson, and Brett Yohn, recently retired after long and fruitful ministries as the directors of Christian Challenge at Kansas State and the University of Nebraska respectively. Later, Bobby Pruett, and Derek Gregory, who I now serve with at Colorado, came under Max’s tutelage at Oklahoma, before following God’s call westwards. Neil Walker, a Max disciple, has been the longtime director of Christian Challenge at USC. Two other men whom Max trained, John Kelsey, and Max Story, now lead the Baptist Campus Ministries at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. And there are so many other men and women whose lives were impacted forever because of one individual’s faithful commitment to fostering God-honoring relationships, and mentoring people in such a way that they could one day become mentors to others.
In my own life, I can think of several key spiritual mentors who helped direct me in my walk with the Lord, and shape the decision I would one day take to follow God’s call into vocational ministry. Jay Wolf, the pastor at my home church, First Baptist Montgomery, has had a profound spiritual influence on me. He baptized me at age 12, after we had discussed the fact that I was ready to commit my life to the Lord. Later, Jay played an important role as I tried to discern whether God was calling me into the ministry while I was a grad student in the PhD history program at the University of Virginia. When I first went to see Jay to talk about the possibility of pursuing ministry as a full-time calling, I expected him to lobby for me leave grad school and attend seminary. Instead, he did not try to pressure me towards one decision or another, but gave me two pieces of wise counsel. He told me to stay rooted in Scripture daily, where I would best be able to attune myself to God’s will. Jay also recommended that I find a campus ministry at Virginia to get connected with. Only through actually engaging in ministry firsthand would I know if that was what God was truly leading me towards. Later, after I finished seminary, and was trying to decide upon the next step, Jay helped set up a custom-made internship for me at FBC Montgomery that allowed me to gain experience in many vital areas of pastoral ministry, while capitalizing on some of the passions I already had, such as working with college students, young adults, and internationals. He also provided me with several opportunities to preach. Once I began to raise support as a NAMB missionary in preparation for coming to Boulder, Jay did a great job of promoting me and my ministry to our congregation. As pastor of a church with over 5,000 members, Jay is extremely busy, and yet he has the gift of being able to carve out increments of time with people, and during those moments he gives you his undivided attention, and shares the wisdom of his four decades of ministerial experience. As a mentor, he is gifted at being able to provide inspiration and Godly counsel, at the same time without trying to make decisions for you. Often our relationship with spiritual mentors is reflected in a particular verse or passage from Scripture that whenever we see it, evokes the spirit of that bond we share with them, and serves as a reminder of some of the wisdom they have passed onto us. Jay’s life verse is Hebrews 12:1-2—“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” I will never forget how during my ordination at FBC Montgomery, Jay shared with me the significance of those verses in his life, while encouraging me to draw strength from the many great witnesses that had gone before me. Thus, I can never look at these verses without thinking of him, and all of the encouragement, counsel, and Christ-like direction he has imparted to me through the years!
Another foundational teacher and mentor for me is Jane Ferguson, the director of community ministries at First Baptist Montgomery. One of my first exposures to ministry came as a teenager, when I began volunteering part-time in our church’s “Caring Center” which provides food, clothing, and financial assistance to poor and homeless people around downtown Montgomery, where we are located. From Mrs. Ferguson I learned the importance of one’s faith being lived out in acts of tangible love and service to others. When I think of the many years of selfless, Christlike service she has provided the Montgomery community, and contemplate the impact that volunteering at the Caring Center through the years has had on me, I am reminded of 1 Samuel 16:7—“For the Lord does not see as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Observing and learning from a veteran Christian social worker such as Mrs. Ferguson has taught me so much about the importance of trying to look past the external realities of a person’s situation or status in life, and try instead to see them as the Lord sees—full of potential, and made in His image.
