When I was a younger pastor, I loved serving the Lord. I lived full out for Christ and for the church the Lord allowed me to shepherd.
Although I knew I was serving as unto the Lord, there were darker motives too—ones that I didn’t recognize, let alone understand. I often looked to older pastors for counsel and advice…and more. Without putting it into words, I also looked to them for validation and acceptance…even worth.
Only the Holy Spirit can untangle the motives of our hearts, and thankfully, He uses His Word as a “discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
For me, this process involved a series of trials and the failures of prominent leaders in my life. Through these experiences, the Lord clarified my vision, realigned my focus, and purified my motives. I wrote about this extensively in Guided by Grace.
Although mentoring, encouraging, and counsel may be received from seasoned pastors and leaders; validation, worth, and identity must be found in Jesus alone.
These are truths to which we can easily give mental assent, but that only the Holy Spirit can confirm in our hearts.
Part of the tension here is that there is a valid and needed place for godly mentorship in the life of a young pastor—really, in the life of any Christian. Many times when younger men are seeking affirmation, it is really a cry for encouragement and mentoring. This leads to a responsibility for the older mentor to point the younger minister to Christ and His Word not to himself.
When I was younger in ministry, I needed to hear more about finding acceptance and validation in Christ alone. Today, however, I’m hearing more of younger pastors being challenged to follow after and seek counsel either from their own peers or “only Jesus.”
This counsel actually feeds into the validation trap, perpetuating the cycle from the other side. Here’s how it works:
A young leader looks to men instead of to Christ for validation and acceptance. (To be fair, we should note that this is not always the fault of the younger leader’s mentors; sometimes it is just due to the natural bent of our human heart to look for fulfillment outside of Christ.)
For a while, he receives this affirmation; but over time, he finds it was hollow.
By this time, however, he’s been in ministry long enough to influence younger leaders himself. With a heart that has become somewhat jaded toward his heritage or personalities who disappointed him, he swings the pendulum of counsel the opposite direction and says, “Don’t follow men; only follow Jesus.”
If you read between the lines, what this counsel really means is, “Don’t follow them; follow me—I understand how to give you validation without insisting you do ministry their way.”
What follows is a new cycle of young men still seeking validation and approval, just from another set of leaders.
What is missing here is the acknowledgement that there is an important scriptural element in leadership of mentoring and teaching.
God instructs older leaders to invest in younger: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). This is hard to do without times of counsel, encouragement, and yes, instruction.
Paul specifically told the church at Corinth, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
We cannot undermine or underestimate the importance of godly mentorship in the life of a younger pastor. While we definitely do not want to foster an unhealthy relationship that leads toward a man simply finding validation or acceptance in this relationship, every pastor (myself included) needs counsel, sharpening, accountability, and encouragement from those who have been further down the road.
So, yes, we want to avoid fleshly, self-feeding relationships that pull our dependence off of Christ and onto men. But we still need healthy, godly, spiritually-growing relationships between pastors where Christ is preeminent and God’s Word is central. We want relationships in which we encourage one another that Christ is the giver of our acceptance and validation, but through which, counsel, guidance, and warnings are all welcomed.
How can this work?
1. Embrace the truth that you are fully accepted in Christ. Until we understand and believe that we are “accepted in the beloved,” we will forever be vulnerable to seeking validation from others.
To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.—Ephesians 1:6.
2. Ask the Holy Spirit to search your heart. Only He can untangle the true and false motives of our hearts. Expose yourself to His Word, and ask Him to give you discernment.
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.—Hebrews 4:12
3. Seek and receive counsel and mentoring from godly leaders. Don’t look to them for validation, but do give them entrance into your heart. Listen to their counsel, receive their warnings, and learn from their examples. This was the relationship that Paul had with Timothy, and it was a healthy relationship.
Unto Timothy, my own son in the faith…—1 Timothy 1:2
This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy…—1 Timothy 1:18
To Timothy, my dearly beloved son…—2 Timothy 1:2
4. Invest in others, pointing them to Christ. As a leader, remember that Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:1 didn’t stop with “Be ye followers of me.” He continued, “even as I also am of Christ.” Point those you have the privilege to disciple and mentor to Christ.
When we graciously give others friendship and mentoring while pointing them to Christ for their approval, we help us all escape the validation trap.