What Apprentices Aren’t

by think on February 28, 2010

Mentor and Protege

I just finished a series of posts for smallgroups.com. They were all answers to common questions, like “is there a best way to train new small group leaders?” I won’t spoil my answer except to say “Yes, there is: apprenticeship.” That post describes what apprentices are. This one describes what they aren’t.

It’s important to define apprentices carefully, because in practice you’ll find any number of substitute roles that totally miss the point. As a ministry leader, it’s your duty to clarify, through observation and questions, what your leaders are doing to develop future leaders. Rather than apprentices who are learning to lead by leading under supervision, you will often find the following:

Assistants. An assistant is generally preoccupied with making his/her leader a success. It’s the opposite of apprenticeship, in which the leader concentrates on making the apprentice successful so that he/she can lead a group of their own. The assistant mentality prevalent in military and business models is poison in ministry because it invariably relegates non-clergy (or non-staff) to supportive roles, and further stratifies those roles into some kind of hierarchy. Even in churches that value the Priesthood of Believers, this mentality shows up in a group leader’s lack of willingness to let go of ministry: “You’re here to assist me, not take over.” Actually, an apprentice is there to ultimately take over his/her own group. That’s the point.

Gophers. Gophers are assistants without trust, motivation, or vision. Gophers are allowed to make coffee and copies but are never trusted or motivated by their leader to do anything crucial to the life of the group. High-control leaders often treat their would-be apprentices as gophers, but often it is the gopher who cannot envision expanding his or her role. You must help “gophers” envision how their spiritual gifts apply to the spiritual development of group members.

Stand-ins. The opposite of a gopher is a stand-in, who is given complete, unsupervised control of the group while the leader is in the hospital or Honolulu. The stand-in is never observed in action, so cannot be coached, encouraged, or corrected, as a true apprentice must be.

Students. The traditional “sage on the stage” model transfers the notes of the teacher to the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either. One of the dumbest things I’ve ever done in ministry is to try to develop small group leaders in a class. Individual reading, video tutorials, and even lecture can be used to train a potential leader in the fundamentals, but these alone are not enough. It’s about more than head knowledge. Apprentices must learn by observing and practicing under supervision.

A final point: Great apprentices often start as gophers, become assistants, and serve as stand-ins. The problem is that many never advance, or worse, aren’t expected to. Create an expectation that all your leaders will develop true apprentices who will soon lead their own groups. Do this, and you’ll never lack leaders.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mark Howell March 1, 2010 at 7:31 am

Very helpful Dave! These are the major blocks to true apprenticeship.



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