Todd Johnson and Curt Kruschwitz also stand out as mentors in my life, because both of them gave me an opportunity to serve and grow through experience. While I was at Virginia, and trying to follow out Jay’s advice of seeking a ministry to become involved with, I contacted leaders of many different campus ministries, explaining that I was a history PhD student who was nonetheless discerning a possible call into ministry, and that I wanted to get some experience by helping out in any way I could. Some did not respond, while others indicated they were busy or already had most of their leadership in place. But Todd, then the director of Campus Crusade at Virginia, responded, met me, and eventually gave me an opportunity to start working with graduate students in the ministry. He would eventually meet with me on a weekly basis and his counsel and enthusiastic spirit of encouragement did much to help me grow in confidence regarding the belief that God maybe was actually calling me into the ministry. A difficult decision to transition out of my planned career path as a tenure-track history professor was made easier by the fact that Todd cared enough about my future to reassure me as I wrestled with the increasingly obvious promptings of the Holy Spirit, leading me towards seminary and a future in the ministry. Later, when I was in Waco, attending seminary at Baylor, I was looking for a church home where I could also gain more experience in college ministry. Again, while I contacted several different potential churches, one in particular, First Baptist Waco, stood out. That was because their college minister, Curt Kruschwitz, was willing to meet with me, and discuss how I could become involved in FBC Waco’s overall vision of ministry to Baylor students. Eventually I had the opportunity to become the regular teacher of the graduate students’ Sunday school class, as well as help Curt in working with the undergraduates, and gain some preaching experience during Sunday night services. The time I spent at FBC Waco was invaluable in helping confirm for me that college ministry was where I truly felt I could put my gifts and training to best use in the service of the Kingdom.
Having benefited so much from mentors, it is with great joy that I am now embracing the opportunity to serve as a mentor to some of our students in Christian Challenge. I am meeting weekly with three young men, each of whom I believe has a promising future, and has been endowed by the Lord with some wonderful gifts. Mentoring is a central feature of the ministry of Christian Challenge at CU, as I have shared. This is not by accident—but goes back to the fact that our leaders, Bobby Pruett and Derek Gregory, both trained under Max Barnett, and absorbed his vision for disciple-making. Now, as I meet with my three students every week, I also have the opportunity to meet with Bobby, and learn from the wisdom he has accrued in over 25 years of service on the CU campus and in the Boulder community.
So many of our students in Christian Challenge have shared that the emphasis our ministry places on intentionally fostering mentoring relationships is one of the biggest factors in their decision to commit to and stay active in our group. Mentoring then, provides the very identity for who we are as a campus ministry, and is foundational to our continued growth and success. As I begin to mentor students myself, I am seeing just how rewarding it can be to invest in the life of another. I enjoy hearing my students’ spiritual “biography”, to get a sense for where the Lord has taken them so far. We talk about classes, their role in the ministry, and the kind of future they envision God leading them towards. I also hope to encourage a deepening knowledge and appreciation for Scripture in them, even as I hope to grow in this area myself. Most importantly, I try to be transparent with them, just as I want them to be with me. Christian mentoring means letting yourself be vulnerable, and not begin afraid to demonstrate your brokenness, the better to highlight how God’s grace can be at work amidst that. Now, when I share with my students the stories of wrestling with some faith doubts in college, or the difficulty I had in finding God’s place for me to serve post-seminary, I reminded of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4—“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” To be able to empathize with the various trials and stresses my students are facing, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, and my own experience, is one of the most powerful and unique privileges I have had in ministry. In an age of instant communication, and where social media can keep people informed but at an arm’s length from authentic, personal contact, it’s more important than ever that we not forget the life-changing possibilities inherent in the intentional decision of two Christ-followers to connect their walk with the Lord together. Christian mentors have made all the difference in my life, and I look forward to the holy privilege of sharing the empowering grace of Christ with others, even as I continue to be molded by and look up to so many heroes in the faith who have shared their time, and their lives with me. Bobby Pruett has a favorite saying, “blessed to be a blessing”, and in mentoring we get to see that truth lived out so clearly.