the shape of leadership

The Heart of Spiritual Parenting

Turning meaningful experiences into life-changing adventures

Spiritual parenting is not optional; it’s mandatory. We can never reach our full potential without someone pulling it out of us and pushing us past our limits. And as we age, mature, and push past those limits, we can’t fully realize the great dreams God has put inside us without also helping someone else push through their own process of dreaming and realization. It’s two people committing to spend time together, sharpening and shaping each other. It’s so much more than mentoring.

If we had to describe our 20-year friendship in one word, it would be “osmosis.” I (Mark) like to tell people I’m 17 percent Dick Foth. I totally made up that percentage, and I’m not sure it’s possible to measure mathematically the influence one person has on another. But I know this for sure: I wouldn’t be who I am today without him. He’s been nothing less than a spiritual father to me. Over time, I’ve assimilated his priorities, perspective, and probably a few idiosyncrasies.

Shared experience infuses life and energy both directions. I (Dick) in jest tell folks that I’ve suggested quite a few things to Mark over the years, but he has only done a few of the things I told him. I, on the other hand, do almost everything he suggests and have profited enormously.

In all seriousness, to watch my younger friend grow in loving God and his family makes me want to intensify my experience with God and be a better man. Our father-son friendship is not the means to some other mission. Our friendship is the mission. It is an end and a beginning in itself.

We believe people don’t plan spiritual parenting relationships. They discover them — through time spent together, meaningful conversations, and shared adventures. Unlike a biological parenting relationship that grows in an environment of responsibility, the bond between spiritual parents and children arises from the relationship, since the connection is purely voluntary and requires commitment.

Our culture is so anti-authority, and so many biological fathers are absent from so many homes. It’s in that context that spiritual parenting is vital. The biological parent-child relationship is the more important one, of course. But truthfully, how many parents are intentionally discipling their children, especially into adulthood?

One of our dreams is to help a million dads disciple their sons over the next several years. That means biological fathers can take on the role of spiritual fathers, and the same is true for mothers as well. That’s how men and women become men and women of God.

How We Got Started

Our paths crossed around 1993 in Washington, D.C. when Dick and Ruth were working behind the scenes with the National Prayer Breakfast and the halls of power. Meanwhile, Mark and Lora had just moved here to plant a church. But our connections ran deeper than that and were the real reason we got together.

Years earlier, Lora’s parents, Bob and Karen Schmidgall, were gathering a congregation in Naperville, Illinois, around the time that Dick and Ruth were doing the same near the University of Illinois in Urbana. We all connected immediately, and a friendship formed and remained strong even after years and transition separated us.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, the older couple invited the younger couple over. Spurred by that initial connection of in-laws, we all shared turkey and cobbler and laughter. But we shared more than that. We shared hopes and dreams that were just getting started, for a church plant in the urban area and fresh leadership that could change the shape of the city.

Mark and Lora walked away from that one little encounter feeling loved and cared for. And Dick and Ruth felt re-energized by the zeal and passion of fresh ministry. After that first meal, we realized this was something we wanted to do more often, and that we wanted to spend more time together. But what connected us was the passion we shared, for ministry and for this city. Passion is contagious! There is a sense that some part of our closeness comes from loving the same city and loving the same Jesus.

Being a Spiritual Child

When you are young and dreaming the dream, you need the input of godly people who have been there. And when you are a 25-year-old inexperienced pastor, you need someone who believes in you more than you believe in yourself. Knowing that you have people supporting you and willing to dream with you makes an incalculable difference at any stage of life and ministry. That was the real impetus for us to get together, first in ministry, but then in a deeper, richer way.

In the early days, we called it mentoring, but there was never a tight structure. We just followed the ebb and flow of life. We felt we were shortchanging it when we called it mentoring. It was so much more than that. It was spiritual parenting. And this is the tricky part, because you can’t provide five easy steps or a simple outline for how to be a spiritual parent or a spiritual child.

It starts out as a friendship. There must be a younger person in the equation who is humble enough to realize the need to borrow some wisdom from someone who has more experience. And then it takes someone who has made more trips around the sun and is willing to spend the time and energy with someone who is younger. But it’s not age that makes the difference; it’s experience.

Shared experience infuses life and energy both directions.

The child in a spiritual parenting relationship needs to be hungry to learn — hungry enough to seek out someone with a wealth of wisdom who is willing to put it on loan. That means you must invest the time and energy to find the connection and then keep that connection going.

The spiritual child also must find someone he or she can genuinely honor, look up to and respect, in the same way the Bible instructs us to honor our biological parents. The spiritual parent must find someone with potential, someone who will respond to affirmation, and an investment of time and energy. When that happens, when those two meet in the middle, something profound can happen.

