Pastor, There Are Two Types of Discipling: Which Will You Choose?

Healthy discipleship is hard work!

Healthy discipleship is hard work!

Recently I had to tell a man I’ve been discipling for years that our discipling relationship was over.

This is rare for me in forty years of disciplemaking. Actually, I can count on two hands the number of men I’ve said goodbye to after investing so much time in the friendship. I’m a shepherd at my core, so once a man is in my life as a friend or disciple, he’s almost guaranteed my lifelong allegiance and devotion. But this man’s neediness and refusal to respond to guidance had accelerated beyond the threshold of his capacity to learn and his willingness to admit things as they really are.

He’s an addict who has been in recovery for decades and knows the lingo well enough to persuade himself that he’s confronting his issues. He’s not, and the greatest evidence of that is his refusal to own the pain he’s inflicted on his wife, children, and every friend who tries to tell him the truth. My own “shepherd addiction” complicates the problem — I’m addicted to fixing people and generating plans and insights to clean up their messes.

So, for many years we’ve been the perfect addict-codependent match.

Him with his mess of lies and manipulations, me with a deep and sick need to put on my super-shepherd cape and swoop in to mend and heal.

The only difficulty was I was finally willing to disappoint him.

So I forced a conversation informing him that I could no longer disciple him. Of course he had no category. He challenged my claim to love him. He couldn’t understand why as pastor would abandon him to himself — if I truly loved him, took Jesus Great Commission seriously, and was obedient to Peter’s charge to shepherd the flock.

He made radical, emotional commitments to make changes — the same changes he had sworn to hundreds of time before. I wanted to believe him, to reach across the table, hug his neck and say, “Okay, let’s meet again next week.”

But I had driven around this cul-de-sac before.

This wasn’t my first bungee jump into the abyss of opaque, self-protective, deceptive, and draining brokenness.

So, steeling my soul, I told him I had to tap out of this discipling relationship.

You see, I have a problem — finitude.

As I drove home from the coffee shop, my shepherd’s heart was breaking. “He’s so broken and in so much pain,” I kept saying to myself. What an agonizing conflict it was to keep driving away from someone you love so deeply who is self-destructing. At one critical point — right on schedule for my shame voice to speak up with charges that I need to care more, love more, give more, act more like a real pastor — I just about made a u-turn. Maybe I could catch him before he left to tell him how sorry I was to abandon him.

So i asked God’s Spirit to guide me.

As I prayed with my eyes wide open (God’s okay with that when you’re driving!), the Spirit gently reminded me of the words of friends and mentors down through the years.

A counselor friend who works with Christians suffering from addiction and hundreds of other emotional and spiritual pathologies has told me there are times when more attention, more advice, even more listening isn’t the loving act. Sometimes the most loving strategy involves letting go, because until they hit rock bottom, they’re simply not ready to respond to words or attentiveness.

One of the wisest Christian leaders I know often explains his inability to say yes to a request for his time or emotional energy with these words, “I’d love to consider this, but I have a problem of finitude.”

Even the Lord Jesus often pulled away from demanding people and crowds when He walked on earth in flesh and blood.

So I wasn’t over-reacting or under-loving. I was doing exactly what I needed to do —I was discipling this man with a healthy, Christlike love.

This sudden insight really helped me drive the rest of the way home in peace. I realized:

There are two kinds of discipling.

The first kind of discipling is the one our shame embraces. It’s me-centered, worrying more about what others might think about my mentoring skills and my over-the-top love for others. “He’s so wise and caring. He always has time for everyone he meets.”

It rests on this false principle: More investment of energy and time and compassion and grace = life-changing insights and behaviors that bring healing to a wounded soul.

But the me-centered, messiah-complex approach invariably leads to burnout, bitterness, and the hypocrisy of codependence: “I can’t tell you what I really think about your wrong choices, your refusal to risk trusting me and others with your life, your insistence that the problem lies with everyone but me because you might judge me as insufficient. Or worse, you might spin out and do something horrible to yourself and others. That would really make me look like a horrible shepherd!”

The other kind of discipling is the one that follows Jesus’ master plan. It’s other-centered, caring more about the disciples’ growth and less or not at all about my reputation.

It rests on the bedrock of trusting God for the results of the messy process ….

“I’m sorry, but I’m wondering where this bad life-decision is coming from. How do yo think you weren’t able to trust God in this situation?”

“You’re doing exactly what Jesus said not to do. I’m with you in this, but we have to address that and see how you can trust Him enough to do what He said.”

“I’m going to tell you something you’re not going to want to hear, but you’re completely out of touch with the reality of your life and the repercussions of your sin in the lives of others.”

And finally, “This doesn’t seem like a season that you’re ready for the messy and difficult but life-changing process of following Jesus as a devoted disciple.”

Then you have chosen the correct role of a disciplemaker.

Seems daunting, but it’s the way of Jesus. Love tells the truth, even when it hurts. Love offer to come alongside, but as a loving mentor rather than an enabler. Love trusts other to the grace of God, and grace takes the long view.

But of course it’s excruciating. As heartbreaking as leaving them to the unrepentant path they’re choosing, it is also, at the same time, they’re best and sometimes last opportunity to get back onto the path of enjoying the earthly benefits of their so great salvation. No wonder so few pastors choose authentic discipleship.

However, as I look back on my life, most of the lasting fruit in the lives of others has come though the trench warfare of other-centered discipleship.

It’s kingdom, it’s productive, it’s eternally satisfying, and it’s the only way forward.

Questions? Let’s start a conversation.