Being a Spiritual Parent

The one who feels like the child should probably be the first to acknowledge the spiritual parenting relationship. It would be weird for someone to say, “I’m a spiritual father to you.” You probably wouldn’t say that. It’s much more natural to say, “I feel like you’re a spiritual father to me.” The younger one must recognize the part that the older one plays in his or her life.

Spiritual parenting isn’t so much a position as an ongoing interaction. It’s about sharing — sharing your life, faith, wisdom, friends and influence. Loving is sharing, and that’s always at the heart of the spiritual parenting relationship. Spiritual parenting honors the fact that we are spiritual creatures. We live in a culture that seldom acknowledges that. In fact, it often works against it.

The biblical model of a man or woman investing in a younger man or woman — like Elijah with Elisha, Paul with Timothy, or Naomi with Ruth — goes beyond our modern concept of mentoring. It is spiritual in nature. It recognizes God’s design and divine plan.

What is true about biological parents is true of spiritual parents: They always want their children to be better, not just in terms of having better things or greater experiences, but in terms of achievement and advancement. That point in a relationship where it shifts from “John is Fred’s son” to “Fred is John’s dad” is where the power of spiritual parenting becomes evident.

The spiritual parent can see the investment of time and energy, and perhaps even money, beginning to pay off. As he or she cheers from the sidelines, a parent has a different perspective than anyone else on the field or in the stands.

Once you’ve benefited from a spiritual parenting relationship, you begin to feel the responsibility to do for others what someone has done for you. You see the power in it, so you want to reproduce it.

Maybe you are in your 40s and feeling like you’re the one who needs a spiritual parent. Or perhaps you have a spiritual parent, but you see younger people who are looking for the same thing. You may not feel capable or adequate to enter that role, but those who are younger or have less experience can gain so much from interacting with you. Don’t view it grudgingly as an obligation, but consider it an opportunity to pay it on to the next generation and build God’s kingdom.

In today’s world, there are many sons and daughters looking for spiritual moms and dads, but not enough experienced Christians are stepping up. Some might be wary of a generation that speaks a different language, navigates the latest technology with ease, and expresses bold new ideas. But if the older people of faith among us would keep their antennae out when somebody asks a question or invites them to have coffee, we can begin filling roles that might otherwise remain empty. That’s a huge opportunity!

A key piece of spiritual parenting that is easy to overlook is that in most contexts the older will learn from the younger. We might miss that because we think of it only in terms of, What am I bringing to the table? But from another perspective, interacting with younger people can help keep us young and increase the vitality of our ministries.

When Roles Reverse

Our relationship has been a two-way street, even from the beginning. That’s because we’ve never been about sharing a curriculum but about sharing experiences. Whether it was going to the National Prayer Breakfast, eating in the Senate Dining Room next to Muhamad Ali, or just spending time together in the Colorado Rockies, it wasn’t about what one of us could do for the other, but what we could do together.

It is doubtful that an instructor would lay down his or her life for a student, but there is no question a parent would make such a sacrifice for a child. And the same goes for a child with a parent. There is a passion point connected with being in someone else’s life at a spiritual level, and it comes from spending time with each other.

You begin to accumulate experiences together. The gift of experiences is priceless. You invite someone into your world to see what you’re all about, and, over time, you build a bond that gets stronger and stronger.

For spiritual parenting to work in both directions, you must believe that the other person has something to contribute to your understanding of life and the world around you. That’s a big piece, and it takes some humility on each side of the relationship. But once you realize that another person can teach you better than any book or conference or program, you begin to see the potential in anyone you encounter to broaden your horizons.

Again, the spiritual parenting relationship takes it to a different level because it is spiritual in nature. You develop a connection over time from shared experiences and realized goals that allows you to call each other out. Such exchanges aren’t combative or confrontational, but they come about naturally as you gain permission to ask tough questions and security to provide honest answers.

In an environment of respect, those conversations can flow in either direction. It’s about strengthening each other through honor. You sharpen each other like two pieces of iron because there are always areas in which one of you is strong and the other is not, and vice versa. It becomes natural, then, for the roles to reverse sometimes.

Because spiritual parenting is a relationship, it happens over dinner, on an adventure together, or through conversations. Like a biological child-parent relationship, commitment is important, but it’s not as easily defined. You may meet once a week on a Saturday morning over coffee. Or you may catch up once a quarter as time allows. Either way, you make a commitment and are willing to invest time, effort, and resources to make it work.

In other words, you must want it. And you believe it’s well worth it. When you surround yourself with people you admire, who live life in a way that inspires you, they start to rub off on you. It goes both ways. As a younger person looking for a spiritual parent, you find someone you greatly admire whose success you want to replicate. And as an older person, you’re looking to pass on the torch.

In reality, you end up carrying the torch together. And what you do can outlive you.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2017 edition of Influence magazine.

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